Changing Planet

Opinion Piece: Copenhagen Zoo Could Put Zoos Out of Business

The Copenhagen Zoo may not know it yet, but like all other conservation-minded, live collection, natural history institutions (e.g. zoos, aquariums, marine parks, etc.), the zoo’s ultimate goal is to put themselves and other zoos out of business.

Zoos often claim, and rightfully so, that they hope to one day restore a great majority of imperiled species to the wild and render the need for zoo-administered conservation breeding programs obsolete.

Unfortunately, one Danish zoo may do this all by itself and quite prematurely, before the mission of accredited global zoo communities is accomplished. Knowingly or unknowingly, it is selfish of them.

In essence, the accredited communities of zoos endeavor to eventually eliminate the need to breed or display captive wildlife through honorable intentions of creating conservation success stories for wildlife on the brink of extinction. The Copenhagen Zoo, on the other hand, seems unmoved by the notion that it may become solely responsible for precipitating the “dishonorable” disappearance of zoos.

Such a “mass extinction” of zoos could conceivably be triggered and accelerated by their continued callous decision making to the great appreciation and delight of ardent anti-captivity animal rights activists around the world.  I suspect many activists are rejoicing as we speak. Yes, sadly, the actions of the Copenhagen Zoo could generate a global zoo extinction before these conservation centers have the opportunity to restore threatened and endangered species to the wild, if that is even possible in the foreseeable future. I hope I’m exaggerating.

My sentiment is all in reference to their latest animal “casualties.” In the wake of the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to cull a healthy bull giraffe last month, the EAZA accredited zoo announced this week that it also just euthanized four lions, including two cubs. This news has generated public outrage and spurred perhaps unprecedented dissension among professional zoo, aquarium, and marine park colleagues.

I suggested in a social media forum that this was not a brilliant PR move or because the zoo dispatched another healthy animal or animals, but because the Copenhagen Zoo seemed to casually dismiss the influence of public sentiment, particularly here in the United States where we already have some misguided and uninformed extremists. Secondly, they have demonstrated a blatant disregard for their own first mistake with the giraffe, which comes off as rather arrogant to me and probably to many others.

I have not seen late-night American network TV shows lately, but I can only imagine that this Danish zoo is giving comedians plenty of ammunition. I have already seen some media references to “Killer Zoo” and the like, and I’m sure there is more to come.

Not long ago as a curator, I sent a Kodiak brown bear to the acclaimed Orsa Bear Park, an EAZA facility in Sweden. It is a beautiful, innovative zoological facility and part of a larger carnivore conservation center. If I wasn’t already familiar with the park, I might have some reservations if asked to send another animal to the distinguished zoo.

There are a great many upstanding EAZA member institutions, including some that are home to some of the best zoo collections in the world. And many EAZA facilities boast some of the most progressive zoo enclosures and husbandry/preventive medicine programs. Their field conservation efforts are also impressive.

Unfortunately, this kind of decision making by one zoo can taint the reputation of their members, as can any activity associated with just one institutional member. For example, this is why many AZA facilities responded proactively and with great haste to insure their own carnivore enclosures were secure when a tigress jumped out of an exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo several years ago. The tiger was ultimately dispatched after being taunted by some unruly young men and fatally wounding one of them. Zoos worked together to prevent this kind of isolated incident from repeating itself.

Public perception is obviously a huge concern to the zoological community, and this culling of a giraffe, and more recently lions, was an unnecessary set back. I think that zoo conservation efforts succeed only when zoos collaborate and communicate with each other. Had the Copenhagen Zoo consulted the international zoo community, they may have been discouraged from making certain decisions that now seem to place all captive wildlife facilities under great scrutiny. Maybe they did, but they ultimately made a poor decision. The lone ranger mentality serves no one.

With regard to the young bull giraffe, I thought that performing a necropsy in front of the public was somewhat resourceful in respect to teaching opportunities as zoos are great informal learning centers. To my surprise—and perhaps naiveté—I learned that zoo visitors worldwide found this reprehensible. Again, had the zoo sought the opinions of others, they might have reconsidered such actions. After talking with colleagues I was convinced that it was not in the best interest of the public or public perception. But the Copenhagen Zoo seems inclined to disregard the sentiment of colleagues and the public to the detriment of captive wildlife and perhaps the future objectives of the global zoo community.

This is unfortunate, especially at a time when international networks of zoo associations have begun to work more collaboratively to further strengthen the health of captive gene pools around the globe. Reproductive science, as a discipline of zoo biology has clearly been a game changer on many fronts. It would be helpful if every accredited zoo community adopted similar practices.

Some additional notes on zoo reproductive science and management:

According to the Copenhagen Zoo’s leadership, the lions were humanely dispatched to accommodate a “generational shift” among the lion population at the facility.

The Danish zoo’s culling practices are certainly not the norm, at least for populations of charismatic species like giraffe and lions, and they are anything but common here in the United States for any species.

In the United States, coordinated conservation breeding in conjunction with the practice of contraception for collection animals is regulated and routine. To my knowledge, Australasian zoos and facilities in the western hemisphere have not culled animals to this degree for over two decades. EAZA guidelines and regulations are obviously an exception to the rule. Just because a member is permitted to manage a collection using certain practices does not mean they are required to do so.

North American zoos, in particular, in recent years have rendered the need to care for surplus animals much less necessary through applying advances in wildlife contraception to captive population management. Although it is worth noting that off label use of at least one commonly used contraceptive agent has been more effective than initially anticipated. I say this because it has not proven to be reversible in all cases as originally suspected. There are also some potentially serious pathological side effects of concern when using the pharmacological agent.

Today contraceptive devices and pharmacological agents are utilized in the management of many captive bred animal collections, including those on display and those in off-exhibit breeding facilities.  Furthermore, advances in assisted breeding and genome banking technology insure that many populations of imperiled species can be sustained as long as restoration efforts can be undertaken.  In other words, if humans refrain from degrading the environment further, there is a chance that threatened and endangered species can be returned to the wild through carefully planned reintroductions.

These advances also alleviate some of the stressful experiences that are associated with transferring animals among various accredited institutions for breeding purposes. With the ultimate intention of passing on genetic material to subsequent generations within a captive gene pool, zoo animals are transported on breeding loan. As reproductive science has evolved, this has become even less of a necessity, reducing potentially stressful experiences for zoo animals and their keepers.

In conclusion, I sure hope that the Copenhagen Zoo chooses to make better decisions about managing animals in the future. It would behoove them to listen to colleagues and respond more appropriately to public sentiment.

Dr. Jordan Schaul is an American zoologist, conservationist, journalist and animal trainer based in Los Angeles, California. He is a regular contributor to Nat Geo News Watch. For more of his posts, please visit his profile page on this website.

With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email:
  • Cecilie

    Copenhagen zoo is a place of education. How could they be respected if they witheld the truth? Maybe if all zoos spoke openly about it people wouldn’t be so shocked and would actually have grown up with a healthy understanding for the methods that zoological institutions have to implement.

  • Kim

    Nice projection of the American mindset onto a European Zoo. It unfortunately, like most pieces starts with implicit proclamations such as that a individual-centered approach is superior over the species-centered approach, and that breeding behavior is not part of animal welfare. Logically, based on those implicit premisses, anti-conception is the solution. However, if one looks at the issues from a species-centric viewpoint, or when one considers breeding behavior an integral part of animal welfare, anti-conception is not the logical way to manage these captive populations.

    What is missing in this debate is a rigorous discussion about the fundamentals such as the individual-centered versus species-centered approach. Until we can have that discussion, this issue won’t go away and the two sides will keep throwing their own arguments to the discussion without persuading anybody.

  • M

    The major US zoos practice a different set of ethics so please don’t condemn them just because of the immoral errors commmited in Copenhagen by anunethical megalomaniac. The EAZA has chosen to treat baby animals like enrichment toys, and older animals like old clothes. That’s not scientific, that’s a policy decision. Science doesn’t exonerate the Copenhagen Zoo, not even for a moment. The zoo has no plan to re-introduce its lions to the wild, and the zoo is not a natural environment, but even if it were, the natural environment would dictate that the lions decide through combat who lives and who dies — euthanizing the cubs and the rival male to make room for a male who might be proved unworthy to live just further weakens the species. But let’s suppose that the zoos are the last repository of the genetic material of a species. That means the species is functionally extinct, and without a massive effort to reconstruct the whole ecosystem there is no point worrying about “inbreeding” or “genetic diversity” for conservation; the war is lost. In that case, all zoos are doing is maintaining the memory of what was lost, they are museums. And while it may make sense for a museum to avoid inbreeding for as long as possible, the problem of preventing inbreeding has many possible solutions, among them cooperation with other zoos and — yes — with animal sanctuaries which are equally museums. That’s where ethical zoos differ from EAZA zoos. What is missing from the EAZA is an understanding that they are not actually preserving species — only preserving the species in the wild can do that. They are preserving individuals. As for what the Copenhagen Zoo has actually been doing, possibly if Danes were asked whether their government should practice infanticide and senicide to regulate their human population, and feed the corpses of their children and old people to their pets, things would be a little clearer to them.

  • Kim

    I think the primary point of this article is that none of our respective viewpoints on euthanasia vs contraception, individual vs species planning matter if we make what we do so negative in the public eye that they put us all out of business. It is not ideal that we have to operate in the zoologically uneducated world view but we do. They keep us in business for the animals. Without them, we won’t have any zoos to make these decisions in.

  • I don’t think I suggested that the species-centered approach is at all inferior to the individual-centered or what I call population-centered vs. welfare approach. The problem is that zoos, by their very nature, cater to a public demographic and in order get people through the door they need to make it an inviting place. Most people would argue that slaughtering animals that are recognizable, sentient beings at a local zoo would make for an uninviting attraction. Ask millions of zoo patrons around the world.

    The population-centered approach is fine, but it is not fitting for most zoos in most places for most patrons. Zoos, by definition, are public attractions. The species-centered approach is more fit for facilities that focus solely on population management and are not open to the public. If a culture is receptive to having their local zoo animals culled, then by all means it should be done for the benefit of the species. But in America and most everywhere else on the planet, zoo animals are named and the human-animal bond is often cherished.

    To parallel your suggestion that breeding is integral to animal welfare, we might as well just start displaying animals in mixed species exhibits of predators and prey and permit predators to consume the prey animals at will. Is the natural behavior of predation among carnivores not integral to animal welfare? I would argue that it is more integral. Undoubtedly, zoos are unnatural in many ways and I wish you had a cogent argument, but I don’t understand how breeding behavior is any more integral than consuming live prey, as just one example of permitting captive wildlife to live like their wild conspecifics. We can pick and choose what is integral to animal welfare, but by your logic breeding is a low priority and it conflicts with management because it produces surplus animals. At least natural predation of prey animals in zoos would control numbers. The model you assert as being “integral” to animal welfare is also based on a poor business model for a public attraction, forget about the ethical component. I think that any animal ethicist would assert that premature death by intentionally dispatching an animal is least compatible with animal welfare, among all the activities we deem natural.

  • Measure for Measure

    It’s not clear to me that public sentiment in Denmark is unequivocally opposed to specie-centered approaches. I’d like to see polling data to back it up.

    Personally, I wouldn’t be automatically against predation in zoos provided it was backed by solid science. But I suspect that most publics would recoil from that. Eschewing contraception and accepting euthanasia sounds like a plausible compromise: I suspect that the Copenhagen Zoo has a better grasp of their user base than the author of this article does, though I would be open to evidence to the contrary.

  • Ima Ryma

    Zoo animals – to be or not?
    The wild animals have no choice,
    As humans argue this a lot,
    Cuz only humans have a voice.
    Humans have, for better or worse,
    Dominion over all on Earth.
    The past shows this as mainly curse,
    In how humans deem what is worth,
    Making non human, human hell.
    The power over life and death,
    Will humans ever use such well?
    No wild animal holds its breath.

    Wild animals are in a zoo,
    Because that’s just what humans do.

  • Kim

    I think what you call the population-centered vs. welfare approach is exactly the issue. To suggest that the individual-centered approach is equivalent to the welfare approach preemptively sets the tone as in that the populations-centered approach is inferior as it is not welfare oriented. It is a logical error to make, but it requires us to first dismantle that idea before we can move on to the core of the discussion.

    The individual-centered approach in many ways is driven by the idea that death is undesirable, and that because of that, prolonging the life of an animals equals higher levels of animal welfare even if that means that other aspects that contribute to animal welfare are sacrificed. However, does a longer life equals higher animal welfare? I would argue it does not. I have seen enough animals that are miserable because they are not allowed to express their own full range of behaviors, and it obvious that their welfare is not optimized. The only reason that we accept that is because we trade-off their reduction in their welfare for the increased life-span of other individuals of the same species that have an equal substandard welfare. All because we have started to equate lifespan with welfare.

    The alternative idea promoted by for example Copenhagen Zoo is that we should not do that. The moment we take the longevity=welfare idea out of the equation, and can we first determine how we can maximize the welfare for individuals of a specific species, and then maximize it for as many as possible individuals. Marius welfare in that way was maximized for the life that he had.

    Once we have stepped away from the longevity demand, we can actually start including other factors in the decisions such as which genes are most valuable. In the US for example, we are loosing valuable genes because animals after years of being on anti-conceptions are not capable of breeding again. Not exactly what is best for the captive population if we want to ensure that the captive population in due time could be used for replenishing the wild population.

    A second, and in many ways largely independent argument is the reaction of the public and what they will do. In Denmark, populations-centered approach with culling is widely accepted by the public. The same in various other European countries. Yes, it is rather easy to confuse the voice of a vocal but tiny minority for what the general public thinks. I think the fear of the negative backlash is far greater than the actual risk.

    For example, various facilities in the US thrive because they breed large cats in such numbers that they can offer cubs for petting year round, or at least for substantial times of the year. These cubs disappear soon after they become to large (sold to private parties, dumped at sanctuaries, and probably killed, nobody has a complete picture of this). In essence, their business model is based on high-throughput of cubs. That is contrary to the fear idea expressed by many that the public will walk away. I think the percentage people that would not go to a zoo anymore because of selective culling would be rather small. Same story for barn animal petting zoos, babies are leaving as well. Many people do not have a problem that a male goat is eaten because you only need so many of them.

    Instead of trying to placate a vocal minority, use the opportunity to educate people about the realities of nature, the realities of nature and the realities where our food comes from, and if that leads to a shift in the public, maybe it will be for the better. We have inner city kids who when they come for the first time in a pine forest think it smells like the toilet freshener instead of the other way round. Or kids who do not believe that the hamburger comes from a cow. Hiding reality from our kids is the biggest disservice that we can do, and hence I suggest we start educating instead of placating.

  • David Edwards

    One simple fact – Zoos are a business, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents 222 institutions, mostly in the United States and Canada, says its members spend $160-million on conservation each year – which sounds impressive until you see that zoos and aquariums contribute $16-billion annually to the U.S. economy – that 1% folks – very sad!

  • Rodrick

    You people all all idiotic over-reactors.

    I hope that all of you have joined to start a fund which will buy land in these animals natural habitats and are planing to go out with rifles to protect them, otherwise… YOU ARE THE HYPOCRITES

    In an ideal “cute and fuzzy” world, there would be an infinite amount of money and space, so that all the animals could live happily… but the real world isn’t like that.

    Copenhagen is part of a global network of zoos, they try to find places for all the young animals. I have talked to the people at Copenhagen Zoo, I know the amount of work that they do to try and find homes for all the young animals… and it starts pretty much from that day that the animal is born.

    The problem with the lions is that they are “too happy”, and each year there are two litters of live, healthy, and very cute lions. This means that there is too many of these cubs relatives is the world… and is could lead to inbreeding.

    I’m assuming that you are all vegetarians, otherwise you are all hypocrites. These lions haver all been raised in a beautiful environment and treated really, really, well.. this is compared to most zoos and compared to how most peoples pets are treated.

    I hope that isn’t spineless enough to remove the only intelligent post here! If they do… it will plastered all over facebook that they did.

  • Lisa

    IMHO many on this post is missing the point. These are sentient beings that we have NO right to keep. If we keep them to protect them and bring their numbers back, fine so let’s just do that and stop this idea that we should have zoos as attractions for business.

    While I love seeing wild animals, I don’t have a God given right to do so and I’d rather never see a wild animal in a zoo than have them unhappy and/or put to death prematurely.

    The idea that it is okay for a zoo to euthanize healthy animals for any reason is abominable – not just because it looks bad to the public but because these animals have a RIGHT to live. Why WOULDN’T neutering and/or contraception be better than death…did anyone ask the giraffe or the lions what they thought? Maybe this is a human centric way of thinking, so sue me.

    If we were to make quality of life the only reason for living, how many people then should be euthanized?

    We need to stop treating animals like they are our personal possessions (yes I am a vegetarian and yes I am sometimes hypocritical – after all I am a pet “owner”.) and start leaving them the hell alone past the point of conservation.

    I read somewhere that the Copenhagen zoo was offered money for the giraffe and they turned it down. I would like to know if that is true or not.

  • Claire Booker

    From an education view of a child! What do zoos teach? That it is acceptable to kill an animal because its genes are not viable? That what is on the inside of the animal is more important for understanding humans and prolonging human lives because according to EAZA giraffe studbook 2008 in the DNA section that is what Danish based researchers DiGar are using the giraffe heart for. As a member of the public who also has young family members that really isn’t the message I want teaching to them about animals and how they can be exploited for and by humans. If public perception is anything to go by now. I agree Copenhagen Zoo has messed it up big time because I will never trust any zoo again that is open to the public. I will only ever donate to genuine in situ conservation projects now. IMHO as a member of the public who would normally pay to enter a zoo so my Grandson could see the animals and be entertained by the staff in the side attractions like the fun parks with big slides. It is high unlikely I will ever visit one now. Whenever I see an advert for a zoo now the only thing I see is the carcass of a giraffe. Which is sad for everyone who has dedicated their lives to animal welfare and works in a zoo. It is sad that the staff spent years of their lives studying to have it all put in jeopardy by the actions of EAZA backing up Copenhagen zoos decision to publicly slaughter a giraffe and kill an entire family of lions and then a female wolf received from bern zoo and now bern zoo have killed a bear cub. Great advert for any zoo wouldn’t you say.

  • Jakob G

    This article is completely worthless! Hahaha, pathetic!!

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