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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...

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.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
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: