Controversial Methods For Limiting Baby Zoo Animals

Photo credit: Shiny Things vis Flickr

(ANIMAL WELFARE) Zoos face the constant struggle of controlling population capacity and preserving genetic diversity within their animals, resulting in a varied and controversial set of answers. Birth control and euthanasia are being used on animals in captivity in North America and Europe, respectively. Both strategies offer a different approach, but we believe the animals’ welfare should be the utmost importance, and euthanizing innocent animals should not be a solution. Should wild animals be euthanized just because there is no space in captivity? Read more to learn about these conflicting methods. — Global Animal
Photo Credit: Shiny Things/Flickr

The New York Times, Leslie Kaufman

Zookeepers around the world, facing limited capacity and pressure to maintain diverse and vibrant collections of endangered species, are often choosing between two controversial methods: birth control and euthanasia.

In the United States, the choice is contraception. Chimps take human birth control pills, giraffes are served hormones in their feed, and grizzly bears have slow-releasing hormones implanted in their forelegs. Even small rodents are included.

Cheryl Asa, who directs the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Wildlife Contraception Center at the St. Louis Zoo, said euthanasia was not a comfortable fit for zoos here. “On an emotional level, I can’t imagine doing it and I can’t imagine our culture accepting it,” she said.

Dr. Asa sees contraception as a better approach. “By preventing the birth of animals beyond carrying capacity,” she said, “more animals can be well cared for.”

But in Europe, some zookeepers would rather euthanize unneeded offspring after they mature than deny the animal parents the experience of procreating and nurturing their young.

“We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible,” said Bengt Holst, director of conservation for the Copenhagen Zoo. “We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” 

So he and many of his European counterparts generally allow animals to raise their young until an age at which they would naturally separate from parents. It is then that zoo officials euthanize offspring that do not figure in breeding plans.

This spring, the Copenhagen Zoo put down, by lethal injection, two leopard cubs, about 2 years old, whose genes were already overrepresented in the collective zoo population. Leopards are considered near threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. But as part of a breeding plan to maintain the genetic diversity of this species, the cubs’ fate was determined before they were born.

“We promised the species coordinator that the offspring would never leave the zoo,” Mr. Holst said, meaning they would not be bred with leopards from other zoos. The Copenhagen Zoo, he said, annually puts to death some 20 to 30 healthy exotic animals — gazelles, hippopotamuses, and on rare occasions even chimps.

The thinking is that this strategy mimics what would have occurred in the wild, where some 80 percent of feline offspring die from predation, starvation or injury, he said.

Terry Maple, the former director of Zoo Atlanta and co-editor of “Ethics on the Ark,” said that while he knew of no studies assessing the importance of raising young to animals’ health or well-being, observation indicated that most zoo animals are motivated and protective parents that play frequently with offspring.

He acknowledged that American zoos once focused more on the intricacies of breeding endangered species than on their day-to-day well-being, but said this was changing. In meticulously planning their populations, Mr. Maple said, zoos will eventually avoid a surplus of animals and ensure that most breed and raise offspring. “I am not saying management euthanasia is wrong,” he said. “It is just not the best solution.”

International guidelines on the ethics of breeding zoo animals have been elusive, in part because philosophies vary, said Dave Morgan, chairman of the Population Management Committee at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The African association of zoos lists euthanasia as a population management tool, whereas the precepts of Hinduism and Buddhism make the killing of even terminally ill animals difficult.

Both the United States and Europe tolerate the euthanasia of feral cats and dogs. Euthanasia is permitted under the American zoo association’s regulations, but is mainly reserved for ill or elderly animals, said Steve Feldman, the association’s spokesman.

Although reliable data on the use of contraception is not kept by zoo associations, officials say that it is much more prevalent in North America but that it is starting to expand in Europe.

American zoos began developing contraception for highly fertile animals like lions in the 1970s, after breakthroughs in human birth control. Contraception use then expanded as it became quite difficult for zoos to sell or give away animals they could no longer accommodate.

This kind of family planning meant males and females no longer had to be kept apart to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which was ideal for the transition to more natural zoo environments. There were benefits, too, for zookeepers: hormones in contraceptives given males can take the edge off aggressive behaviors surrounding competition for a mate, which can result in mayhem and unsettle visitors.

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