In the US, zoos have chosen to use contraception to maintain animal populations. As Cheryl Asa, who directs the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Wildlife Contraception Center at the St. Louis Zoo, says to the New York Times, giving birth control pills to chimps and grizzlies means that “more animals can be well cared for” and that zoos can ensure genetic diversity among animals, by preventing inbreeding and preserving the broadest array of traits.
It also means that zoos do not have to euthanize baby and young animals, when their genetic make-up is not what breeding programs calls for. Some zoos in Europe including the Copenhagen Zoo assert that it is actually better for animals to experience their natural behaviors of giving birth to their young and raising them. The young animals are taken from their parents at the age they would separate had they been in the wil and euthanized.
Says Bengt Holst, the Copenhagen Zoo’s director of conservation, “We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” His zoo puts down about 20 to 30 healthy “exotic” animals every year, including “gazelles, hippopotamuses, and on rare occasions even chimps.” Just this spring, even though leopards are considered threatened under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the zoo put down two leopard cubs “whose genes were already overrepresented in the collective zoo population.”
Euthanasia: “Not the Best Solution”
Such decisions open up some stark ethical questions. Holst says that the idea behind this strategy is to mimick “what would have occurred in the wild, where some 80 percent of feline offspring die from predation, starvation or injury.” But Terry Maple, the former director of Zoo Atlanta and co-editor of Ethics on the Ark, is more wary, noting that euthanasia, which is permitted at American zoos but usually reserved for animals who are elderly or ill, is “not the best solution.”
The American Association of Zoo Verterianarians’ guidelines for the euthanization of nondemestic animals (PDF) mention chemical as well as physical methods. Stunning, gunshots, microwave irradiation and decapitation as “conditionally acceptable methods” for some species.
Health Risks of Contraceptions for Animals
Contraception for animals, especially for exotic ones, is not without health risks. Cats and canines are at risk for uterine infections and tumors from these. Elephants given contraceptives and then taken off them have difficulties restarting their reproductive cycle. Such health risks are one of the reasons that European zoos have preferred to use euthanasia.
Denmark embraces the policy and is very open about educating its public. Germany, by contrast, allows euthanasia only in “reasonable” circumstances, which can be hard to define, said Lesley Dickie, executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. A few years ago at Zoo Magdeburg in northern Germany, it was discovered that a male tiger was a hybrid of two tiger subspecies, rendering the cubs it had sired genetically useless. When the three cubs were born, the zoo euthanized them immediately.
Dr. Dickie said the Zoo Magdeburg made a “courageous” decision. But the zoo director and three employees were prosecuted for violating the euthanasia law and have received suspended sentences.
When Animal Conservation Means Killing
It is morally questionable to allow zoo animals to have offspring only with the intent of killing them after a certain period of time and, in particular, at the point at which they are maturing. In a carefully worded statement suggesting that zoos might have other concerns in mind — culling animal populations to reflect certain needs — the New York Times says that “it might seem suspiciously convenient for zoos to destroy an animal just after it has completed its most adorable phase — given that baby animals are a top zoo attraction.”
“On an emotional level, I can’t imagine doing it and I can’t imagine our culture accepting it,”the St. Louis Zoo’s Asa says about euthanizing young animals. Is it not at least ironic, if not simply troubling, to hear a zoo’s director of “conservation” justifying euthanization?
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Photo by Mister-E