Saturday, April 19, 2014

When zoos kill for your viewing pleasure

As one zoo slaughters a perfectly healthy young giraffe in front of a paying audience, and another zoo lets a one-armed geriatric monkey live out her waning days basking in the comfort of the sun she loved so much, we are reminded of everything we despise and admire in zoos.

The deaths of Marius the giraffe and Maude the mangabey represent the yin and yang of modern zoo management.

The Copenhagen Zoo killed 2-year-old Marius in February, in a population management process they call “culling,” claiming they needed to prevent inbreeding – even though other zoos had offered to take the healthy giraffe. They then proceeded to dismember it, for feeding to other zoo animals, in front of a crowd that included children. Ignoring the public outrage, Danish zoo officials followed up their macabre act by killing four healthy lions in March so they could bring in a breeding male – to produce more revenue-generating cubs. I assume they did not offer the lions up for a canned hunt, although I can’t verify that.

Copenhagen Zoo kills a healthy young giraffe and dismembers it in front of zoo visitors.

National Zoo made sure Maude enjoyed
the last years of her long life.
Here in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s National Zoo reported this week that they finally had to euthanize 41-year-old Maude, a grey-cheeked mangabey who lost her forearm when she was four years old. (A gibbon in an adjacent cage had severely injured the arm, which required amputation below the elbow.) I knew Maude from my years as volunteer at the zoo. She was not a crowd pleaser. The National Zoo didn’t keep her around because she was a money making attraction. During her final years, she was housed with an old arthritic macaque named Spock, in an area that the keepers customized for the animals’ ease and comfort. Why? Because the zoo owed them the care and respect due to every animal bred for zoo exhibition.

I’m sure that not everyone who works at Copenhagen Zoo likes to kill their animals. And the National Zoo does many things that I disagree with. But these events point to the evolutionary thinking – or lack thereof – in the responsibility that zoos have for their animals.

When my dad was a chimp trainer at the Detroit Zoo, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the zoo had no sense of responsibility towards the hundreds of chimpanzees they brought in to entertain the paying crowds. As I’ve written in my International Zoo News article, “Chimp Shows Amuse and Abuse,” Detroit sent dozens of young chimps to research labs when they became too unmanageable for their infamous chimp shows. Looking through the AZA chimpanzee studbook now, I’m struck by how many have the notation “LTF,” or lost to follow – meaning there is no record documenting how the zoo got rid of the chimp. I want someone to tell me they weren’t “culled” in the Copenhagen tradition. Tell me that isn’t the reason the Detroit Zoo has never responded to my multiple requests to talk to them about the chimp show era.

Ah, but you object to my morbid imagination? American zoos are so much more responsible now, they care about their animals now, even the old and infirm like Maude, you say?

So then tell me about Ndume.

The Cincinnati Zoo continues to inspire coo-ing and ah-ing with their videos of sweet baby gorilla Gladys, in anticipation of the spring surge of visitors. In the meantime, one of their silverbacks continues to live in isolation as the pretend-suitor of Koko the signing gorilla. He lives in a trailer – a TRAILER!! – with health care decisions managed by people who take advice from a phone psychic. Despite the AZA gorilla SSP management recommendation to reclaim Ndume from the conditions he’s been subjected to for these many years, Cincinnati has not acted. And, like the officials at the Detroit Zoo, they refuse to answer my inquiries. Neither zoo, it seems, thinks it owes the public an explanation for their animal management decisions. Well, maybe a petition will help convince Cincinnati Zoo. (Please sign my petition to bring Ndume home.)

At least the Danish zoo officials explained themselves. Transparency is one indication of modern management.

Now if we could just get all zoos on the same page, to be transparent AND humane, there might be hope for the zoo of tomorrow: the zoo that doesn’t harm – or kill – for entertainment.