The single most pressing issue facing zoos today, other than financial stability, goes to the very core of their existence: How should zoos place their surplus animals?
Unlike other educational institutions, such as museums and libraries, zoo collections are live and reproducing. And, because zoos preserve species that are extinct or endangered in the wild, they must keep those collections genetically as well as physically healthy. This means that surplus animals are unavoidable.
A few animals are returned to the wild--the ultimate goal of zoos--but that is not yet a practical solution. So alternatives must be found. There are many: Accredited zoos, non-accredited zoos, roadside zoos, circuses, trained animal acts, the pet trade, private owners, hunting preserves (shooting galleries), animal auctions, biomedical research, animal dealers. Not every option has been or is being used by every zoo every day, but all have been used recently.
Unfortunately, it is a list of choices with many ethical and practical problems.
Zoos accredited by the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums are obviously acceptable. But there are not enough spaces in them to accommodate the supply of surplus animals.
With roadside zoos, circuses, trained animal acts and private owners, animals may not receive the level of professional care found in accredited institutions. There has been an appalling death rate in the pet trade, and private ownership of wildlife is not only dangerous, but unethical. Wild animals should belong to the many and not the few.
Bio-medical research is a very difficult issue. Even if an animal is placed in a behavioral, non-invasive research study, most research projects are measured in months or, at most, a few years. What then happens to an animal such as a primate, which can live up to 50 years?
Shooting galleries operating under the guise of hunting "preserves," out of the question for reputable zoos, and the auctions that often lead animals to them, are unacceptable under the AAZPA's code of ethics.
There is another option, euthanasia. But zoos have shied away from it because it is emotionally difficult for zoo workers and because of fear of public outcry.
Euthanasia is, without a doubt, highly controversial.
Hardly anyone opposes humane, painless death for injured, terminally ill or dying animals. But euthanizing healthy animals, which are surplus, is another matter. This issue came to the forefront of zoos in 1976 when William Conway, director of the Bronx Zoo, indicated at a AAZPA national conference that there can be no biologically sound breeding programs without surplus animals, and therefore euthanasia must be addressed. The membership voted to table the issue, and, although various committees were formed and later disbanded over the years, very little progress has been made regarding this emotional issue in the last 15 years.
At the Detroit Zoo, we decided euthanasia was preferable to selling an animal to a profit-oriented dealer. It is the only zoo in the United States that refuses to do business with animal dealers. Our lawyers concluded that there was no legally binding agreement that would totally protect our surplus animals, even if the dealer were willing to sign one.
So, if a home in an accredited zoo was not available, and, if bio-medical research was inappropriate, the animal was "culled," or put to death, in the most humane manner for its species, often by the animal's keeper because the presence of a veterinarian would cause stress.
Depending on the species, culled animals were often fed to other animals in the collection.
Prairie dogs were no less favored by large constricting snakes than commercially raised rabbits or laboratory rats. Lions and other carnivores did not refuse carcasses in place of their often boring commercially prepared diets. Whole carcasses also added necessary roughage to carnivore's diets, and chewing on whole carcasses kept their teeth clean naturally. Otherwise, the animals have to be chemically immobilized periodically for teeth cleaning. Utilizing culled animals for feed is not only practical but nutritionally preferable to domestically raised feed animals, which may have been given growth stimulants and hormones that could be detrimental to our breeding programs. And I can guarantee you that animals culled at the Detroit Zoo are more humanely euthanized than those in the great majority of slaughterhouses.
Besides assuring that animals have a humane end to their life, euthanasia also protects the genetic diversity of endangered species. Some animals would be detrimental to the species if they continued to breed, which can and does happen when they are sold to private dealers.
Of course, there was some outcry by the public and animal activists in Detroit over the euthanasia policy. But, over time, our public support remained high.
Without a doubt euthanasia is the most emotional and the most complex of the alternatives for dealing with surplus animals. It appears to have more opponents than proponents, but, when visualizing the alternatives it often becomes the ultimate kindness.
In September, an animal rights group revealed that a few surplus animals from the San Diego Zoo were turned over to two private breeders with ties to hunting ranches. Apparently none of the animals were hunted, but their offspring may have been. The zoo suspended its dealings with the two animal breeders.