Always a hot issue in zoos but euthanasia must be recognised as an absolutely essential part of the long term and proper management of species in captivity. There is nothing wrong in killing an animal if it is done quickly and with forethought and kindness. When animals are euthanized for the correct reasons then it is morally right and justified. The uninformed will often level accusations of being 'heartless' and 'not caring' when precisely the opposite is true. Good zoos with managed populations can see the bigger picture.
In the wild, animals die in tragic, painful and stressful situations every day. It is a very much a kill or be killed world and if you don't face those two options you could face starvation or disease.
Within the good modern zoo nature's cruel balance has been stalled. Animals survive. They live longer. Equal numbers of males and females live. Man has to manage, to properly govern. Indeed today man is having to manage the wild as well. Culling of elephants, of deer and others has become a necessity to ensure that the larger populations do not starve.
Euthanasia in zoos is only part of species management and goes hand in hand with contraception, breeding separation and bachelor groups.
People seem more ready to accept the culling of huge numbers of cattle and sheep to prevent disease outbreak. Thousands of unwanted dogs and cats are killed worldwide and scarcely a murmur is raised. In zoos however it is different. Here species are readily broken down into specimens. No longer are animals faceless nameless numbers but creatures people can and do relate to. The zoos often create the situation themselves with publicity photos and 'name the baby' competitions and there is nothing wrong in that. Part of a zoos role is to raise species awareness and this is best done through specimens. The specimens are however part of the species and it is the species which is being managed and not individuals.
The modern zoo is about the long term management of genetically viable healthy populations of various species. It is important to recognise that this is long term. Nobody realistically believes that animals are about to be returned to the wild any time soon. Admittedly it does occur in certain limited instances but for the most part the problems facing animals in the wild do not appear to be going away anytime soon. With proper captive species management it may be as far as a hundred years from now that animals can be returned.
Distant though the prospect is the species need to be ready. They need to be healthy and they need to be not too closely related. Animals can be taught to hunt, to recognise danger and more. To be 're-wilded' if you like. It is being done now in limited numbers today.
One vital aspect of captive species management is breeding. It is important with the limited number of captive species held that unrelated animals are paired up. Within the modern zoo cooperative this is done by the Species Coordinator using sophisticated computer programmes supplied by ISIS the International Species Information System. This is no go it alone project but good zoos banded together for the good of the species as a whole. The specimens are important but only as part of the overall species plan. The ISIS database holds the records of around two and a half million animals. Specimens may be cared for and greatly loved but their real value is as genetic contributors.
The proper management of species in captivity requires that zoos that care, good zoos, sign up to the species management plan. This can be for any species and there are many such management plans already. The plan is put together by Taxon Advisory Groups or TAG's which meet together periodically to discuss progress, well being, husbandry and the overall status of the species in the wild and captivity. The TAG's will approve and appoint a studbook holder and coordinator to keep a very close watch on 'their' species. Some studbooks may well be EEP's, or European Breeding Programmes and so involve an even greater number of zoos. They will produce an annual report and will advise on future breeding, moves, contraception and animals surplus to the overall plan.
The TAGS in their turn are watched over by recognised established and sensible zoo authorities. Within the UK this would be BIAZA the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums. BIAZA is a member of EAZA, the European Association of ZOOS and Aquariums. EAZA works very closely with other genuine zoo authorities around the world such as AZA, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. It may all sound a little bit complicated but it needs to be if species are to be saved for future generations. Zoos which fall outside the umbrella of these reputable and concerned authorities have little or no understanding of species management and care little about the future. They are more concerned with lining their pockets today.
The importance of a specimen's contribution to the species management plan needs to be constantly assessed. It is important to know if the animal is capable of breeding and of rearing young. It is important to know this even if the young are not needed or found to be surplus to requirements later. There are several benefits to allowing animals to breed. First and foremost is to the animals themselves so they can experience the natural enrichment of rearing young. The species coordinator can assess breeding potential and if the young are needed then all well and good. The zoo benefits from having baby animals on show which the public love. It can be a win win situation.
When such breeding is allowed then parent rearing is absolutely essential otherwise the object of the exercise is defeated and there is no benefit to any of the animals. In the management of species the decision on what happens to the young must rest with the Species Coordinator and not with the zoo the animals are in or to the decision of someone who cannot grasp the overall scheme of things.
If the young are surplus to the overall population either in terms of numbers or over represented genes then they should be euthanized. Preferably this would be done at that time when the young would naturally disperse in the wild.
It may well be that contraception may be used over the next few breedings but the animal may well be allowed to breed again, perhaps with a different mate. Long term contraception can be positively harmful and may actually cause an animal to become sterile. Ensuring the animal is capable of breeding is important.
There are only a certain number of captive spaces available to species. Not every zoo is in a position to hold or wants to keep Tigers or Elephants or Condors. Space is at a premium.
Animals in good zoos are cared for they are loved even. Zoo staff are kind and considerate and genuinely concerned for their charges. Zoo staff can see the bigger picture, above and beyond the blinkered vision of some of their ill informed critics.
Euthanasia is only one part of Species Management. Passing or selling surplus animals outside of the species management programme is both dangerous and defeatist. Animals outside of a breeding programme contribute nothing to conservation or the overall welfare and well being of the species. In fact the opposite usually applies. On more than one occasion new blood/new genes tigers have been imported from outside of a breeding programme only to discover later that they were sub-specific hybrids. In fact the vast majority of tigers outside the managed 'good' zoo populations are 'generic' tigers of uncertain parentage or origin. Worse still is that closely related or sub specific hybrids are bred together. This is especially so with White Tigers which some less reputable zoos like to breed and promote in the name of conservation.
Sending unwanted surplus animals away to the so called 'rescue centres' or 'sanctuaries' is quite simply, wrong. The 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude does nothing at all for species conservation. It is a cowardly way out. The 'Rescue Centres' and 'Sanctuaries' are undoubtedly saving lives but they are NOT saving species. The opposite is more true. They may even breed animals and so compound the problem. They are not breeding for conservation however.
They breed to line their pockets by having cubs on show to present to a gullible public. It could be argued that far from saving lives that these places are responsible for the absolutely pointless and purposeless deaths of thousands of other animals. A surplus tiger could easily be expected to live for around fifteen years. That tiger will happily consume 7 Kg of beef for 6 days a week for 52 weeks of the year. That is 2,184 Kg of beef a year. Within the so called 'Sanctuaries' and 'Rescue Centres' there are hundreds of surplus generic tigers eating the same amount. That is an awful lot of cows being killed especially to feed animals which are essentially valueless to conservation and useless for long term species conservation. Is the life of one surplus tiger worth more than that of a hundred or so cows?
No zoo likes culling or euthanasia but good zoos face up to the fact. If we are to maintain the species for our great grandchildren, for the world, for posterity then harsh but sensible and logical decisions must be made.
Holding surplus long term rather than deal with euthanasia not only takes up spaces that could be utilised for other species programmes but it wastes employees time and utilises money that could be spent on further conservation projects.
Outside of Species Management zoos sometimes need to cull the sick, the weak and the elderly. No-one likes to do it. No-one like to choose but the choices have to be made. Quality of life has to be considered along resources and money available. Deciding to euthanize is not abstention from caring. It IS caring!