By Dan Bilefsky, The New York Times, March 26, 2014
Lionesses on Wednesday in the Copenhagen Zoo, where two lions and their cubs were recently euthanized, stirring outrage. Credit Jens Dresling/POLFOTO, via Associated Press.
Denmark, the land of enchanting fairy tales and liberal social values, is becoming known as the land of dead zoo animals.
The Copenhagen Zoo, which generated global outrage last month when it killed a healthy 18-month-old giraffe named Marius, said it had to euthanize four lions this week to clear the path for a newly arrived young male lion. The zoo’s decision created a backlash on social media on Wednesday, with some calling the zoo’s staff members “serial killers” and “murderers.”
The zoo justified the killings of the two parents, ages 14 and 16, and their cubs on the grounds of genetic purity and conservation, noting that the new lion would invariably prey on the cubs, while there was a risk that the older male lion would try to breed with one of the female lions that were his offspring.
“If the zoo had not made the change in the pride now, then we would have risked that the old male would mate with these two females — his own offspring — and thereby give rise to inbreeding,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
The zoo attracted international ire after shooting Marius in the head, and then, in what animal rights groups called a nightmarish spectacle, dissecting him in front of a crowd that included children, before feeding him to a group of lions. At the time, it invoked a similar argument, noting that zoos in Europe have a small gene pool and that there was a risk of inbreeding if Marius reproduced.
Some say the killings, fairly or not, are undermining Danes’ international image. “Danes are used to being looked upon as the good guys, as people who put a lot of money into foreign aid, and have a high living standard,” Bo Sondergaard, national affairs editor at Politiken, a leading Danish newspaper, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “Now when you say you are from Denmark, people say, ‘Oh, the giraffe killers.’ “
After Marius was killed, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals projected a giant lit-up message at the zoo’s entrance that read, “Zoos are animal prisons: You paid the ticket, Marius paid with his life.” One reader in Britain wrote to The Guardian that the “public execution of Marius and his equally public consumption by lions does rather make Danish noir crime on BBC4 easier to understand, psychologically.”
While animal rights activists on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed anger at the animal deaths, the emotional debate over animal euthanasia also reflects a cultural divide between the United States and Europe, which is relatively more open to euthanizing animals in the name of conservation and ensuring genetic diversity.
Gerald Dick, a zoologist who is executive director of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said that the Danish approach was not unique and that zoos across Europe euthanized animals, typically only as a last resort. He noted that while American zoos preferred to use contraception to prevent overpopulation or inbreeding, European zoos often favored allowed animals to breed and express their natural behavior, including sexual reproduction.
“In Europe, there is a strict attempt to maintain genetically pure animals and not waste space in a zoo for genetically useless specimens,” he said. “The counterargument is that people want to see a giraffe in a zoo. But that is not good science in terms of conservation. Nobody wants to have to kill animals, but it is sometimes necessary.”
Jesper Mohring-Jensen, a biologist at the Jyllands Park Zoo in western Denmark, said that rather than being brutal, the Copenhagen Zoo was simply putting common sense above sentimentality. “It’s better for the animal to have a good life than to live” and have a bad life, he said by phone. “That is the Danish view, which is different from the American view. The discussion can sometimes become unscientific and based more on feelings than understanding of animals. Nature doesn’t have the same concept of justice as humans.”
Yet some noted a small justice in the fact that the lions killed were among those that had feasted on Marius’s remains.