On Thursday, Odense Zoo in Denmark publicly dissected a nine-month-old lion in front of a large crowd which included many children who were on a school break. This male lion, along with two of its siblings, was put down in February 2015 after the zoo was unable to find another facility in Europe that would take it. The zoo worried that the lions would either mate with each other, leading to inbreeding, or kill each other as they grew older. Many adults at the dissection indicated that they brought their children to expose them to a natural process that commonly occurs in rural settings.
Such killings are common in European zoos, where between 3,000 and 5,000 animals are euthanized each year, though this number includes everything from tadpoles to giraffes. The figure falls to a few hundred when just counting large animals. Interestingly, this process is almost nonexistent in the United States, showing a divide in zoo management on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Faced with limited capacity and public pressure to keep a diverse collection of species, zoos across the world must choose between birth control and euthanasia for controlling the zoo population. Zoos in the United States generally administer birth control, with animals ranging from chimps to small rodents subject to hormone treatment through pills, special food and even implanted hormone patches. In Europe, zookeepers believe that preventing breeding in the first place is less natural than allowing animals to mate as they would in the wild and then killing individuals in the population as necessary to maintain diversity.
This week’s dissection did not raise much controversy, even though the dissection of a giraffe at another zoo in Denmark, the Copenhagen Zoo, in February 2014 did. International outrage followed the decision to kill an 18-month-old giraffe named Marius, who was considered genetically unfit for breeding because his genes were too common. An online petition receiving more than 27,000 signatures and offers to accept him at another zoo could not prevent Marius’ death.
Ultimately, culling and contraception are both considered scientifically sound means of population control for zoos, and preferences for either technique are largely cultural. Though Americans cannot fathom the idea of elementary school children watching the dissection of an animal outside the Bronx Zoo, the sight is common in Denmark. In addition to the lion that was dissected, a pig was slaughtered and opened up at a museum in Odense this week. The Danish children at these events are reportedly very interested in understanding the biological systems that are displayed right in front of them.
Though the sight is gruesome for some, these public displays do provide an educational benefit for all viewers. These animals are not killed in vain, and we should respect the process that goes on in Denmark, even if some do not want to import it to the United States.