Denmark's Odense Zoo has come under fire for publicly dissecting a young lioness in the name of education, but I welcome the controversy, because it exposes a well-kept but unpalatable secret. The educational value, or otherwise, of chopping up an animal carcass in front of children may be a macabre spectacle, but it is actually a huge distraction from the real scandal that affects zoos across the European Union.
This was a perfectly healthy young lion, killed at nine months of age not because she was sick or injured, but simply because nobody wanted her. Just like Marius the giraffe shot with a bolt to the head at Copenhagen Zoo last year, she is one of an estimated 5,000 animals bred in captivity each year in European zoos but killed because they are considered surplus to requirements, genetically undesirable for the zoo's breeding programme.
The truth is that many European zoos breed and then kill 'surplus' animals. Cute baby lions keep the public coming through the turnstiles, but once they grow up and cease to be the money spinner they once were, they're for the chop. This isn't an unavoidable mistake by zoos who find themselves accidentally overrun with animals. This is deliberate breeding of animals known to be of no particular genetic value to the zoo's breeding programme and likely difficult to relocate to another zoo for the same reason. The lion cub at Odense Zoo was condemned to die the moment she was born, a birth that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.
The European Association of Zoos and Aquariums is well aware this is going on, and should be far more proactive in implementing policies that stop its members from breeding animals they cannot or will not care for. Regardless of one's views on zoos per se, a system that turns a blind eye to 'zoothanasia' must not be tolerated.
How to stop this is not a huge brain teaser. If we keep animals in captivity, we put ourselves in complete control of every aspect of their lives, including reproduction. Zoos have an ethical responsibility to make prudent decisions about how they manage population control, and they have a wide range of contraceptive options at their disposal. A responsible zoo can manage reproduction, prevent inbreeding, maintain genetically healthy populations as well as allow animals to live in family groups, all without resorting to death as the family planning tool of choice.
So if the public dismemberment of this lioness makes us shift uncomfortably in our seats, let it be because we collectively acknowledge the injustice of treating these animals like disposable assets. If 'modern zoos' want us to believe that animal welfare really is central to their values, they need to do better than this.