What is Zoonasia?

Zoonasia, zoo animal culling, cruelty to zoo animals

We seem to have little knowledge or understanding of the secret world of ‘disposal of genetic surplus’ or in layman’s terms – the euthanasia of zoo animals not suitable for breeding in the opinion of science.

Cruelty to zoo animals, zoonasia, zoo lions,
Iconic zoo animals are often killed as surplus to requirements.

The declared dogma of most reputable zoos is that of a scientific and research emphasis based on doing everything possible to save species from extinction by any means possible. Most of this work operates behind the scenes and therefore is not entirely understood by the public and many of us may feel uncomfortable about what is involved in saving species.

In many ways the modern-day ‘professional’ zoo can almost be likened to a research laboratory where they use a team of veterinarians, scientists and researchers to carry out their breeding programmes, but when such professionals become involved in ‘saving’ or ‘rescuing’ species, the rights, welfare and interests of the individual animals become less important  and sometimes lost.

Jens Sigsgaard, a zoologist at Aalborg Zoo in Denmark puts it this way: ‘Our function is not to keep an individual animal alive, but to keep the species alive’.

Zoonasia explained

A major problem for zoos is maintaining a good gene pool of unrelated animals from a dwindling supply of captive animals and avoid inbreeding. This is done by constantly exchanging animals around the world’s zoos, but the difficulty is that it is impossible to breed to order. Therefore  the process of maintaining stocks of endangered and iconic animals for ‘future generations’ involves collateral damage in the form of “surplus” animals.

Iconic animals such as lions and tigers that help pull in the crowds are constantly overbred or are born the wrong sex and become liabilities as do many endangered species if they do not meet the requirements of a breeding program. An estimated 3-5,000 zoo animals are killed each year in the UK, although reliable figures are difficult to obtain or substantiate due to the obvious reluctance to divulge such information. Killing these animals is known in the trade as ‘Zoonasia’. This carnage appears to go mostly unnoticed by the public and even when highlighted is soon forgotten.

Zoos promote a caring public face by giving animals names to make our visits more personal and they are happy to show off expensive natural enclosures, state of the art veterinary care and top-quality diets, but the zoo professionals have a strange detachment when it comes to killing surplus animals.

The case of Marius the Giraffe

This subject came to public attention in 2014 with the story of a two-year-old male giraffe named Marius who was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo  by their veterinarian Mads Bertelsen, DVM, DVSc. He then dissected Marius in front of cameras and families with young children on the pretext of education after which his remains were fed to the zoo’s lions.

Zoonasia, zoo animal culling, cruelty to zoo animals
Young zoo animals can find themselves surplus to requirements if they are born the wrong sex.

That same year the zoo killed  four of their lions and dissected a beautiful Sable antelope. The zoo was unrepentant despite worldwide outrage and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Bengt Holst, the Director of Research and Conservation was surprised at receiving death threats and a petition to sack him. The zoo not only upset the public, but the zoo profession in general, as they were not best pleased that their relatively secretive activity of culling animals was made so public. The zoo explained their reasoning in this way:

“The side effect is that we have a surplus of animals. It is in fact fortunate that we can use them as food. Instead of killing 20 goats or a cow, we can use the giraffe,” says Mads Frost Bertelsen. Zoo Veterinarian.

Mads Bertelsen, had apparently regularly carried out research on giraffes over the years for their ‘benefit’ and had dissected ‘a large number of surplus giraffes to investigate their cardiovascular anatomy using state-of-the-art methodology.

Jens Sigsgaard, a zoologist at Aalborg Zoo, Denmark was quoted as saying that surplus animals are already dead biologically speaking in the sense that they do not contribute to the next generation’. Only a scientist could refer to animals in this way.

All this is being done on our behalf to save animals for future generations of mankind and for a mythical time when the animals are released back into the wild. But will future generations be that interested as there are few if any wild animals existing already and most people do not seem that worried.

At least one zoologist, Liz Bonnin, has declared that it might be time to close zoos down as they no longer serve any purpose only to entertain and charm the public and has commented: ‘They’re [Giraffes] sentient, emotionally intelligent, cognitively gifted animals that deserve a better quality of life. It’s shameful that we scoff at anybody who raises the issue of animal welfare’.

Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.