Killer Zoo Strikes Again: Weeks After Killing a Giraffe, Copenhagen Zoo Euthanizes Four Healthy Lions

Copenhagen Zoo officials say euthanizing four lions, weeks after the zoo put down a young giraffe, is necessary for successful captive breeding programs.

Killer Zoo Strikes Again: Weeks After Killing a Giraffe, Copenhagen Zoo Euthanizes Four Healthy Lions

(Photo: Mads Nissen/Scanpix/Reuters)

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Copenhagen Zoo is in hot water again. Four weeks ago the zoo euthanized a healthy two-year-old giraffe named Marius and then dissected him in public before gawking schoolchildren and fed part of his body to the institution's lions. The spectacle caused an outcry around the world. Now the zoo has killed four of those very lions, including two healthy adults and two 10-month-old cubs, to make way for the birth of yet more lions.

In a media statement, Copenhagen Zoo said the 16-year-old male lion and the 14-year-old lioness were approaching the ends of their natural lives and were simply "too old." The zoo has already imported a two-year-old male lion, which it will mate with its two remaining female lions, each of which was born in 2012 and has reached breeding age.

The zoo said the cubs would have been “killed by the new male lion as soon as he got the chance." Male lions in the wild tend to kill non-related cubs when they take over a pack to force their mothers back into estrous. This allows the new male to sire his own offspring as quickly as possible. The zoo said it sought new homes for the cubs, but no other zoo wanted them.

Conservation organizations disagree with Copenhagen Zoo's assertions. The zoo appears to be breeding lions without any real conservation objective. "Breeding animals without the ability to care for them throughout their lives is irresponsible," said Dr. Ian Robinson of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "I am sure that visitors to Copenhagen Zoo would find this policy unacceptable and would not wish to see animals bred to exhibit, then simply euthanized to dispose of them when their presence becomes inconvenient." Adam M. Roberts, chief executive officer of Born Free USA, agreed, calling Copenhagen Zoo’s program “irresponsible, unsound, and unethical."

Luke Hunter, president of the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera, agreed there is a substantial risk to adding a new male to a captive population but called Copenhagen Zoo's claim that the new male would kill the cubs "a cop-out." He asked why the zoo even bothered to allow the adult lions to breed so recently if it would result in cubs that would need to be euthanized. "You shouldn't have these two 10-month-old cubs," he said. "This, I think, is the problem with captive breeding of lions: They breed very well in captivity, but why keep doing it if this is going to be the outcome?"

Robinson agreed, adding, "Zoos should have a planned breeding policy that avoids situations like this one, where healthy animals are euthanized as surplus to requirements.”

Hunter also discounts the zoo's claim that the two adult lions were too old. Lions in the wild live to about the age of 15, but he says "wild lions live very hard lives." Lions in zoos, which don't experience the same stresses as wild populations, tend to have much longer life spans, often reaching the age of 25 or 30.

Copenhagen Zoo is unrepentant. Chief executive Steffen Stræde told Ritzau, the Danish news agency, he believes people are "more enlightened" about zoos following last month's giraffe killing. The outcry over Marius, he said, “hasn't made us the least bit afraid. Because what we are doing is the most correct thing to do."

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