“Animal conservation” in zoos is anti-evolutionary and probably immoral

The case of Marius the giraffe murdered recently at Copenhagen Zoo has led to more attention to the function of zoos, their supposed “conservation” efforts and their breed-and-cull policies. There is an aura of “goodness” around “animal conservation” which is quite unjustified. As practised today, animal conservation in zoos is anti-evolutionary and borders on the immoral.

I enjoy visiting some zoos (though there are many which are merely collections of psychotic animals) and I enjoyed taking my children to some zoos. It was primarily for entertainment and – as with all entertainment – offered some opportunities for learning. But I cannot subscribe to the politically correct notion that zoos are places where some animal species are being “saved” from extinction. At best they are places where some species, which are on the verge of extinction because they have failed to adapt or evolve to cope with their environments, are frozen into an artificial existence in quite unsuitable habitats for the purpose of entertaining visitors. Such species are not helped to change – genetically or otherwise – to be able to survive by themselves in a changing world. Conservation is taken be a “good thing” but consists only of preserving the animals and their current genes. If left to themselves they would still fail to survive. The animals are bred and over-bred such that healthy specimens must then be culled. That is stagnation not evolution. Zoos are just places for human entertainment and very little else – and there is nothing wrong with that. But they do not deserve any halo of “goodness” for their “conservation”.

To truly help a species to survive requires helping them to breed and evolve such that their survival characteristics are improved. But “conservation” today consists of creating living fossils which are incapable of surviving without human intervention. It is taking a frozen snap-shot of the species and its genes. That is fundamentally anti-evolutionary. I have written on this theme before (Genetic adaptation not stagnating conservation is the way to help threatened species),

Conservation – as stagnation – is not sustainable.  Trying to prevent change is a futile exercise. It is change which is the fundamental characteristic of life. It is managing change and even designing change which is a particular strength of the human species. It is human ingenuity at work. It is time to give thought to how we can help the species around us evolve into the neo-species which can cope with the changes which are inevitable.

This BBC article today only reinforces my view that so-called “animal conservation” in zoos is just show business and has nothing whatever to do with helping endangered species to survive.

How many healthy animals do zoos put down?

When Copenhagen Zoo put down a healthy male giraffe earlier this month, much of the world was horrified. But those in the know say it’s quite normal – a fate that befalls thousands of zoo animals across Europe every year. ….. 

It’s often hard to get any information, but the 340 zoos that belong to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) must sign up to the organisation’s various breeding programmes, and for each species in the programme there is a studbook – a kind of inventory which records every animal’s birth, genetic make-up, and death.

EAZA does not publish these records or advertise the number of healthy animals that have been culled, but executive director Dr Leslie Dickie estimates that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 animals are “management-euthanised” in European zoos in any given year. …… 

…….. Four German zookeepers were also prosecuted in 2010 for culling three tiger cubs at Magdeburg Zoo “without reasonable cause” (though the EAZA judged the step “entirely reasonable and scientifically valid“). ….

… The EAZA Yearbook 2007/2008 (the latest publicly available edition) states clearly that a “breed and cull” policy should be followed for some animals, like the pygmy hippopotamus.

Surpluses are a problem with a number of species, including monkeys and baboons, it notes. ….

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