the ethics of zoos during the COVID-19 pandemic

the ethics of zoos during the COVID-19 pandemic

When reading or engaging in discussions about animal welfare, human-wildlife conflict, or zoonotic disease, things can become emotionally-charged very quickly.
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As a health precaution in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, zoos across the globe have had to temporarily close. While this encourages the recommended social distancing, many zoos are suffering financially due to loss of ticket and refreshments sales which composed a majority of its normal revenue.

The director of Germany’s Tierpark Neumünster has even announced that if the financial strain cannot be relieved soon, then they will have to feed the zoo animals to one another as a last resort.

While the thought of a cute seal being fed to a polar bear first made me uncomfortable, I realized that animals eat each other all the time in their natural habitat. In the wilderness, zebra meat would be part of a lion’s regular diet.

However, in the zoo, they are trained to eat more accessible food foreign to them such as beef and even then their meal consists of added supplements in order to conjure a suitable replacement. By allowing zoo residents to eat the other animals, their natural diet may be most replicated while in captivity.

Although eating other animals is not an issue, deciding which animals will survive and which ones don’t reveal a subjective hierarchy of importance. Tierpark Neumünster decided that their prized 12-foot polar bear, Vitus, would be the last animal to remain in the event that their contingency plan had to take place.

How this decision was made was not revealed to the public; however it looks as though the most popular attractions will be ranked of greater importance. If that is the case, then large strictly carnivorous animals will be the last to go.

One can argue that it may be better to instead keep species with dietary requirements that can be easily met such as  herbivores and omnivores, since they have a wider range of nutritional possibilities and require cheaper feed.

Ultimately, humans considering only the zoo’s needs are behind these decisions unlike in the wilderness where these events take place according to Mother Nature and each organism has a fighting chance at survival.

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Feeding zoo animals to one another is a temporary solution for a problem that will extend for an uncertain amount of time. Many other solutions should be considered before this. In the case of Ohio’s Columbus Zoo, they have contemplated relocating animals during the lockdown.

Their greenhouses are currently growing emergency feed for koalas in their care. However, in the event that they can no longer rely on regular shipment of resources and their in-house resources are not enough, the koalas may have to be relocated to the South where their food is easily accessible. 

Under normal circumstances, the existence of zoos are justified for the purpose of research  and conservation. Feeding these animals to one another would defeat the purpose of having  zoos, according to popular arguments in support of them.

Once the pandemic is over, zoos that fail to protect the animals they are responsible for may have a difficult time gaining support from the public, thus placing an even greater long term financial strain.

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