Zoos: Transparency is key

Transparency is key for the future of zoos

Copenhagen Zoo revolutionises the way zoos communicate with the public

Photo credit: Copenhagen Zoo.
By Joana Branco

Copenhagen Zoo is a key attraction of the Danish capital, and attendees of the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists (26-29 June 2017) have an exciting opportunity to visit the zoological garden as part of the conference programme. The formerly little-known zoo received global attention following its decision in 2014 to euthanise Marius, a young, healthy giraffe.

While all zoos euthanise animals that don’t fit with their breeding programmes, Copenhagen Zoo is one of the first to publicly defend the practice. “When the story about the giraffe reached the news, the first reactions were negative,” explained the zoo’s deputy director Bengt Holst, who appeared before the world’s media to talk about the decision.

Instead of shutting the conversation down, the zoo explained that Marius was genetically too similar to the other giraffes in the breeding programme; on top of this, he was being shunned by his father and was injured as a result. “After we explained the rationale behind our actions, things changed,” said Holst.

Over the last few years, zoos have had a hard time in the media. From gorillas being killed in front of an audience to keepers dying under suspicious circumstances, the family-friendly image of these organisations has suffered.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the tendency among other zoos in Europe may be to understate controversial practices. Chester Zoo in the UK, known as one of the best zoological parks in Europe, says that “Chester Zoo works extremely hard to maintain its breeding programmes without the need to rely on euthanasia.” Alex Rübel, director of Zurich Zoo in Switzerland, explains: “How we deal with animals is not just a matter of science; [it] is a matter [of] how we see the animals as our companions on planet Earth.”

However, Copenhagen Zoo emphasised transparency in its practices, and it emerged relatively unscathed from the media storm. Following the giraffe incident, the zoo experienced no drop in visitor numbers. Danish society, it seemed, praised its honesty and openness.

Meanwhile, zoos around the world will continue to play a key role in the future. “Sadly species around the world are facing extinction at an unprecedented rate [and] the rich biodiversity of our planet is under enormous threat,” says Simon Dowell, science director at Chester Zoo. Dowell adds, “Conservation is critical and zoos are uniquely positioned to play a vital role in that.”