Killing for Species Health

In the past few months, the Copenhagen Zoo has killed a giraffe and four lions in order to protect the genetic health of their breeding populations, generating significant international backlash and highlighting difficult questions about the value of species preservation.

The international controversy surrounding the zoo’s actions began in February, when it killed a healthy 18-month old giraffe with a bolt pistol, performed a public autopsy on his body (video), and then fed his remains to the zoo’s lions and other big cats in front of the public (video).  A bolt pistol was used, rather than an injection, so that his meat would be safe to eat.  A statement from the zoo explained that it had decided to kill this giraffe because his genes were “well represented in the breeding programme,” such that allowing him to grow into an adult and breed was “unwanted.”  Zoo officials turned down adoption offers from other zoos on the grounds that this would have left open the door to inbreeding and potentially removed a place for a giraffe whose genetic makeup was more valuable in terms of future offspring in captive breeding programs.  (The statement also addresses a variety of other interesting “health law” questions, such as “Why are the giraffes not given contraceptives?”).

The controversy gained further momentum two weeks ago, when the zoo announced that it had killed four lions—a 16 year-old male lion, a 14 year-old lioness, and their cubs—to clear the path for a newly arrived young male lion.  (It is unclear whether these specific lions were among those who had previously eaten the giraffe).   A statement from the zoo explained that it had decided to kill these lions based on several population-level concerns, including that the 16 year-old male might have someday mated with his female offspring creating a problem of inbreeding, or that the new young male might have mated with the 14 year-old lioness instead of younger females with greater reproductive fitness.

While the idea that these types of killings can be justified on the grounds that they protect the health of the genetic populations of which the individual animals are a part is fairly common, it is unclear whether “health” is actually an appropriate concept to apply to an entity such as an animal’s species.   

The problem is that species are, in the words of Darwin, “merely artificial combinations made for convenience.”  Because species categories are not dictated by nature, but rather developed by humans on pragmatic grounds, there is no biological or psychological basis for attributing interests to them.   While “species existence” might at first glance seem to be such an interest, it is unclear how an animal that is unaware of his species categorization can have an interest in that category’s continued existence apart from his interest in his own continued existence—an individual interest that will often be in conflict with the survival of other members of his species.

This is not to say, however, that there are not any interests that might justify the zoo’s actions. It is possible, for example, that humans have an interest in the continued existence of the species categories that we have created.  But if this is the interest at stake, it should be clearly stated as such, as it is unclear whether it can do the work of justifying the killings at issue.

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