Friday, December 16, 2011

Too many deaths at the Toronto Zoo?

A Sumatran Tiger
photo via: Wikipedia
It sure seems like there are have been a lot of animal deaths at the Toronto Zoo lately.

A few days ago Brytne, a 13 year old Sumatran tiger, was mauled to death by a breeding partner, in an incident that zoo handlers were careful to stress as ‘really bad luck’.

Look at this list of recent animal deaths at the Zoo, compiled by the Toronto Star:
  • October 2011: 10-year-old polar bear Aurora gave birth to three cubs and “rejected” them. Two died. (She killed two previous cubs the prior year as well)
  • Oct. 21, 2011: Rowdy, the zoo’s oldest male African lion, was euthanized, just a few months after his mate, Nokanda, died of cancer. The lions had been companions since Nokanda moved to the zoo from Philadelphia in 1997. 
  • July 2011: 15-year-old Nokanda, a white lioness, was euthanized after vets discovered she had cancer.
  • February 2010: Tongua, a Siberian tiger, died after surgery. The 17-year-old animal did not recover from sedation.
  • August 2010: Samantha, a 37-year-old Western Lowland gorilla was euthanized after a stroke caused her to lose control of her limbs and experience seizures.
  • June 2010: 32-year-old orangutan Molek was euthanized after blood tests revealed his kidneys had stopped working.

Plus, there are all the elephant deaths -- four in four years. We had a herd; attrition reduced this to a lonely troika, providing the impetus for city council’s contentious vote to finally move the pachyderms to a wildlife sanctuary.

What is a normal animal mortality rate for zoos?
Deaths are inevitable when you manage a sizable population of wild animals. Animals get older. They interact. Accidents, illness, and injuries occur. The looming question is, what’s ‘normal’? What are the comparative metrics for zoo animal mortality rates? Is the Toronto Zoo doing better, or worse than we should expect, for a facility of its size and population?

[A cynical person might comment that the mortality rate for every zoo is always 100%]

I wonder if this is, in a certain sense, a foreboding turning point for the Zoo -- when key members of its animal stock have disappeared. Its management, ongoing existence and funding are openly being questioned. There have been numerous controversial discussions about selling or leasing it to a third party for operation.

Is a municipally-operated zoo no longer part of our shared future vision for this city?

I think that zoos are an important mechanism for urbanites to stay connected to nature. Does the educational value of the zoo outweigh the potential loss of that connection? Whenever I visit the zoo, I am filled with a sense of wonder at the myriad forms of life on this planet. Yet zoos are inherently artificial creations -- an imposition of structure on natural life.

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

See also
Council votes to send elephants away
No more elephants at the Toronto Zoo