February 2014: a male giraffe is killed and publicly dissected in Copenhagen Zoo, Denmark. October 2015: Odense Zoo, Denmark invites visitors to the public dissection of a healthy male lion killed 9 months previously. November 2015: Copenhagen Zoo organizes a weekend programme when visitors can see ’inside’ a rabbit, a chicken – and a zebra, that will be fed to tigers after the dissection. Are these morbid actions of Danish zoos, clever marketing tricks, intentional scandals or a new educational technique?
According to the news, both the giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo and the lion in Odense Zoo were healthy animals and were culled for the purpose of collection planning. The reasons and methods of this have been discussed several times in recent months, but I will not give an opinion on the subject in this article, rather on how public dissection can be acceptable for a zoo.
Zoos are important locations for natural sciences education. They can raise awareness of nature and its protection and teach responsibility. Every zoo tries to utilize these potentials. This is the reason for zoos to exist in the 21st century.
The tools used in zoo education are almost endless. Zoos should prepare various publications, signs, educational panels and interactive devices, all of which help pass zoo information to visitors. The most obvious educational tools in a zoo are the live animals. Visitors go to a zoo to see animals that do not live near their homes or in the nearby forests where they go on excursions.
The ‘death cult’ has previously been present in zoos. Dead animals were prepared to be exhibited as stuffed animals or skeletons, as we would see them in a natural history museum.
If we think that the last two educational tools – live and prepared animals – are both efficient tools for demonstration, we could ask: what is going on during the transition from one to the other state? Actually, Danish zoos show this transitional state.
Although the main attractions of zoos are the live animals, it would be hypocrisy to keep the full circulation of life secret. In fact, as zoos are educational centres, I consider it important to show the full life cycle through an educational programme. It can help visitors, mainly children, understand the contexts of the biosphere. This also includes mortality and predator-prey relationship. Furthermore, if zoos are considered science education sites, we cannot limit published information to fields of study singled out. We need to talk about the anatomy and physiology among others. For this, live animals are not always suitable demonstration tools.
Here is a concrete example to demonstrate this. How can we explain the structure of the vascular bundle of plants to children? We can show pictures of it or we can cut a plant stem open and show the real vascular bundle. Which helps to understand better?
And now let’s see the same example in a zoo: how can we explain the structure of the reticulorumen of ruminants to children? We can show pictures of it or we can dissect a giraffe and show a real reticulorumen. From the educational point of view, is there a difference between the presentation of the vascular bundle of a plant and the reticulorumen of a ruminant, or the anatomy of a chicken and a zebra? The object is the same. The tool is the same. It depends on personal taste.
Finally, I would note that every nation has a different culture. What is acceptable for the Danish public could be unacceptable for British, Italian, Australian or Mexican people. But perhaps British, Italian, Australian or Mexican culture also has an aspect that is unacceptable for other nations. Therefore, besides having our personal opinion, we need to respect the culture of others.