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Why a Denmark Zoo Publicly Dissected a Lion

The zookeepers say it is an educational opportunity

(Julia Wäschenbach/dpa/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Despite online outrage, a Denmark zoo publicly dissected a lion this past Thursday in front of a crowd of 300 to 400 children. Although the lion was killed earlier this year for conservation purposes, the dissection made news when it was scheduled to take place during Danish schools’ fall break so that children could attend. Despite calls from online petitions and animal rights organizations to cancel the dissection, officials at the Odense Zoo are standing by their decision.

“It is mystifying to us why people who are objecting to this were not objecting to it when the animal was killed,” zookeeper Michael Wallberg Soerensen tells Jan M. Olsen for the Associated Press.

Culling animals isn’t uncommon in European zoos, but it is treated as a last resort when an animal cannot be kept in their original enclosure. In this case, the lion was killed to prevent inbreeding in her pride—if she had been kept with her family, her father would have started to mate with her, potentially resulting in sickly offspring and damaging the gene pool of the already vulnerable species.

However, relocating a year-old lion is also a difficult process: A new pride at another zoo could have killed the outsider and exiling her to a pen by herself would have been devastating for a social pack animal, Sarah Kaplan writes for The Washington Post. When the Odense Zoo couldn’t find a suitable zoo to take care of the lion, they opted to euthanize her.

“Believe me, that is the last resort. I would always prefer to send an animal to another zoo in Europe than have to put it down,” zookeeper Wallberg Soerensen tells Olsen.

Unlike American zoos, which do not euthanize animals, some European zoos don’t use contraception to prevent unwanted animal births, saying they want the animals to live as natural lives as they can while in captivity. But while the lion’s culling mostly went unnoticed, the scheduled dissection has brought a storm of online anger against the zookeepers.

“They have planned the dissection to coincide with a school break to ensure that as many children as possible may view the gruesome display,” says one online petition against the dissection. “The Odense Zoo needs to understand that their obvious lack of respect for individual animals’ lives is unacceptable.”

However, the Danes themselves don’t seem too bothered by the public nature of the lion’s dissection. The Odense Zoo has conducted public dissections once or twice a year for the last 20 years and the Danish public has mostly been receptive to news of the lion’s dissection, Olsen reports.

“The world is NOT a pink Disney movie,” one person wrote in Danish on the zoo’s Facebook page, Olsen writes.

This isn’t the first time a Danish zoo’s choice to cull an animal has riled up angry animal lovers. Last year, the director of the Copenhagen Zoo received death threats after the zoo euthanized and dissected an 18-month-old male giraffe named Marius despite international outcries. Afterward, the meat was fed to the zoo’s lions, the AFP reports.

Though the outrage continues through social media online, Danish zoo keepers said only a few children who attended were upset by seeing the lion dissected, Dan Bilefsky writes for The New York Times.

“The kids came up close to the dissection table, and there was a very strong smell, but they kept looking,” zookeeper Nina Collatz Christensen tells Bilefsky. “There were no protests. Some kids thought it was too much, and so they left...our experience is that the children are curious, ask questions and are not afraid."

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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