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Three ways zoos can deal with extreme food shortages and starving animals

Three ways zoos can deal with extreme food shortages and starving animals

Gaza zoo has finally evacuated its last few remaining animals, while residents at Venezuela’s main zoo have not been so lucky. More than 50 animals are reported to have died of starvation at Caricuao zoo in Caracas in the past few months as food shortages hit humans and animals alike. There’s no easy solution for zoos faced with these situations, but they can take steps to minimise the impact of economic difficulties on the animals in their care.

Since the diet of a zoo animal is so crucial for its health, being without the special dietary provisions in adequate amounts can be extremely detrimental. In fact, many years of research have been dedicated to ensuring that the majority of species in zoos can have the appropriate calculated diet. Zoo nutrition groups have been established and computer programs have been specially developed to plan diets for different species.

So here are the three main options available to a zoo short on food …

1. Food rationing

Rationing food items between the animals and across a time period means that more animals will be able to eat some food for longer. But strict rations are unlikely to cover the whole variety of food needed, and this isn’t an adequate long term solution.

Zoo diets are often calculated precisely. Cotton topped tamarins, for example, have their apples weighed to the nearest gram. Not being able to provide the delicate balance of nutrients can have disastrous effects on an animal’s health and welfare. For example, feeding an incorrect diet of fruit and vegetables to pure carnivores such as lions, tigers and wolves can cause more health issues such as dilated cardiomyopathy, where the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently. Incorrect diets also do not provide the vitamins and minerals needed for the animal to survive and thrive in the long term.

The cotton topped tamarin requires a delicately balanced diet in captivity. mirasha//flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

2. Relocation

For countries with more protracted difficulties, relocation would be the ideal option. The costs, however, are surprisingly large and may prove an impossible amount for a zoo which doesn’t have the money even to meet the animals’ most basic needs.

Capture, administering anaesthesia for larger and more dangerous animals, veterinary care and transporting them to another zoo does not come cheap. In 2010, members of the public raised more than £150,000 to contribute to relocating 13 lions from a Romanian zoo to Yorkshire Wildlife Park. And that was just the lions. The costs involved in relocating an entire zoo full of animals would be much higher.

It’s also not easy to find a new zoo which can take the animals and ensure they are provided with the food and care they need. And although zoos such as Yorkshire Wildlife Park have facilitated the relocation of animals, resources are always finite.

3. A last resort

As an animal welfare scientist, I always consider the animal’s health and welfare first in these situations. Animal welfare is difficult to define but links to considering the needs of the animal in terms of its mind, body and nature. We know that animals kept in poor conditions suffer as a result and any suffering due to human constraints is unacceptable. Zoo animals are similar to pets and farm animals in that they are all under our management and control, with the added consideration that many zoo animals are critically endangered.

Those animals which are unable to behave or function naturally will suffer. In these extreme cases I believe euthanasia is, as a last resort, the best option. This way the animals are no longer forced to suffer.

Euthanasia in zoos has become a polemical issue after the case of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo. However, in circumstances where welfare is being impeded, it can be the most responsible course of action – even with animals as rare as some of those in a zoo.

Accredited zoos around the world contribute towards conservation, education, research and entertainment, with animal welfare being exceptionally high on the agenda. But when a country faces difficulties, animal welfare can often be the first aspect to suffer. It is up to the zoos to come up with the best possible solution.