I was just about to finish a post for my Nat Geo blog concerning the genetic management of giraffes in various zoo association member institutions (i.e., zoological parks), when I came across an article in The Dodo referencing the euthanization of a healthy animal at another EAZA zoo.
In the wake of the euthanization of "Marius," I'm very disappointed in my colleagues overseas. This time a zoo put down a brown bear, nonetheless, another European zoo euthanized another animal. In this case they assert that rather than letting the father eat the last of three cubs, the zoo chose to euthanize it to save it from horrific death.
What? First of all, the conventional choice for bears and other carnivores -- with a few exceptions, like lions -- is to place the cubs with their mothers until they can hold their own or be relocated. This zoo made a mistake and now the offspring have paid for it.
I'm particularly unnerved because the zoo states that hand-rearing the cub would create behavior problems. Well, just over a year ago, I raised an orphan Kodiak brown bear cub, which was intended to be sent to the Orsa Bear Park in Sweden---an EAZA facility. The bear, held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, was supposed to be accompanied by his enclosure-mate, an unrelated female Kodiak brown bear cub. The female, "Shaguyik," was sadly killed in a freak accident near the facility. To my knowledge, hand-rearing cubs, unless done inappropriately, does not lead to aberrant behavior later in life. In the case of orphaned bears, it is important, in my opinion, to socialize them to people and to acclimate to captivity. Although there are certainly instances of neuroses in hand-reared carnivores and bears, in particular, this is not necessarily the norm. But we do know that euthanizing the bear cub gives it no chance at life whatsoever.
In the case of "Marius" the giraffe, the Copenhagen Zoo had some valid concerns regarding the genetic management of giraffe subspecies. Hence, some argue the zoo had reason to euthanize the animal for the benefit of the zoo's giraffe herd and the global captive population of the reticulated giraffe subspecies and related hybrids. But to my knowledge, the Swiss zoo has no credible reason to dispatch a healthy brown bear cub, with regard to population management or conservation genetics.
Russian brown bears are not nearly as threatened as some species of giraffe. However, from the photos in the article these appear to be Pyrenean brown bears, which I believe the zoo has managed since 1996, at least. Regardless, this was not a "species" approach to management as it is often called. As far as welfare is concerned, yes, it is true that any subspecies of brown bear cubs, like North American brown bear cubs, succumb to larger bears if orphaned or unprotected by their mothers in the wild. It is not uncommon. But there is no excuse to dispatch an animal that was intentionally propagated in a zoo setting, when the sire (father) should have been separated from the cubs in the first place. From what the article seems to suggest, this was nothing other than poor management. And it is a shame because the Bern Zoo (Tierpark Dahlholzli), which is renowned for the breeding of endangered species like the endangered Pyrenean brown bears, was once directed by Heini Hediger. Hediger was one of the most esteemed zoo biologists and directors in history of modern day zoo animal management. Incidentally, if this was a Pyrenean brown bear that was euthanized, there are only presumed to be 20 left it the wild, according to one article in the peer-reviewed journal of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA).
Zoos need to be accountable for the offspring conceived in their facilities, and this seems irresponsible. In fact, when it comes to brown bears in North America, there is a moratorium on breeding these animals. The animals on display in such zoos are older animals born in captivity or younger animals that were orphaned and given "sanctuary" at a zoo in the US or Canada.