Why don’t zoo animals die in front of visitors all the time?

Zoos are open to the public about half of the hours on a given day (or more) and for about half the time there are easily enough people in a zoo to be observing about half the animals. (If you don’t like these estimates substitute your own!)

This means that an animal on display at a zoo is under public observation about 25% of the time. Since all of them eventually die, and there are lots of zoos, there should be an animal passing to the great beyond before the eyes of visitors at least a few times a year, yet we never hear of that happening.

I can think of three reasons for this, two which should be obvious to any zoo-goer, and one that may be less obvious and which, indeed, may even be insidious.

The first reason is that we see it but don’t know we see it. Knut the Polar Bear died in a spectacular way that could not have been missed by the visitors. His death reminds me of my friend Cheryl Knott’s description of a wild male orangutan dying before her eyes (and her camera, if I recall correctly) after a protracted battle with another adult male orangutan. The animal walked out on a log overhanging a swiftly moving stream, raised both arms up over its head, and slowly fell backwards until gravity took over and splashed its suddenly lifeless body into the water. Knut the bear spun around then convulsed then did the “Oh My God I’ve Been Shot” posed like the orangutan did and fell into the water with a bit splash. But if an animal simply dies while sleeping, curled up in a ball under a fake tree next to a fake rock, the visitors would just think the animal is sleeping and its demise might not be noticed until the keepers are collecting the menagerie into their night enclosures for the evening.

Similarly (this is the second reason) many enclosures have a place where the animals can go and be out of sight, by choice. An animal may just wander off to the private place, feeling ill, and expire out of sight. A kind of local “graveyard of the [fill in kind of animal]” thing.

But I have a feeling that the third reason is the most common. When you go to a zoo, you may not be aware of the fact that for every so many animals in public view, there may be a number of animals that are not in public view, and often, these are the individuals of a given species that happen to be ill, infirm, or otherwise messed up in a way that correlates a) zoo management not wanting the public to see the creature and b) the animal being categorically closer to death than the others of its ilk. I say this is insidious but I do want to make clear what I mean. It is not insidious for zoo keepers or vets to keep ill animals in the clinic or in the hidden enclosures that most, perhaps all, zoos have. This is often for the animal’s well-being. But it is also true that such animals that don’t look right, either because they are zoo animals and for some species, zoos are not good places to live, or because of advanced age or malady. The insidious part is that zoo patrons are not allowed to see or experience the full range of conditions under which zoo animals live, or to witness the full range of conditions in which zoo animals are. The chimpanzees that spend hours a day probing their own orifices with their fists, or biting their own fur off are rarely displayed, yet many chimps or other primates who were raised in captivity may have these behaviors. Carnivores with mangy fur don’t look right, and may elicit anti-zoo feelings. And so on. The nefarious part is simply that the decision of which animals to display publicly and which ones to keep hidden would be a public relation decision made by the marketing department were it not already a decision made by the zoo’s vets and keepers.

In any event, it would be the case that animals that are kept “in the back” are also the ones most likely to die. An obvious subset of these are those that are too ill to treat and thus euthanized. That, of course, is not done in the animal’s public enclosure while the happy go lucky zoo-goers watch. Well, not in this century anyway. (Public euthanizing of zoo animals certainly had it’s day.

I suppose there is a fourth possibility: Zoo animals die in front of visitors all the time, they notice it, it gets reported, and everybody knows about this but me.

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19 thoughts on “Why don’t zoo animals die in front of visitors all the time?

  1. Then there is the Christian Zoo problem: “We used to have a display of the lamb laying down with the lion, but we ran out of lambs.”

  2. I was just at the Cleveland zoo this past weekend and spotted a sign by one of the mongoose lemurs (or was it a ruffed lemur?) that explained his mangy fur as old age. At over 30 years he’s apparently one of the oldest lemurs in captivity. According to the sign. It did make me wonder how much longer he had and when they would decide to no longer allow him on display.

  3. I worked for a little while as a zookeeper. Yes, animals that are sick or injured are kept off exhibit 1) because zookeepers/vets can keep a closer eye on them. Nowadays, zookeepers become zookeepers because they care about animals. 2) Many animals prefer being “in the back” because hundreds of people walking by, pointing, being noisy, or just generally obnoxious can be stressful. “The back” isn’t some nefarious place. Some zoos even let school groups (children!) tour back there. Though every zoo is different of coarse. And I won’t deny that some of the decisions made by zoo PR & marketing staff or other higher ups is questionable.

  4. zg, I’m not saying the back is a nefariouis place. But sometimes the disconnect between what is back there and what the public thinks is going on is unconscionable. It does depend a lot on the zoo, though.

    And it is not typically the zoo people that caused the situations that are bad. Sometimes it is larger scale policy, and old policy (but animals often outlive the policies.) Surely you know of examples.

  5. I agree with those points. Zoos have been going through many policy and other changes over the last few decades. Many of the big decisions made are not in the zookeepers hands, and all zoos are definitely not created equal.

    But there’s also too often a disconnect with what the public does see right in front of them and what they think/ tell their children. Just sayin.

  6. I always feel an urge to correct stupid parents on basic biology (like the fact that a porcupine is not a skunk).
    I simply get nervous when kids are told such nonsense.
    But as for the dying: I live quite close to a small zoo and have witnessed its transformation from the old-fashioned “as many animals as possible, as exotic as possible, as big as possible” to “fewer animals of fewer species with more individual space”. Since this is a small-town zoo with many regular visitors (we’ve had an all-year ticket those last 4 years), the individual animals are well-known to the visitors and therefore their lives, age and deaths are a matter of public interest. So if an animal is very sick or old, the public usually gets to know this and there are also signs explaining that this animal is very old and therefore cannot do X, Y or Z or similar information.

  7. Some animals do die in public. You are unlikely to know about it unless 1) you are there, 2) you are associated with the zoo and learn about it from your contacts or 3) the individual was a ‘celebrity’ (like Knut) and the event is covered in the local press.
    Some animals die in their sleep and are discovered by their keepers in the morning. Many/most are ill and are being treated before they die or are euthanized when their condition is so poor that their quality of life would make it cruel to keep them going. Count among these the ones who never make it out of surgery.
    The ones who are being treated are kept ‘off exhibit’ for the same reason you might be tucked into a hospital bed instead of in a department store window when you are seriously ill. (Happily, many do make it out of the hospital and go on to live many more healthy years.)
    As a long-time zoo volunteer, I am personally familiar with all of these situations. In all of my hundreds of hours at the zoo (mostly with primates), I have thankfully witnessed only one death (devastating) and I have monitored ill animals, some of whom survived, some of whom didn’t.
    Nothing nefarious.

  8. Another reason would be that animals dying in zoos is not news – unless it’s Knut, or one of the human visitors – and in the case of the humans, only if they’re a celebrity or they were killed by another animal (including other humans – gang wars make good news).

  9. I don’t buy the fact that if someone is standing there and a racoon in a zoo clutches its chest and squeals, and falls to the ground with its four limbs sticking up in the air and it’s tongue hanging out of its mouth, eyes rolled back in its head, that it would not become memic on our highly volitile social networks. Especially if there is a video.

    Gerry, yes, I think we are pretty much in agreement on all points. but while it usually isn’t nefarious, the phrase “nothing nefarious” (as in “never nefarious”) is not accurate. Perhaps we haven’t been in the back rooms of the same zoos.

  10. Greg,
    Granted, there are probably still some instances of institutions where inconvenient animals are ‘put down,’ but that is probably not happening at accredited zoos — the kind most people are likely to visit.

    And yes, if a raccoon expired in the manner you describe, and if it were caught on video, it would likely go viral. But people are more inclined to capture images of critters pooping or doing other more common things.

    BTW, our previous anaconda would only eat live food, so on feeding days, the windows were papered over — for human sensibilities.

    And just so you know, we have an ancient chimp. The old lady is almost 60 and is looking her age. She can no longer climb and spends all her time at floor level. She is ‘on exhibit’ and not hidden away. And she gets lots of loving attention.

  11. â??Zoo animals may die in front of all people some of the time, zoo animals may even die in front of some of the people all of the time, but zoo animals cannot die in front of all of the people all the time.â? I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

  12. Then there was the time a tornado or hurricane or something hit Manhattan and all of the animals in the Central Park Zoo escaped. I believe it was either the Mayor or the US President (who would have been Teddy Roosevelt, if this is even half true) shot the escaped rhino.

    (From the “Things I Read in a Waiting Room” part of my brain. Sound familiar?)

    and off in the distance the awestruck spectators looked on in breathless fear. Finally the two sanguinary brutes rushed from each other as a bullet from the rifle of General Wingate, who came promptly on the ground, whistled between their ears. Lester Wallack took aim at the same moment from behind the unfinished iron building on the east side, and perforated the tiger to some slight degree. Many other gentlemen came rushing to the scene in the meantime, among them ex-Mayor Hall, Erastus Brooks, of the Express; Manton Marole and Mr. Bangs, of the World, who had been visiting Governor-elect Tilden, and were on their way uptown in a carriage; Judge Daly, Judge J.R. Brady, General Arthur, Hugh Hastings and Prosper Wetmore. But they were all a trifle nervous from running, and the beasts escaped on their raid down town, where, as everybody knows by this, they had a bloody and fearful carnival….”

    Those were the days, when zoos were zoos and men were always there to shoot something …

  14. I agree with the third reason. How often do we see a pet die? They get hit by cars or euthanized. Having grown up with too many cats, dogs, hamsters, rabbits, and rats, I can think of 1 case when I knew an animal was dying in front of me. I expect zoo animals, much like pets, are maintained as long as they have a modicum of quality of life. Once that point is reached, they are euthanized. So we don’t see them die in front of us.

  15. The Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA has a section of the zoo specifically for their veterinary unit and recovering animals. These areas are available for public touring (within reason). All around the park they have signs in almost every cage outlining why exactly this animal cannot be released into the wild. It’s often because of a genetic illness or abuse case in which the animal was kept illegally and later captured by the authorities and donated to the zoo.

    Frankly, your post makes zoos look totally evil which I don’t think is the case at all most of the time. Oftentimes zoos are actually doing a very beneficial thing–I.E. providing education and awareness for animals who are endangered and need special care. I’ve never been to a zoo where I felt that the conditions weren’t appropriate and trust me when I say that I would be the first to question the zookeepers if I felt that were the case (I am an animal lover, advocate of animals rights, and biology major with the intentions of becoming a wildlife biologist and/or wildlife veterinarian). Obviously I haven’t been to every zoo on earth and unfortunately there are probably some horrible zoos out there that are more like circuses than zoos (don’t get me started on circuses…THEY are evil) but I believe that we can give most zoos out there the benefit of the doubt and respect the hard work and intentions of very caring biologists and veterinarians.

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