Lions’ roar echoes for MPs
Auckland Zoo decides to end the suffering of two great cats. Human beings don’t get the same option.
On a still summer night, soon after we moved to Auckland’s inner west, I was stopped in my tracks by a sound that did not fit. A rumble that started low and built in a wave – not a train, or a plane, or the thwack-thwack of the police chopper that often hangs above the city – not a sound made by a mechanical thing. A sound made by a living thing. An animal language that did not fit with a suburban setting.
It took a while to remember we were living less than a kilometre from Auckland Zoo, and the sounds drifting across the rooftops were the roars of Kura and Amira. There’ll be plenty of Kiwis, whether locals or occasional visitors, who’ll be feeling as sad as I am at the news that the zoo’s last pair of lions were euthanised this week. Kura was elderly, in failing health, and losing her authority, which even knowing as little as I do about the lives of lions, must be a signal the end is nigh. Her daughter Amira was also elderly and deemed unlikely to thrive without the mum she’d relied on for company all her life. So Kura and Amira were put to sleep, together, early on Wednesday. The choice, a wretched one for zoo staff, was made for the lions’ welfare. Zoo director Kevin Buley told me late this week that early post-mortem results showed both lions had osteoarthritis in multiple joints and Kura also had ‘‘changes in her kidneys, liver, and heart’’.
It’s a shame we do not allow people, at the end of life, to choose the time of their own death with such care and dignity. The difference is that we are humans (the argument goes) and as a superior species we must live to the absolute last – a last that has been pushed further and further as medical science has roared ahead in the past century. Animal euthanasia is almost always presented as ‘‘the kindest option in the circumstances’’ because ‘‘we don’t want to see them suffer any further’’.
What a pity we are not yet willing to allow people to make that choice for themselves, even when death is imminent. If David Seymour is to be remembered for anything at all, I hope it is for his End of Life Bill currently making its way through the legislative process, and not for his appalling dancing and unfathomable survival on Dancing With The Stars.
I haven’t been to the zoo in years, but when my babies were babies we seemed to be there every other weekend. I’m not a huge fan of zoos myself. The sight of wild animals in faux habitats (no matter how carefully recreated) gives me the heebies, but the children loved it. And what did my opinion matter? As an adult, I was just there to ensure the welfare of the zoo’s prime clients – the kids.
FaceTiming my daughter, thousands of kilometres away at university on Wednesday night, I told her the sad news and because I love a good debate, got ready for an outpouring. Her response surprised me; the childhood love of zoos has been replaced by an even greater unease than mine.
Her most recent zoo experience, she told me, was in the United States as part of her year 13 geography trip. She’d walked around thinking – why? Why are we peering through a chain fence at exotic animals cooped up in enclosures? How does this help?
My daughter’s an animal lover, particularly giraffes. As a tall, rangy ginger I think she feels an affinity with them in particular. Wouldn’t you be sad if you could never see a giraffe for real again, I asked her. How would she show her future children what these creatures look like?
YouTube, she answered. The concept of future generations of Kiwi kids missing out on the face to face, seemed to her a reasonable pay-off for getting rid of zoos altogether, when push came to shove.
It’s not a popular stance, to criticise zoos. They are friendly places, and zoo staff tend to be those wonderful types who really, truly, do love animals. This column will probably annoy them. That’s not my intention at all.
Buley admits to me that the vast majority of zoos around the world should be shut down. But a good zoo, he says, is more relevant than it’s ever been.
‘‘If we can’t make people connect to the animals in some way, we can’t expect a future where wildlife is valued.’’
Not only did Kura and Amira have a much better, longer, life at Auckland Zoo (one of the good ones) he says, but they were powerful advocates for their own kind.
Buley’s convictions are directly at odds with international advocacy group LionAid, which sent me a pretty unequivocal statement.
‘‘The reason why zoos keep wildlife is for entertainment purposes, plain and simple,’’ LionAid director Christine McSween said.
‘‘Our basic policy is that there should be no lion kept in a zoo unless there are clear conservation benefits for wild populations by doing so.’’
Buley rejects this, calling it ‘‘outdated’’ thinking. He says that lions will definitely be coming back to Auckland Zoo, although probably not for a year or so.
In recent decades, Auckland Zoo has turned its focus to boosting numbers of Aotearoa’s native birds, which makes a lot of sense.
I’d argue what makes less sense for a zoo with such a focus, is their stated aim to replace Kura and Amira with more lions. Buley says they can do both.
This week must have been the most distressing of times for the vets and keepers of Auckland Zoo, who obviously dearly loved Kura and Amira.
I’d rather remember them (and their summer evening roaring) with fondness, and leave captive lions in Auckland as a chapter past.
What a pity we are not yet willing to allow people to make that choice for themselves, even when death is imminent.
Auckland Zoo no longer has any lions after Kura and Amira were put to sleep this week.