CZAAWE Resource Article

Death at the Zoo: The Media, Science, and Reality
Publication Type 
Journal Article
Year of publication 
Zoo Biology
Media characterizations of zoo and aquarium animal deaths were randomly monitored on the internet for a 20-month period (September 2003–May 2005). Based on 148 samples collected, it was possible to classify articles into one of four categories, which were operationally defined: 1) dispassionate observers; 2) accusers; 3) sympathizers; and 4) balancers. In addition, with the notable exception of seven cases, all of the articles examined focused on large, charismatic mammals, such as gorillas, dolphins, lions, and elephants. Although a majority of the articles examined (70.4%) were either dispassionate and objective or sympathetic, nearly a third (29.6%) were either accusatory or attempted to balance the accusatory statements of animal rights activists with sympathetic statements from zoo professionals. Recommendations are offered for how zoos should deal with the increasing media and public interest in zoo animal deaths, including: 1) a greater commitment to studying the reasons for mortality in a wide variety of species; and 2) an increased investment in record keeping and analysis, which should allow zoos to calculate average life spans in animal populations and to monitor and assess the risk of certain lethal diseases on a real-time basis. Comparisons are drawn between zoo veterinary practices and human medicine, which are both inexact sciences. Suggestions are made for how the public and key decision-makers can distinguish between media reports on zoo animal deaths that are legitimate cause for concern vs. those that are sensationalist and meant to generate controversy and sell papers. A greater focus on the science of zoo animal death is necessary for accredited zoos to maintain the public's confidence in their animal care practices.