A zoo in northeastern Japan’s Iwate Prefecture drew a strong response from the public – mostly critics – after making the rare decision in March to announce that it had euthanized 15 rabbits last December who were struggling to recover from a contagious disease.
Zoomo, in the town of Morioka, introduced a “mercy killing” policy last spring to alleviate the suffering of sick animals, its director Tsunenori Tsujimoto going public and urging the public to think about both life and the death of the animals they come to visit.
Photo shows Tsunenori Tsujimoto, Director of Zoomo Zoo, speaking in front of rabbit cages on animal euthanasia in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, April 14, 2021 (Kyodo)
According to the zoo, several rabbits of a domestic species started showing symptoms of pasteurellosis, a chronic nasal inflammation that causes sneezing and nose drops, around May 2019. Although the disease does not cause death, it does. very contagious, which makes it difficult to contain once it has spread through a population.
The zoo made various attempts to treat and control the disease, including administering antibiotics and establishing a quarantine, but continued to see outbreaks over the next few months. Ultimately, all 15 rabbits ended up sick after the fourth outbreak last November.
Zoomo has 350 animals of around 70 species, including black bears and Japanese pumas. There were concerns that the disease could spread to other animals, and even to visitors’ pet rabbits, as humans can be carriers.
The zoo considered isolating the rabbits individually, but determined there was not enough space to keep them sanitary and healthy.
After multiple conversations between zoo staff, it was determined that the rabbits met the criteria for euthanasia as they were unlikely to make a full recovery even with treatment and their quality of life would remain poor. The rabbits would be distressed and in pain as their condition progressed.
In December, the 15 rabbits, including those who were not seriously ill, were anesthetized and then medically euthanized.
The zoo’s online announcement on March 23 about the action drew some 200 public comments in a week via emails, tweets and calls.
Most objected to the move, wondering how much the zoo valued the lives of animals. Others showed more understanding, acknowledging how difficult the decision was.
In the face of public backlash, the zoo continued to seek understanding, further describing its decision in a statement posted on its website. He also responded individually to criticism from angry callers.
Animal euthanasia remains a controversial issue in Japan. The Japanese public is more critical of animal euthanasia than in Europe, according to the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Although other pet stores practice euthanasia, Zoomo has been open about the practice, making announcements not only on joyous occasions such as animal births, but also when animals die, the zoo said.
âThe ultimate mission and responsibility of those who care for animals is to make people think about the later stages of an animal’s life,â Tsujimoto said.
The zoo took the new seamless approach after discussions among staff as they prepared to renovate the facility in time for a spring 2023 relaunch.
A zoo in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, in northern Japan, agrees with Zoomo’s open philosophy.
The Asahikawa Zoo has published mourning announcements since 2004 for every animal death, including those that have been euthanized. He said he didn’t want to show just what visitors want to see but hopefully get them to think about animal life as a whole.
Commenting on the reviews Zoomo received, Asahikawa Zoo Director Gen Bando said people should not only consider the pain caused by the disease, but also the stress caused by the treatment.
Euthanasia may be appropriate when considering the degree of negative effects on the animals’ quality of life, he said.
âZoos themselves are created by humans, and as such, it’s important that everyone thinks seriously about how animals reach the end of their lives,â Bando said.