From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

DETROIT, Michigan––No one ever more
directly addressed the question of what to do with surplus
zoo animals than former Detroit Zoo executive director
Steve Graham––and no one has ever been more villified for
it. The target of frequent exposes, letter campaigns led by
the Fund for Animals, almost continuous picketing by as
many as 150 people at a time throughout his nine-year
tenure, and several staff revolts, Graham finally quit in
February 1991 following a head-on clash with the Detroit
City Council, whose auditor, Roger Short, warned him on
July 2, 1990, that euthanizing costly animals without
council permission amounted to unauthorized destruction of
city property. Graham performed several controversial
euthanasias anyway, and in August 1990 poured gasoline
on his own figurative funeral pyre by calling his mostly
Afro-American staff “monkeys”––in a city whose popula-
tion is 76% Afro-American, whose Afro-American mayor,
Coleman Young, had been his most visible defender.
Graham was no diplomat, although in his first
few years in Detroit he tried, authoring numerous long and
essentially friendly letters to his most ardent critics, trying
to explain his many controversial actions. Some never for-
gave Graham for taking plastic toys away from the primates
and elephants during exhibition hours, because he wanted
the public to see animals acting as they would in the wild.
(The toys were returned at night.)
Others blistered Graham for trying to increase the
zoo animals’ freedom of movement during the winter by
leaving them outdoors with the onset of cold weather, to
grow longer fur and become accustomed to the changing
conditions. The weather changed faster than some tropical
species could adapt. Frozen capybaras were found every
winter from 1986 through 1988. Other animals purportedly
killed or injured by cold weather included kangaroos,
swans, and pelicans. “We have found animals dead in a
frozen condition on mornings after a cold night,” Graham
admitted, “but an animal who dies on a cold night from
whatever cause will freeze by morning. When such ani-
mals are necropsied, we find that some other problem
caused the death…Other members of their groups did not
‘freeze to death’, so that should be an indication that there
was something physiologically wrong with those who did
die.” Eventually Graham cut the winter-related death toll
to near zero by changing breeding schedules so that tropical
animals didn’t give birth during the winter months.
The April 1990 drowning of a chimpanzee in a
protective moat brought more outrage. Graham had used
the last 10 of a once large herd of wild but common African
sheep called aoudads in a terminal nutrition study, fed the
remains to the zoo’s carnivores, and added their climbing
rock to a new naturalistic chimp area. He kept the moat,
over objections from the International Primate Protection
League, because of concern for liability if a chimp ever
escaped. The use of the aoudads brought up another com-
plaint. Graham had introduced a farm exhibit. After each
zoo season, cows and pigs were slaughtered to feed carniv-
orous animals. Zoogoers objected to the slaughter of ani-
mals who had been given names and been petted all sum-
mer by children. Graham responded with an edict that no
animal at the zoo should be named, to discourage emotion-
al identification with animals by either public or staff.
Introduced culling by euthanasia
Graham caught the most flak, however, for
insisting that surplus animals should be humanely eutha-
nized if they could not be sent to other zoos accredited by
the American Association of Zoological Parks and
Aquariums. From day one, he bucked prevailing practice
by refusing to sell animals to dealers, roadside zoos, and
canned hunts, which he called “shooting galleries––out of
the question for reputable zoos.” In 1982 Graham sold 30
crab-eating macaques to biomedical researchers at
Washington University in St. Louis, and he advertised five
Japanese macaques in a research newsletter in 1987, but he
eventually became critical of the use of zoo animals in labo-
ratories, as well. “Even if an animal is placed in a behav-
ioral, non-invasive research study,” Graham wrote in
1991, “most research projects are measured in months or at
most a few years. What then happens to an animal such as
a primate, who can live up to 50 years?” And sanctuaries,
Graham barked, are just no-kill shelters for wildlife, point-
lessly keeping geriatric beasts far beyond their natural lifes-
pans in crowded conditions more unnatural than those of
Revamping the Detroit Zoo surplus animal policy
topped Graham’s job description when he was hired in
1982. His predecessor, Gunther Voss, quit after being
accused of taking kickbacks from animal dealers who
allegedly used the zoo as a wildlife warehouse. Graham
brought to Detroit a background uniquely combining zoo
experience with humane work. He had previously man-
aged two other zoos––and been president of the Antietam
Humane Society, in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.
“We had a contract with a veterinarian to eutha-
nize,” Graham told Ann Sweeney of the Detroit News. “I
went over there one day and found a 10-year-old kid killing
the puppies and kittens. I fired the vet, and for three
months, I did it myself, humanely.”
Graham learned to euthanize mothers with new-
born litters by lethally injecting the mother first, then
injecting each of the babies as they still clung comfortably
to their mother’s warm body. As a humane society direc-
tor, Graham was an outspoken advocate of the needle
instead of the gas chambers and decompression chambers
that were then the norm for euthanasia. Nearly 20 years
later, the crusty Graham still came close to tears when
recounting his euthanasia experience. But he came away
from it believing humane euthanasia could be a viable and
essential option for reducing zoo surplus.
Graham’s first public act at the Detroit Zoo was to
euthanize three popular but aging Siberian tigers whose
genetic history was too uncertain to permit their use as
breeding stock. A zoo patron unsuccessfully sued him over
that action. When Graham euthanized two healthy Siberian
tigers in 1988 and 1989, also because they were unsuitable
for breeding, the USDA reviewed the Detroit Zoo’s permit
to keep endangered species. Meanwhile, Graham thinned
the aoudad collection, numbering 76 when he arrived,
who so densely populated their quarters that newborns
were repeatedly trampled to death. He euthanized other
animals as well: 282 in all during his tenure, 29% of all
the animals who were removed from the collection for any
reason. Among the euthanized animals, 165 were com-
mon hooved stock, whom most zoos quietly cull each win-
ter to feed carnivores. Most of the rest were put down due
to old age and/or poor health, but after the first tiger
euthanasias, Graham was tagged needle-happy.
Cut zoo death rate in half
Hardly anyone ever noticed that in the nine years
Graham ran the Detroit Zoo, only 2,032 animals died of
any cause, compared with 4,038 deaths during the preced-
ing decade––even as the zoo population rose from 1,432
animals at Graham’s arrival to 2,700 at his departure. He
cut annual mammal mortality from 34% to 14%, cut bird
mortality from 15% to 3%, and cut reptile and amphibian
mortality from 40% to 1%. The difference came largely
because Graham culled the oldest animals, keeping as
young and vigorous a collection as possible.
This in turn led to the accusation, voiced by
Doris Dixon of the Fund, that, “Graham wants mommy,
daddy, baby for his exhibits,” and therefore bred animals
needlessly. Instead of denying it, Graham rambled to
reporters about the “considerable educational experience”
for zoogoers in seeing “the mother-infant bond.” He rarely
sterilized Detroit Zoo animals, instead relying upon sexual
segregation for birth control, because he wanted the collec-
tion to be a repository of genetic diversity.
As far back as 1976, Graham warned fellow
zookeepers that, “Surplus animals are the greatest problem
facing zoos today.” While Margaret Shivener of Defenders
of Animal Rights charged Graham with “irresponsible over-
breeding,” Graham and Robert Wagner, then executive
director of the New York Zoological Society, pushed
AAZPA to adopt policies to discourage breeding except to
preserve endangered species, provide collection replace-
ments, and feed carnivores their natural diets.
In 1987 Graham and Wagner were instrumental in
getting AAZPA to adopt a code of ethics pertaining to the
disposition of surplus animals that is now the primary
instrument of gradually cutting off the supply of zoo-born
wildlife to roadside zoos, canned hunts, and auctions.
Graham was villified for that, as well, losing several close
elections when he ran for AAZPA office and incurring pub-
lic opposition from the San Diego Zoological Society and
former Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna, whose popular
anti-euthanasia policies were achieved by releasing animals
to facilities Graham considered substandard.
“It hurts all of us when he talks about euthanizing
animals,” Hanna complained. “He’s saying euthanasia is
the way to go. How can he say that when we are bending
over backward in most zoos to explain to people that we
want their public money to preserve endangered species?”
It was a familiar argument to Graham, who had
already dealt with the unhappy paradox of euthanasia when
obliged to kill dogs and cats at the Antietam Humane
Society. Graham never liked euthanasia. He just liked the
alternatives less.
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