Zoo Euthanasia: The Steve Graham legacy

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1994:

Zoo Euthanasia: The Steve Graham legacy
Detroit Zoo director saw surplus crunch coming

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 vilified 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 population 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 forgave 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 animals 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 complaint. Graham had introduced a farm exhibit. After each zoo season, cows and pigs were slaughtered to feed carnivorous animals. Zoogoers objected to the slaughter of animals who had been given names and been petted all summer by children. Graham responded with an edict that no animal at the zoo should be named, to discourage emotional 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 euthanized 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 laboratories, as well. “Even if an animal is placed in a behavioral, 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, pointlessly keeping geriatric beasts far beyond their natural lifespans in crowded conditions more unnatural than those of zoos.

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 managed two other zoos–and been president of the Antietam Humane Society, in  Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.

“We had a contract with a veterinarian to euthanize,” 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 newborn 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 director, 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 common hooved stock, whom most zoos quietly cull each winter 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 preceding 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 collection 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 overbreeding,” 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 replacements, 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 public 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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