• Kyodo

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A zoo in Iwate Prefecture has aroused a strong response from the public — mostly criticism — after taking the rare step of announcing in March that it had euthanized 15 rabbits last December that had difficulty recovering from a contagious disease.

Zoomo in the city of Morioka introduced a “mercy killing” policy last spring to relieve the suffering of diseased animals, with its director Tsunenori Tsujimoto going public about it and urging people to reflect on both the life and death of the animals that they come to visit.

According to the zoo, several rabbits of a domestic species first started showing symptoms of Pasteurellosis, a chronic nasal inflammation that causes sneezing and nose dripping, around May 2019. While the illness does not cause death, it is highly contagious, making it difficult to contain once it has spread in a population.

The zoo made various attempts to treat and control the disease, including administering antibiotics and setting up a quarantine but kept seeing outbreaks over the next several months. Ultimately, all 15 rabbits ended up sick after the fourth outbreak last November.

Zoomo has 350 animals of around 70 species, including Japanese black bears and pumas. There was concern that the disease could spread to other animals, and even to visitors’ pet rabbits since humans can be carriers.

The zoo considered isolating rabbits individually but determined that there was not enough space to keep them in sanitary and healthy conditions.

After multiple conversations among zoo staff, it was determined the rabbits met the criteria for euthanasia since they were unlikely to fully recover 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 ones that were not seriously ill, were anesthetized, then medically euthanized.

The zoo’s online announcement on March 23 about the action drew some 200 comments from the public in a week via emails, tweets and calls.

Most railed against the decision, questioning how much the zoo valued the animals’ lives. Others showed more understanding, recognizing how difficult the decision was.

Faced with the public backlash, the zoo continued to ask for understanding by describing in greater detail its decision in an official statement posted on its website. It also responded individually to criticism from irate callers.

Animal euthanasia remains a contentious issue in Japan. The Japanese public is more critical of animal euthanasia than people in Europe are, according to the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Although other animal facilities perform euthanasia, Zoomo has been open about the practice, making announcements not only about joyful occasions such as animal births but also when the animals pass away, the zoo said.

“The ultimate mission and responsibility of those caring for animals is to have people think about the last stages of an animal’s life,” said Tsujimoto.

The zoo took the new transparent approach after discussions among staff as they prepared for remodeling the facility in time for a relaunch in the spring of 2023.

One zoo in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, agreed with Zoomo’s open philosophy.

The Asahikawa Zoo has put up mourning announcements since 2004 for every animal death, including those that were euthanized. It said it does not want to show only what visitors want to see but hopefully have them think about animals’ lives as a whole.

Commenting on the criticism Zoomo received, Asahikawa Zoo’s director, Gen Bando, said people should not only consider the pain caused by disease but also the stress caused by treatment.

Euthanasia can be appropriate when considering the degree of negative effects on animals’ quality of life, he said.

“Zoos themselves are created by people and, as such, it is important for everyone to think seriously about how animals meet the end of their lives,” Bando said.

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