Eugenics in the monkey house
CHIBA, Japan––The Takagoyama Nature Zoo in Chiba, capital of Chiba prefecture, Japan “has culled 57 native snow monkeys by lethal injection after finding that they carried genes of an ‘invasive alien species,’” zoo officials admitted to Agence France Press, BBC News, Japan Times and other media on February 21, 2017.
Zoo personnel said the snow monkeys, about a third of the total Takagoyama Nature Zoo population, were killed after DNA testing showed that the monkeys’ ancestors had somehow mated with closely related but officially non-native rhesus macaques, abundant in mountainous regions of mainland Asia from Afghanistan to southeastern China.
How and when the alleged hybridization occurred is officially unknown. According to the Takagoyama Nature Zoo web site, the entire zoo monkey population was lured gradually into captivity by feeding a nearby wild troupe, beginning in 1957.
“Snow monkey-rhesus macaque crossbreeds were designated for culling when Japan’s environment law was revised in 2013,” reported Japan Times, quoting but not naming “an official with the Chiba Prefectural Government” who alleged “They have to be killed to protect the indigenous environment.” Yet the snow monkeys could have had contact with the indigenous environment only if they had been released from the zoo, or escaped and were not recaptured.
“Japan’s Environment Ministry said exceptions can be made, such as cases in which zoos apply for permission to keep them,” Japan Times added, citing another anonymous official who acknowledged that “There are many zoos in the country which rear animals who became classified as invasive species after the law was created.”
The Takagoyama Nature Zoo management “held a memorial service for the snow monkeys’ souls at a nearby Buddhist temple,” Japan Times said.
Notoriously xenophobic, Japan was grudgingly ushered into international commerce by U.S. gunboat fleet commander Matthew C. Perry in 1853-1954 after 220 years of self-imposed isolation. Japan now imports more goods than it exports, but remains culturally unwelcoming toward immigration, resistant toward world opinion on topics including whaling and fisheries conservation, and could be considered among the most bioxenophobic of nations, meaning hostile toward “non-native species,” except that Australia, New Zealand, European Union official policy, and U.S. federal policy take comparable positions.
42 species on hit list
The Japan Environment Ministry in 2005 designated 42 species of alleged foreign origin for extirpation. The policy had mixed outcomes for animal welfare, since it terminated farming mink, fox, raccoon, and several other species for their fur.
A 2006 government survey found that more than 90% of the Japanese population endorsed the policy of attempting to eradicate non-native species.
“A total of 17.4% of respondents said all non-indigenous species should be wiped out,” reported the leading national newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, “while 73.3% felt that animals [designated non-native] should be exterminated if they are harmful to native species.”
The emperor’s fish story
Emperor Akihito, now 83, gave the campaign to purge non-native species a push on November 11, 2007 by apologizing to Japan for introducing bluegill sunfish to the nation in 1960.
“I brought bluegill back from the United States nearly 50 years ago and donated them to a research institute of the Fisheries Agency,” Akihito told media. “There were great expectations of raising them for food in those days,” Akihito said, adding “My heart aches to see it has turned out like this.”
Feral bluegill, now blamed for declines in overfished native fish species, were discovered in Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, as early as 1965.
Boosting sport hunting
As in the U.S., European Union, Australia, and New Zealand, Japanese government agencies have seized upon the purported need to kill non-native species to promote sport hunting.
Hunting license sales in Japan “fell from about 530,000 in fiscal 1970 to about 190,000 in fiscal 2010,” according to Yomiuri Shimbun, citing official data, while “The average age of permit holders has also jumped, with more than 60% aged 60 or older.”
British zoo welcomes “hybrid” chimps
While the Takagoyama Nature Zoo culled the 57 allegedly hybridized snow monkeys, the Wingham Wildlife Park in England in October 2016 welcomed a troop of seven ‘hybrid’ chimpanzees who had been retired from experimental use at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in 2015, after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service classified all chimps, both captive and wild, as members of an endangered species. Previously only wild chimps were considered endangered.
Transferring the seven chimps beyond the authority of U.S. law was unsuccessfully opposed in court for more than two years by a variety of animal welfare advocates and species conservationists, including the European Association of Zoos and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which reportedly objected that “Europe already has too many hybridized chimpanzees.”
But the transfer was endorsed by chimp researcher and advocate Jane Goodall.
The prolonged fight over the fate of the former Yerkes chimps reprised a conflict smoldering within the international zoo community for more than 25 years over what to do with “hybrid orangutans,” meaning that they have ancestors among the wild populations of both Borneo and Sumatra.
Long geographically separated, Bornean and Sumatran orangutans nonetheless easily mate and successfully breed. This is usually regarded as the most basic, fundamental aspect of species definition: no matter how much the individuals of a species may superficially differ, for example the differences evident among dogs and among humans, if they breed readily and produce viable offspring, they are considered members of just one species.
Molecular genetics research done in the early 1990s, however, suggested that “Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are so genetically distinct they may even qualify as separate species, more genetically different from one another than lions are from tigers, or chimpanzees from bonobos,” summarized New York Times science writer Natalie Angier in 1995.
As result of the molecular genetics studies, about 80 “zoo-bred crosses between two subspecies of orangutans” were deemed “cocktail orangutans, or simply mutts,” Angier wrote, “and they are history.”
The Indonesian government and the American Zoo Association ordered that Sumatran and Bornean orangutans should never again be allowed to breed.
“Ape version of racism”
“Yet while most primatologists agree this decision is best for the future of orangutans,” Angier continued, “some scientists have lately begun to attack the policy as an ape version of racism. They say that the desire to preserve the purity of the two orangutan subspecies reflects a sentimental view of nature in which humans are ever in search of the pristine, the true, the Edenic.
“The critics worry that hybrids sometimes are treated as second-class apes,” Angier said, “and they point out that on occasion the animals have been removed from the orangutan displays, as though their presence there would compromise the educational mission of zoos to emphasize conservation and species integrity. They criticize the molecular data as incomplete and misleading, and at least one geneticist has said his new analysis showed the two orangutan populations in fact are closer genetically than other researchers had concluded.”
Humans & other apes
Observed Angier, “Discussion about animal breeding and genetics gets particularly heated whenever primates are involved. Some biologists feel such an affinity toward the great apes that they argue that humans and the other apes should be reclassified together under a single genus, Homo, to emphasize the kinship people share with chimpanzees, gorillas and, more distantly, orangutans.
“In the eyes of some primatologists,” Angier concluded, “the question of whether humans should work to keep the orangutan lines pure is hubristic, nearly as offensive as the idea of eugenics.”
Many “hybrid” orangutans are now deceased, but many others remain in inferior zoo accommodations to those accorded to the “pure” Bornean and Sumatran captive populations.
None of the “hybrid” orangutans in the U.S. when Angier wrote are known to have been killed for being “impure,” but such may have been the fate of some abroad.
Only one zoo director called to account
Many other zoo animals have been culled for allegedly being hybrids, with scant public awareness, and only one instance of a zoo director being called to account for ordering animals’ deaths for essentially eugenic reasons.
That case occurred in Germany, where legislation pertaining to eugenics, euthanasia, and related issues has been particularly strong since the end of the Nazi era (1930-1945).
There, Magdeburg Zoo director Kai Parret and three members of the zoo staff were on June 17, 2010 convicted of cruelty for killing three tiger cubs at birth in May 2008 because their father was found to be a hybrid of the Siberian and Sumatran tiger subspecies. A fine of 8,100 euros was suspended on condition that the offense not be repeated.
The charges were brought at request of the German pro-animal organizations Animal Public and People for Animal Rights/Germany.
Zoo associations defend the killing
The Magdeburg Zoo bought the tigers’ parents with the intention of breeding them, believing them both to be purebred Siberian, but found Sumatran genes in the father in February 2008, after the mother was already in advanced pregnancy.
Rising in defense of Parret and staff, the World Zoo Association issued a statement that it “regards the humane euthanasia of the tiger cubs as being an entirely reasonable and scientifically supportable action.”
Hiding behind conservation pretext
Agreed the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria, “EAZA and the Tiger EEP (inter-zoo breeding program) are unable to understand how, when it is judged acceptable to cull wild animals on grounds of hybridization or overpopulation and farm animals on grounds of economic viability, it can be judged unacceptable to do the same with zoo animals in order to further the conservation of endangered species.”
But whether zoological breeding, undertaken mainly to maintain zoo collections, in any way actually “furthers the conservation of endangered species” is in itself open to question.
Only a handful of species have ever been reintroduced to the wild successfully from zoo-bred stock, and only one of those was a primate: the golden lion tamarin, reintroduced to a portion of coastal Brazil in 1983, with a short-term mortality rate of more than 50% among the first specimens returned to the wild.