The Oregon Zoo Should Acknowledge All Its Deaths

Animals die.

This is a thing that every pet-owner knows, whether or not they’ve yet to go through the experience. Animals get sick, animals get hurt, and animals die. It’s a given that this is something zoos have to deal with, too.

Recently, it’s been bothering me that the Oregon Zoo never really discusses this basic fact of animal life until and unless a death involves one of their marquee animals — say: elephants, lions, or polar bears. The deaths of other animals under their care don’t seem to rate.

I’ve been going to the zoo once a week for awhile now; it’s a mental health trip for me. I spend most of my time split between the sea otters and the Trillium Creek Family Farm, where I watch the zoo’s goats.

The goats are sort of a low-rent, low-key exhibit, which to an extent makes sense. It’s a calmer part of the zoo, and the animals there are far more low-maintanence than those in other exhibits. At the same time, the zoo hasn’t even bothered to make signs for five of its eight goats, leaving visitors to wonder who are all the goats not named Bahari, Molly, or Kirsten, which makes less sense to me. (The website, for that matter, only acknowledges the presence of pygmy and pygora goats, leaving poor Nigerian dwarf goat Bahari in the virtual wilderness.)

More on point, though, is that the zoo recently lost two of its goats: the geriatric Stealer, one of the pygroa goats along with the surviving Molly and Kirsten, and the newborn Elena, one of the recently-acquired baby goats along with Ruth and Sonia.

The arrival of three two-week-old goats was touted heavily. Local media were all over it, as the zoo pushed the angle of the three having been named for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. “The Justice Goats,” they dubbed them.

Not long after, Elena was missing in action.

I asked a staffer on duty in early March where she was and got back a whispered, “Died.” She only added something along the lines of, “I guess they can be fragile.” Despite the intense promotion of the three kids’ arrival at the zoo, Elena’s passing went completely unremarked upon. I still don’t know anything more than that.

The zoo recently engaged in another round of heavy promotion of the (two remaining) goat kids with the launch of a Facebook show in which Ruth and Sonia walk the zoo and meet some of the other animals there. It’s understandably great, if filled with terrible puns, and I look forward to Ruth and Sonia meeting the zoo’s tall goats (you know them as giraffes).

There’s been no mention by the zoo of this originally having been a trio, and as far as I know none of the local press, which naturally picked up on “Tiny Goat Visits” and which also heavily promoted the kids’ arrival at the beginning of the year, seems to have asked, “So, hey, didn’t there used to be a third?”

So much for Elena.

That same day, I noticed Stealer wasn’t around, either.

I later learned from a keeper that he’d died in late February. Stealer, along with all the zoo’s pygora goats, are somewhere between 11- and 15-years-old, depending on which keeper you’re taking to. Either way, the point is that the zoo’s pygoras are old for goats. Stealer generally was something of a hobbly goat in what turned out to be his final months. Nothing untoward happened: Stealer got old, and Stealer died. Every week, I dread showing up to find that either Molly or Kirsten is gone.

I should note that while rummaging for photos of the zoo’s goats, I noticed that last year around this time there were even more goats: pygora goats Nellie and Gracie appear since to have gone away. There was at least one additional pygmy goat that I don’t even recognize, and wouldn’t have been able to identify at the time anyway since the pygmys didn’t get identifying signs. (I’ve since learned everyone else’s names by asking the keepers.)

The zoo’s goats have been passing unnoticed by anyone for some time now, it seems.

So much for Stealer.

To be clear: my criticisms here are of the zoo’s leadership and communication teams, not of the keepers at the Farm exhibit. I’ve had perfectly fine conversations with keepers and volunteers at the Farm, and no one there takes lightly the loss of any of their animals. That’s something, inevitably, that you would find true all over the zoo.

As seems frequently the case, the people on the ground doing the actual work are not the problem.

I’ve been ranting on Twitter for a couple months now about the deaths of zoo goats not getting any attention or acknowledgment. A version of these rants found their way into an email I sent the zoo last Monday.

This is a pet (pardon the term) peeve for a few months now, but I wanted to express some frustration that while the zoo touts its baby mountain goat to the press, you still haven’t told the story losing one the three baby true goats (Elena) or long-time goat resident Stealer.

It’s difficult for me to accept the idea that non-marquee zoo animals only get their stories told when it’s good news. Only marquee animals have the bad news stories told, too. It’s as if you feel that you can’t pretend problems don’t happen when it’s a marquee animal because they are, well, the marquee animals.

But all these stories matter if you’re going to run an animal organization.

Otherwise, I’ll be honest here about how I feel about it: the story you present to the paying public and the relevant local government is incomplete.

It’s a sort of lie by omission.

Animals die. That happens. This pretense that we only talk about it when it’s an elephant or a polar bear makes me sad.

Tell your animals’ stories. Tell their whole stories. If you can’t hack that because, I don’t know, maybe you fear how people will view the zoo or some nonsense, bring both leadership and communicators on board who aren’t afraid to tell the zoo’s whole story.

Stealer deserves better.

(I won’t even mention that the farm exhibit that can’t even bother to put up identifying photos/names of more than three of its eight goats.)

Their response, in an email this week from the zoo’s media contact, offered a full-throated defense of the zoo’s communications policy.

Thank you for reaching out on this — it is great to see someone with such a passion for animals!

With so many animals in our care — around 2,000 individuals representing more than 200 species — we are faced with quality-of-life decisions and animal deaths on a regular basis. Every animal’s life is important. Yet the unfortunate reality is that, to the general public, not every animal’s death is considered newsworthy (in the same way that most people’s pets — and for that matter most people themselves — do not receive obituaries when they die). From a practical communications standpoint, we needed a consistent method for determining whether a death is reported to the media and public, and so we take following elements of newsworthiness into account (in general, at least two must apply in order for us to report/publicize):

  • Prominence: Is the animal considered high-profile or iconic — i.e., easily identifiable and recognized as an individual by the general public?

  • Significance of species: Did the animal belong to a species currently listed as endangered, critically endangered or extinct in the wild by the IUCN or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

  • Significance to species: Did the animal’s life/history represent a notable contribution to its species (e.g., critically endangered Amur leopard Kia raised 9 cubs) or help advance science/research (e.g., polar bear Conrad’s participation in USGS studies could help us better understand effects of climate change).

  • Extremes and superlatives: Is this animal the first, last, biggest, smallest, tallest, oldest, etc. — e.g., the oldest member of the AZA population, or the last member of its species at the zoo (with no plans to acquire more)?

  • Circumstances: Is the cause of death exceptional and newsworthy in and of itself — e.g., struck by lightning, etc.?

    In most cases, an animal’s death will not be announced if:

    • The species has a median life expectancy of 3 years or less.

    • The species is abundant at the zoo (e.g., flamingos, fruit bats, silverspot butterflies, etc.).

    • The individual has been in the care of zoo staff for a short period of time.

    • The individual was in quarantine and/or never went on public view.

I understand that this answer may not satisfy you, but I hope it at least makes sense.

In the end, it makes sense to me only in this way: it’s a nice set of criteria to avoid having to deal with the difficult conversations about running a zoo.

I mean, I get it: some people hate zoos and inevitably will come for you given the slightest opportunity, but as I said to begin with: if you can’t hack that responsibility you should probably get out of the zoo game. If the mission is to educate the public about animals, you shouldn’t get to pick and choose what parts of an animal’s life you talk about and what parts you don’t.

But, also, I was never talking about publicity campaigns or press releases. No one needs a media strategy just to note the routine passing of animals.

It would take little to no effort, at an organization the size of the Oregon Zoo, to maintain life event notices for each exhibit on the zoo’s website. No one needs to spend a week drafting a release to be sent to the media. No one even needs to write more than a sentence or two. Reading the zoo’s reply to me, I was left thinking — despite that smartly-crafted opening sentence to me— that the communications team does not seem actually to share the same passion shown by the keepers themselves. Their reply, instead, seems to indicate that their policy is built to keep the emotion and the passion out of the decision altogether.

That indeed does “make sense” if, as keeps nagging at me, the real goal is to avoid provoking the emotional response of zoo opponents. It does not make sense if you truly care about the animals — and about the people who connect with them, be they keeper or visitor.

(And, let me just say, the remark that not all people get obituaries is a deeply weird distraction, and not at all analogous. Most people are not public figures and have no need of obituaries; the circle of people who care likely will be in the know. Zoo animals, by their very nature, are public figures. That’s literally their job: to be on display in order to educate the public. Why would this not extend to their deaths?)

People don’t care about the goats, the zoo in effect argues. People only care about the polar bears or the lions or the elephants. Except, you know, zoos go out of their way to make people care about all of their animals. But then they don’t offer those same people the common courtesy of letting them know when one is gone?

This isn’t about “publicizing” the death of an animal. It’s not about what animals are “newsworthy” — a truly soulless formulation and exactly the sort of mercenary reasoning opponents of zoos accuse them of operating under. It’s about simple acknowledgment. There’s a story behind every exhibit, and that story begins and ends with the animals in it.

Elena, Stealer, Nellie, Gracie, Latte, who knows who else: they all deserved better than the memory hole.

Referring posts