Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


Baby hippopotamus Farasi stirs up controversy at Switzerland's Basel Zoo 

March 21, 2009 Lindsay Barnett, LATimes 

A hippopotamus calf named Farasi has received a great deal of attention since his birth in November at Switzerland's Basel Zoo.  The baby is so popular that he was named "Swiss of the Year" for 2008 (besting Swiss tennis star Roger Federer for the honor).

But not all the publicity surrounding the zoo's star attraction was positive.  Swiss media widely reported that Farasi (whose name means "horse" in Swahili) was one hippo too many at the Basel Zoo (hippos are famously territorial, and a herd can contain only one adult male).  Reports spread that the baby would likely be killed, his body fed to the zoo's large carnivores.  The Wall Street Journal explains:

American zoos believe in birth control or sexual abstinence for their animal populations. But Europe's 4,000 zoos take a more continental approach to reproductive rights: Animals should be free to do what comes naturally. The result is a surplus of offspring. And if zookeepers can't find a home for the babies, zoos typically kill them. Some carcasses are used for research. Meatier cuts -- and Farasi surely qualifies -- are thrown to the lions.

21-year-old Andrea Dindo of Zurich cried when she read about Farasi; then she started a Save Farasi Facebook group, members of which wrote to zoos across Europe asking them to take the hippo.  Time and again they were told that there was no room.  From the Wall Street Journal:

"The Swiss have paid more attention to Farasi than to the war in Gaza," says Jocelyn Rochat, the reporter who covered the story for Le Matin, a French-language daily. The newspaper's readers are the ones who voted Farasi "Swiss of the Year."

Animals have a special place in Swiss hearts. Last September, Switzerland passed an animal bill of rights that says that pet guinea pigs, for instance, should be kept in pairs to avoid loneliness. Swiss have to mercifully knock out their goldfish before flushing them down the toilet. A Swiss circus offered to take Farasi, but the zoo declined; a spokesperson said he needed "a properly accredited zoo where he can live in a social unit." 

"People want zoos to be this sacred place where nothing bad ever happens," Robert Zingg, chief curator of the Zurich Zoo, told the Journal. "But it's not like that."  He explained that his own zoo sometimes euthanizes chimpanzees and recently put down a lion cub when it was rejected by its mother. 

The uproar reached a fever pitch.  But, the Associated Press reports, the Basel Zoo now says Farasi will -- most likely -- not end up as a lion's lunch: Basel Zoo said the hippo, Farasi will stay at the zoo until a place is found for him elsewhere. "There are rare cases in which we have to kill an animal" and feed it to carnivores in the zoo, said spokeswoman Tanja Dietrich. But this was unlikely to be an option in Farasi's case, she said.

The zoo previously found a new home for an older sister of Farasi's. 

FYI: Captive Animal Protection Society

This cavalier method of breeding has lead to a surplus of 7,500 zoo animals at point in a year according to the Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS). And it seems to be in direct conflict with the policies set-up by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), where the Basel Zoo is a member.

In 1988 zoos all across Europe joined forces to establish a "multinational" zoo organization. Their mission statement says they were formed to, "Promote cooperation for furthering regional collection planning and wildlife conservation, particularly through internationally coordinated breeding programs" Their guidelines further state, "Together with the Species Committee, recommendations are made each year on which animals should breed or not breed, which individual animals should go from one zoo to another, and so on."

If this is the case, what happened in Switzerland? Did the Basel Zoo get the O.K. from EAZA to breed the two hippos? It certainly wasn't an accident because Helvetia, who is Farasi's mother, has given birth to six other hippos with the same mate.

The CAPS organization says that zoos breed many animals just to draw attention and bring in more visitors. After all, an adorable new baby sells a lot of tickets. And even worse they accuse zoos of breeding so they can sell the animals for a profit to research labs or animal dealers.

Whatever are the real motives behind haphazard breeding it should be stopped; innocent animals are dying because of it. Birth control methods are available and ought to be used. Let's get zoos back to their original objective of places that protect wild animals and inspire humans to appreciate and respect nature? Let's make zoos the safe haven they supposed to be.

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