For many people going to the zoo was a very common and fun childhood experience, but then we grow older and some people might wonder, what happens to the animals once they die?
After administering a necropsy, zoos typically use either a crematorium or a rendering plant to dispose of their deceased animals. After cremation, sometimes the zoo will bury the remains in a place that is not disclosed to the public in order to keep them safe.
Proper and common means of disposal are highly dependent on the country and its laws. There are also several other factors that determine how the animal’s remains are destroyed by a zoo. Keep reading to learn more about them.
When it comes down to it, how these animals are disposed of depends on the circumstance and laws in the area. The main determinant of what the zoo does with these animals is how they died, which is determined by a veterinarian’s autopsy, which is called a necropsy.
Ultimately, the procedures and means of disposal depend on the country, zoo, local laws, the species of animal, and the cause of death.
Disposal depends on the species of the animal because for some animals like elephants it is usual that they are a part of a conservation program. These programs have created their own protocols to follow in instances like death. Some of these protocols include specific requirements for the necropsy. (Source)
The majority of deceased zoo animals end up going to ‘rendering plants’ after their autopsy. Rendering plants are facilities where dead animals are recycled into products like fish oil pills, tallow, grease, human food, high protein meats, biodiesel, or bone meal. (Source)
Donation for Museums
Some animals will be given to museums, universities, or taxidermists. Donating animals to museums is not uncommon in Australia, and many of their natural history museums’ animals are previous zoo animals. In the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, there are several taxidermied animals that were residing in the Los Angeles Zoo when they died.
Museums, laboratories, or universities that want to study an animal or a part of it will typically work out something formal with the zoo well before the animal’s death so that it is guaranteed that they will receive it upon the animal’s death.
This way they avoid last-minute hassles that could result in improper storage and transportation of body parts. Scientists who want to study a part will typically ask the zoo for that specific part well before the animal is even sick, injured, or dead.
Donation for Education
Sometimes, the zoo’s education department will keep body parts to study and use to educate people. This is actually pretty common. When you go to a zoo and the zoo keepers give a presentation on animals and show animal parts, they are real animal parts that they most likely requested to preserve and keep. I have personally seen this.
As a kid, I remember a class field trip and there was a zookeeper giving us a presentation where she showed us the talons of a bird, a tortoiseshell, and part of an armadillo’s ‘armor’. Of course, being young I didn’t even think that they might be real or that they might have been obtained from zoo animals that had died.
Fed to Carnivores
Others can be fed to carnivores if their cause of death was from serious injury or they were intentionally culled. Like a house pet, sometimes zoo animals need to be put down when there is nothing more that the zoo can do to help their health or quality of life.
Feeding dead animals to carnivores is not an uncommon practice in places like Europe, but it is not something that we do in America due to the public backlash it would receive. Other places like Birmingham have their own on-site cemetery for their animals.
In most countries, it is illegal to just bury an animal that is very large like zoo animals. This is due to many reasons, including fear of animal poachers/traffickers, hygiene requirements, and various concerns because zoos are highly trafficked by people.
Despite this, some zoos do bury their iconic animals on site. One of the zoos that do this is the San Diego Zoo, which buried a very popular elephant named Carol. When she died, she was cremated and then buried in an unmarked grave in an area of the park that was off-limits to the public.
Although this seems kind of sad that her grave is both unmarked and can’t be seen or accessed, part of the reason is that the facility doesn’t want anyone in the public to mess with the animals’ remains. The first elephant at the Baltimore Zoo was also buried in a Maryland grave when she passed away in 1941.
To battle this dilemma, zoos that do end up burying their deceased animals go through several measures to ensure that nobody can mess with or steal the remains. This process includes cremating them and burying them somewhere not accessible and unmarked.
This procedure is in place because animal parts like rhino horns or elephant tusks are highly valuable and sought after by poachers and traffickers who will steal and sell them. So, although it seems sad, the procedures are in place because they respect the animals and want to protect them from people who want to upset their resting place to misuse them. (Source)
As you can imagine, it is not easy to transport an elephant, especially a dead one. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service from the USDA released a pdf discussing all the laws and requirements for transporting live animals for everything from marine mammals to monkeys to guinea pigs, but it does not discuss the laws for transporting dead animals of any kind.
From other sources, it was found that the most common way to transport large and exotic dead animals was through machines like a crane or other large construction vehicles. From my research, I gathered that heavy-duty machinery is used because construction vehicles are some of the only vehicles that can handle the weight and size of animals like elephants, giraffes, hippos, or rhinos.