Live-Feeding Prey to Captive Predators
In China’s Yancheng Safari Park, a live donkey is given to a pack of tigers, who attack for half an hour before finally killing the donkey. In Cuba, stray dogs are tossed by zookeepers into a lion’s habitat. This practice of giving living prey to captive animals is surprisingly common. Because of this practice, many animals live and die as prey to these predators, spending the last moments of their life in terror and torturous pain.
There are some fair reasons why someone would choose to live-feed a captive animal, rather than feed them dead animals. Some animals receive nutritional benefits from freshly killed meat; others enjoy hunting like they would in the wild.
But the animals that are hunted and eaten suffer intensely from live-feeding. These animals are born and bred to be consumed, often living in stressful or painful conditions. They are then released into the habitat of their predator, a strange and alien environment where they often can find no food, water, or shelter. Finally, they are hunted by a predator for seconds and even minutes, before being strangled, dismembered, poisoned, swallowed whole, or worse.
The practice of live-feeding clearly poses a question: given that prey suffer immensely during live-feeding, should it exist? This study examines that question by examining how cruel live-feeding truly is, recounting progress made in Britain to stop live-feeding, and recommending a precautionary principle for the future.
How cruel is live-feeding?
In this study, the authors examine the top ten YouTube videos of reptiles eating live mice, live rats, and live locust. In each video, the authors record how long it took for the prey to die after they have been seized by the predator.
On average, the authors find, it takes one full minute for mice and rats and eighteen seconds for locust to die after being seized by a predator.
The authors compare this to forms of animal euthanasia: cervical dislocation, for example, causes instant death in 80% of cases. The authors conclude that, compared to typical forms of euthanasia, being hunted and eaten is not a humane way for prey to die.
Progress so far
Much progress has been made towards eliminating live-feeding in the United Kingdom. Over a century ago, the London Zoo banned all live-feeding of animals. By the 1980s, live-feeding was not considered good practice. Even in the rare instances when live-feeding was absolutely necessary, suffering for prey was minimized as much as possible. It is now rare to see a big cat or a bird of prey on the hunt for live prey in a British zoo.
Evolving public views on animal rights drove much of this change, but government legislation has also brought great progress. The UK’s 2006 Animal Welfare Act legally required that prey be killed before feeding unless absolutely necessary for the health of the predator. This legislation has reduced live-feeding and built stronger social norms against cruelty to animals.
Yet most of this progress has only helped end live-feeding of vertebrates, like mammals and reptiles. Invertebrates still suffer live-feeding on a large scale, lacking public support and legal protections. This is because many people falsely believe that invertebrates, lacking brains and nervous systems, do not suffer pain. This is not broadly true. Invertebrates are an extremely diverse group, including everything from sea anemones, which lack any general nervous system, to beetles, crabs, and squid, which all have well-documented nervous systems and pain responses. The live-feeding of these developed creatures likely causes the same suffering as the live-feeding of mammals.
Live-feeding of animals is an inhumane practice that must be avoided whenever possible. It is only justified if a predator absolutely cannot be trained to eat anything but live prey. In these rare cases, the authors recommend that the live-feeding be done with care and sensitivity towards the prey, minimizing all suffering.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, it’s a job for animal advocates to end the practice of live-feeding. Raising awareness of animal suffering in live feeding, passing legislation that gives animals legal rights, and convincing zoos to abandon the practice are promising paths forward for advocates.