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April 24, 2014

Why do some animal parents eat their young?


Zookeepers at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. recently had to remove a sloth bear cub from its mother after she ate two other cubs she had just given birth too.

While it might seem counterintuitive for mothers to eat their offspring, infanticide in the wild is well-documented, said Doug Mock, professor of biology at the University of Oklahoma. Animal parents have limited resources to dedicate to their offspring and if the baby is sick or weak, carnivores have been known to consume babies or abandon them. Cannibalism gives the mother the calories she needs to raise her healthy babies or get pregnant again.

Not all infanticide is intentional. Motherhood has a learning curve, even for animals, and it doesn’t come naturally to all new animal parents the first time.

However, zookeepers sometimes can’t wait for mothers to figure it out, like when a new cheetah mother named Ally at the National Zoo began carrying her cubs in and out of the den more than normal.

“She was carrying them because she was nervous and agitated, and we do see a lot of very nervous behavior in first-time cheetah moms,” said Adrienne Crosier, who manages the cheetah breeding program at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “It was kind of a difficult situation because every time we tried to treat them it made Ally more agitated, which then made her want to carry them more, which then exasperated the injuries.”

Ally had bitten down on the scruffs of their necks too roughly, causing deep wounds which had become infected. The zoo estimated it had a few hours to save the cheetah cubs. On Christmas Day, keepers made the decision to take the cubs away from Ally.

One of the cubs died. The other three underwent three major surgeries each and hundreds of stitches over the following weeks, and were hand-reared by zookeepers afterwards.

“Every cheetah cub that is born in this population is critical for the future of the population. And we are at a point with our cheetah population in North America where if we don’t start producing a certain number of animals every year, we are going to not have cheetahs in the next 50 years in North America,” said Crosier.

Warm up questions

  1. The role of parents in different species can range from life-long attention and care to leaving babies completely on their own from the start. Can you think of some examples of parenting styles in animals?
  2. How does living in a zoo change the natural behavior of an animal?

Discussion questions

  1. Why might an animal parent eat their young?
  2. Was it a good idea for the zoo keepers to intervene? Explain your answer.
  3. How have zoos helped or hurt animal conservation?

Writing prompts

  1. “In the animal kingdom infanticide is not about pathology. It’s about ensuring that the strongest offspring survive.” Explain this quote and then attempt to defend why this behavior is or isn’t justified.
  2. There is strong historical and contemporary evidence of human infanticide around the world in both developed and developing countries. Today, girl babies make up majority of infanticides and the highest concentration occurs in India and China. What might be the social or financial motivations for killing daughters rather than sons? If you were to lead a campaign, within these countries, to try to reduce the number of female infanticides what would you say to try and convince people not to do it?
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