Many zoos participate in responsible breeding programs that promote genetic diversity; the key to a species’ long term survival. Copenhagen Zoo is part of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) which collaborates for breeding and has rules in place about animal welfare. An 18-month-old giraffe named Marius at the Copenhagen Zoo did not have the genetic profile that would have made him a useful breeder, which would end up getting him a lot of attention. In order to protect against inbreeding depression and take up resources that could be spent on a more genetically desirable animal, Marius was put down and then fed to other carnivores at the zoo.
Prior to Marius getting euthanized on Sunday, many protestors surrounded Copenhagen Zoo and had even collected a petition with 27,000 signatures to keep the giraffe alive and rehouse him in a different facility. Unfortunately, any other zoo that is a member of EAZA would have the same problem of not being able to breed him and would need to conserve resources. While there are places that house only male giraffes, there was not a vacancy at this time. If Marius had been transferred to a different facility outside of EAZA, zookeepers at Copenhagen Zoo could not guarantee that he wouldn’t ultimately end up in a circus or a private owner who may or may not have cared for him properly.
Others had raised the question of giving Marius contraceptives in order to keep him from breeding. After all, he did not suffer from a genetic illness, he just had genes that were too common and would not benefit subsequent generations. The Copenhagen Zoo allows their animals to breed naturally on their own time, not when forced by zookeepers. Contraceptives not only go against that belief, but also posed the risk of harming Marius, as sterilizing him would have involved sedation, which can be very dangerous for a giraffe. There are injectable contraceptives, but those only work on females and zoo officials expressed concerns about possible organ damage.
In an effort to educate the public on the reasoning behind their decision, a statement was released on the Copenhagen Zoo’s website in both English and Danish to address the most common concerns. Though they were more than willing to acknowledge the protests, the zoo felt confident in their reasoning and there was never a plan to keep the giraffe alive. Zoo officials were upfront with their plans to use a bolt gun (like what is used on cattle) to euthanize the giraffe. They decided on this technique as opposed to lethal injection so that the meat could still be used to feed the zoos lions.
Before Marius was fed to the carnivores, there was a public dissection to increase knowledge about the animal’s anatomy. While there were children in attendance, they had been brought there by their parents in order to educate them on the natural world. The area where the dissection occurred was not out in the open and nobody was forced to watch. The zoo routinely performs public autopsies when an animal dies, as an educational tool.
Despite international outrage manifesting in petitions, death threats against zookeepers, and calling for the zoo’s closure, officials at the Copenhagen Zoo, EAZA, and other reputable zoo facilities have said it was the right thing to do. Bengt Holst, the chief of the Copenhagen Zoo, went on television to defend the zoo’s decision in the aftermath, explaining why they believe it was the best course of action.
You can view the interview here: