Last Sunday, February 9th, Copenhagen Zoo decided to euthanize one of their giraffes, Marius. The male giraffe calf was killed with a shot in the head, and fed to the carnivores in the zoo. It’s a dark, sad story, and it obviously caused a strong reaction in the public.
But what happened? Why did young Marius have to die? And did they really have to make a show out of it?
Well, let’s start from the beginning. Copenhagen Zoo belongs to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), which regulates the best zoos in Europe. For a zoo to be accepted into EAZA, some strict guidelines need to be followed. One of the main points of keeping animals in zoos is to ensure the conservation of certain species through the activation of breeding programmes, aimed at maintaining healthy, viable populations. Since many zoos don’t have large enough populations to ensure viability, EAZA coordinates the individual animals and move them around for breeding purposes.
That’s a lot of scientific talk. Let’s make an example – let’s say we have a family of lions in a zoo in London, and a new female cub is born. When she reaches maturity, the young lady would have to be moved to another zoo, let’s say in Paris, so that she doesn’t breed with her own father – compromising the population’s health. In Paris she would find a new mate, and their cubs would be nice and healthy. But what happens when there is no other group available – that is, when the newborn is related to all other family groups in other zoos?
Well, that’s when problems start, and that’s what happened with Marius. His genes were too represented in the global captive giraffe population – he was basically related to everyone – and keeping him would eventually cause inbreeding. Giraffes cannot be castrated, or given contraceptives – that compromises their health and well-being, and it’s generally considered bad animal keeping. This is why Copenhagen Zoo decided to put Marius to sleep.
I am sure this hasn’t been an easy choice, especially since several other zoos offered to take care of Marius. This is the part that is making everybody angry. The point is that, as sad as it may be, the place that Marius would have taken in another zoo should be saved for a giraffe whose genes are required by the breeding programme. It sounds cold and scientific, but unfortunately, it seems like
this was the best way to proceed to ensure the best possible animal keeping.
Now, what about making the event public? Marius has been dissected in front of children and their parents – which could be considered slightly in bad taste. Or even a publicity stunt. A spokesperson of the zoo addressed the issue when interviewed by Time Magazine, and stated that the autopsy was made public for its educational value. It doesn’t really happen very often that children can learn about giraffe anatomy in such a practical way.
So, everything seems reasonable. Why is this story causing such an outrage? Even if I understand the reasons behind it I am very saddened by Marius’ fate, and I guess most of those who spoke against this decision felt the same. The problem is that we can’t always be cold-blooded scientists, and charismatic species – such as giraffes – are known to cause strong reactions in people. We admire them and can’t help but being attracted to them, and we feel sad when we hear this kind of stories. Maybe next time Copenhagen Zoo will remember this and will show a little more sensitivity about it.
Want to know more? Go to EAZA’s webpage to read about their breeding programmes, ethics and more; you can read more about Copenhagen Zoo at uk.zoo.dk.
Nick is a conservation biologist who holds degrees from Bangor University, Wales and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Originally from Sardinia, Italy, he spent the past few years studying and working in Europe and Africa. He enjoys travelling, good food, coffee and wildlife.