Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark has recently euthanized an 18-month old male giraffe called Marius.
According to zoo officials, the decision was not based on any medical condition, but to prevent inbreeding.
It turned out the animal had a genetic profile similar to other males in the breeding programme, and therefore was not suitable for reproductive purposes.
Divided Opinions For and Against Marius’ Euthanasia
The European Association of Zoo and Aquaria (EAZA) released a statement saying it fully supported the decision to put the animal down.
“Our aim is to safeguard for future generations a genetically diverse, healthy population of animals against their extinction; Copenhagen Zoo is highly involved in these programmes and took a transparent decision that the young animal in question could not contribute to the future of its species further, given the restraints of space and resources to hold an unlimited number of animals within our network and programme, and should therefore be humanely euthanized.”
A spokesman for Copenhagen Zoo told Decoded Science that they believe the Danish public understood the reasons for their decision, and if it has changed their perception about conservation in any way, it was “only been for the better.”
Many supported the zoo’s decision to euthanize Marius, including Professor W. K. Allen, director at The Paul Mellon Laboratory of Equine Reproduction in Cambridge, UK, who said, “This was good from the giraffe’s point of view as it died unknowing and humanely and was thereby saved from a miserable life of rambling aimlessly around a small enclosure until it died slowly and painfully from obesity, unfitness and a host of arthritic joint problems. It was also good from the zoo’s point of view because it solved a genetic problem cleanly and efficiently.”
This was not a view shared by everybody. In fact, almost 28,000 people did not agree with the decision, and signed online petition “Save Marius the giraffe from the bolt gun NOW.” The same group are now aiming even higher, and have managed to gather over 139,000 signatures in a petition to place Copenhagen Zoo under new administration.
It turns out Marius was not alone. BBC Radio 4’s The Report uncovered a figure which may reach 5,000 animals euthanized every year for genetic reasons across European Zoos, from tiny tadpoles to heavy-weight hippos. Large animals included 22 zebras, 5 giraffes, 4 hippos and 2 oryx since 2000.
To potentially add to the list, a few days after Marius was killed, a second Danish zoo – the Jyllands Park Zoo – announced it may have to put down another male giraffe coincidentally also called Marius, again to comply with breeding programme rules.
Zoo Deaths: Risk of Inbreeding
The main reason presented by Copenhagen Zoo was that Marius’s genes were already present in the population of giraffes spread across various European zoos. Breeding such closely-related animals would increase the chances of rare and harmful genes becoming apparent. This is known as inbreeding depression. A case of what a poorly-managed breeding programme can cause came to light recently at Longleat Safari Park, UK. At the park, a lioness and her four cubs had to be euthanized after they showed significant neurological problems due to strong inbreeding.
There’s no question using Marius in the breeding program would have inevitably resulted in catastrophic results, so removing the animal from such programme was undoubtedly the correct decision. However, were there better alternatives than killing the young giraffe? Decoded Science investigates paths not taken.
Why not Relocate Marius?
Offers to relocate Marius poured down Copenhagen Zoo before Marius was killed. One of these was from Yorkshire Wildlife Park, UK, which is also a member of EAZA. However, the Danish zoo refused their offer on the grounds that if the Wildlife Park had space available to receive another giraffe, it should be for a more genetically-valuable animal. “We were saddened by their decision,” a spokesperson for the Wildlife Park told Decoded Science, but our suggestion to relocate Marius “was in a very early stage and we didn’t reach any detailed conversation about it.”
How About Contraception?
If relocation was not an option, then why was contraception not an option to prevent Marius from producing any offspring? As with most European zoos, Copenhagen Zoo is intrinsically against this practice. In a statement, they said “contraceptives have a number of unwanted side effects on the internal organs and we would therefore apply a poorer animal welfare if we did not euthanize.”
“There are four different types of contraception currently used in giraffes,” explained Dr. Imke Lueders, director of GEOlifes Animal fertility and reproductive research centre, “but all come with disadvantages.” Treatments can be difficult to apply and dangerous, increasing risk of infections or permanent infertility. In addition, some studies have shown that more dramatic options, such as castration, although possible, carry significant complications including high postoperative mortality in giraffes.
However, Dr. Allen Rutberg, from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University offered a different view to Decoded Science. “Contraceptive technology has nothing to do with it. There already exist safe and effective technologies for preventing pregnancy in giraffes and scores of other zoo species with minimal effects on behavior. These technologies are widely known and widely used in the zoo community. The reasons that European zoos don’t use more contraception to control breeding are primarily philosophical.”
Ethical and Philosophical Questions
It is indeed the philosophy of most European Zoos to let animals breed naturally and very rarely recur to contraceptives. According to this principle, animals produce young at the same intervals as they would in the wild and are able to carry normal parenting behaviors. In support of this philosophy, Copenhagen Zoo said in a statement “parental care is a big part of an animal’s behavior. It is a 24 hour job in longer periods of their lives and we believe that they should still be able to carry out this type of behavior also in captivity.”
“This is a defensible justification, in the abstract,” said Dr. Rutberg, “but the ethics grow much murkier in the real world, where zoos publicize the birth of young animals, and even name them, to attract visitors. In that context, “nature” is abandoned in favor of building bonds between individual animals and people.”
This issue also brings to light curious cultural differences between both sides of the Atlantic in terms of how relationships with animals are perceived.
For example, said Dr Rutberg, “on smaller family farms – perhaps more typical of European production — there’s often no contradiction seen between naming a favorite pig and killing and eating it later. Americans, more isolated from food animal production, may be less comfortable with this behavior.”
Some have questioned the reasons why Marius’s parents were allowed to breed and produce a genetically-useless animal for the breeding programme, especially when Marius was not their first offspring. However, according to Dr. Lueders, “female giraffe offspring is still needed to keep the captive populations going, so need to keep on with breeding. The Rothschild giraffe is an excellent example: classified as endangered, there are today more of these giraffes kept in zoos, than there are left in the wild”. He added “breeding and raising offspring is a natural and essential behaviour for living creatures, having and caring for babies is the best enrichment for zoo animals.”
Marius’ death, far from being an unusual occurrence, isn’t likely to be the last in a long line of euthanized zoo animals.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated after publication, to reflect additional information received.