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Marius The Giraffe Is Every Zoo Animal

February 12, 2014

“Uh-oh. It’s starting to get crowded in here again.” (Source: Wikimedia; Daderot)

The world has been understandably shocked by the Copenhagen Zoo’s casual execution of its surplus giraffe, Marius (feeding his corpse to the lions showed an odd combination of pragmatism and obliviousness to the zeitgeist). So naturally, the Copenhagen Zoo and its Director have become the target of intense animal welfare criticism.

I am not a fan of zoos, and have the utopian wish that we would simply work on conserving both the natural habitats and the animals in them, instead of incarcerating animals for “research and education” and making a profit while we are at it. But Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute had a very interesting take, which she has given me permission to share:

Zoos have been doing this all around the world, including at AZA-accredited facilities, for decades. Breeding programs, particularly for non-endangered species, often result in “surplus” animals, because zoo visitors like seeing baby animals in the springtime, so the zoos oblige. When animals are not culled, they are sold to road-side zoos, sent to “canned hunt” facilities, or, in the best case scenario (also the least commonly occurring) sent to sanctuaries. AZA facilities are the least likely to sell to road-side zoos or canned hunts, but they have been caught doing so at times. Non-AZA facilities unload their surplus animals this way routinely.

Killing surplus animals (especially with a bolt gun to the head) is the most humane option, actually, and in all fairness the most commonly used. What made Marius so shocking to you all is that it was done in broad daylight, before an audience, as a “learning experience.” Well, I think it was more of a learning experience for the zoo than the public watching! Big mistake to air this common practice quite so brutally. Usually these euthanasias are done behind the scenes. The bodies are usually sent to landfills or rendering plants (or, in some infamous cases, buried in the backyard) – they are NOT usually fed to the carnivores in the same zoo.

So while the Copenhagen Zoo may have been the least sensitive practitioner of this “management” method, please do not direct your ire at the zoo or its director. They were in fact the honest ones. ALL zoos – ALL ZOOS – do this to one extent or other. Think about it – how else can they manage a “collection” in a finite amount of space when they have babies every year? We see the problem even with orcas, who are among the least prolific of captive species. San Diego now has 10 orcas. Four orcas were sent to Loro Parque (and calves used to be sent to Ohio). Think about all those antelopes and giraffes and water buffalo and exotic rodents and birds and on and on and on. Where do you think all those animals go?

SeaWorld is a circus and easy to dislike, but every single well-designed, modern zoo out there is hiding a darker underbelly. If you think the cost is worth the benefit to kids who get to see tigers and lions and bears up close, that’s one thing, but don’t be blind to the cost.

What gets me is the hypocrisy of zoos. I actually think people should be GRATEFUL to the Copenhagen Zoo for outing this practice so bluntly. Zoos claim they are as much about individual animal welfare as about conservation, but often they are about neither.

Animal protection groups focused on zoo animal welfare, which are well aware of these practices,  have been promoting “cradle to grave” care for decades. If a zoo cannot commit to cradle to grave care for every animal born at its facility, then it should not allow breeding. Whether that’s through chemical means, gelding, or separation of the sexes, they should not allow babies to be born to which they cannot commit a lifetime of care. The reaction of people online and on this list leads me to believe that most people, even those working against captive orcas at SeaWorld, think that what happened to Marius is a horrible, brutal one-off or that only the Copenhagen Zoo is guilty of it. That is so far from the truth as to be laughable.

Usually euthanasia is done as it is in shelters, with chemicals. The meat is not usable then and, as I said, is sent to landfills or rendering plants. Marius was shot (arguably more humane, actually, if more shocking) because they wanted to feed him to the lions as part of the “educational” part of the event and they didn’t want to spoil the meat. As I also said on FB, Marius didn’t give a shit how he died – it’s the people who are horrified at the betrayal of trust inherent in feeding him a piece of bread and then shooting him when he bent down, but putting him down with a shot of phenobarbital would have been just as horrible – it just would have been quieter.

The irony is that other zoos no doubt registered the avalanche of attention and criticism that buried the Copenhagen Zoo and will only go to even greater lengths to keep zoo euthanasia hidden from the zoo-loving public.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy Mayers permalink
    February 12, 2014 5:17 pm

    I highly recommend Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species —
    It’s a little more than 10 years old but still quite relevant.

    Actually, Tim, when something like this happens, I think it makes it harder for zoos to hide what they’re doing. Especially public zoos, which are subject to FOIA laws. Zoos have gotten away with murder — literally — for years but it’s because no one has really looked at and questioned their practices.

    Zoos are, however, sensitive to pressure — look at the actions they’ve taken in recent years for the elephants they keep because of the 2 elephant sanctuaries in this country. Unfortunately, they have coopted sanctuary language rather than the concepts of sanctuary; a lot of what they’ve done has been window dressing; and they’ve made tiny, tiny changes when leaps are in order. But they have had to respond.

    Zoos have tried to contain the pressure, however, with their messaging. According to zoos, they are the experts, the authorities, while anyone who criticizes them is an animal rights extremist. They are much like Republicans in this — they don’t really have good answers for the questions they’re asked about how they care for animals, so instead they discredit and slander the questioner.

    If more people paid attention, cared and questioned their local zoos, zoos would have to respond. I wish more people would.

  2. Amy Mayers permalink
    February 12, 2014 5:25 pm


  3. Blair Frazer Smith permalink
    February 12, 2014 5:40 pm

    Having worked in a zoo I could not agree more. I witnessed this euthanasia management style first hand. At 16 years old and training to be a keeper it was very hard to swallow. That was 30 years ago yet I still see the faces of all the chimps I looked after, gazing at me through the bars, trapped in their involuntary lifetime incarceration. But especially the face Tiger, an adult male chimp in his prime, sentenced to death, his crime… being surplus to requirement. As a result of my experiences there I have never supported zoos or wildlife parks since; in fact any animals in captivity at all.

    • Amy Mayers permalink
      February 12, 2014 6:38 pm

      Blair — When was this? I can’t see any zoo euthanizing a chimp now, I don’t think. But correct me if I’m wrong!

      • morgan378 permalink
        February 14, 2014 11:01 pm

        Yes, Amy – they do as bio-research labs do – I know from being near animal researcher labs that any mid-level ape such as chimps are separated after quarantine when brought into our nation. Only approved “holding” sites can be used prior to either going to a zoo facility, another holding facility near-by or for biological experimentation. There are many sites in Africa who hold onto chimpanzees until decisions are made there. Being so expensive – and funds being what they are: Research vs. Zoo’s most go for research in the cause of Humanity. (whatever that means anymore – it’s always the $$ that creates their futures.) However, much can be accomplished w/o using animals unto death depending on the route the researchers are headed. I’d done biologic-genetics so fortunately no animal needed to be harmed or killed afterwards. I dealt with specimens collected for me. I met these lovely creatures who assisted me but 2 x’s. Once at the beginning of our project and then when I left. We weren’t allowed to form relationships of any kind. But their handlers/behaviorists know to look for various improvements in social – intellectual – health and maintain their freedoms in different areas suited for them and their strengths, mental abilities and what they learn to communicate as to what THEY want to do when they want to do it.

  4. February 12, 2014 8:26 pm

    Not a fan of zoos. I’d like to see them become less of a “Noah’s Ark” ( 1 or 2 of EVERY species) and phased into a more scientific pursuit. The zoo should function as a sanctuary for endangered animals. I don’t think that animals should be transported to climates that are different from their natural habitats , either. In closing, if I disliked zoos intensely before, after reading this enlightening article, I hate them.

  5. Stefanie permalink
    February 13, 2014 8:35 am

    I think it so irresponsible that they leave the animals breed just to get more visitors in the zoo.
    Thanks a lot Tim for calling our attention to the fact that Marius isn’t the only animal that got killed because it was superfluous. Maybe cases like his will make the public more aware of the fact that there is a dark side behind cute baby animals in zoos.

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