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When the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed Marius the giraffe on February 9, 2014, the public outrage was instantaneous and worldwide. Marius was dissected in front of a public audience, including children, and then fed to the zoo's lions. The furor had barely cooled down when, on March 24, 2014, the same zoo killed four healthy lions, including some who had feasted on Marius' remains.
Unfortunately, animals born at zoos do not always get to live their lives out fully. David Williams-Mitchell, a spokesperson for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, told CNN that approximately 3,000 to 5,000 animals are killed each year at EAZA zoos. Of these, several hundred are large animals like giraffes and lions, while the majority are smaller animals, including insects and rodents.
According to The Independent, five giraffes have been killed in Danish zoos since 2012, as well as 22 healthy zebras, four hippos and two Arabian Oryx throughout Europe.
Although policies of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums are different from those of the EAZA, the animals in American zoos do not always live out their lives at the zoo.
Marius the Giraffe
Marius was a healthy, two year old giraffe who was killed by the Copenhagen Zoo to prevent inbreeding. Although other zoos had offered to take in Marius, one already had Marius' brother (making Marius genetically redundant at that zoo), and the others were not accredited by the EAZA. Lesley Dickie, Executive Director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, explained in a CNN op ed that Marius would be unlikely to survive in the wild; sterilization for male giraffes can lead to "undesirable side-effects" and contraception for female giraffes is "difficult," "in its infancy," can "can be irreversible."
Dickie and Copenhagen Zoo officials have repeatedly pointed out that the killing of Marius was within EAZA guidelines.
The zoo and their staff have received death threats and threats to burn down the zoo.
Four Lions Killed at Copenhagen Zoo
A few weeks.after killing Marius, the Copenhagen Zoo killed a family of four healthy lions - two parents and their cubs. The zoo had brought in a new, young male to mate with the 18-month-old females who had been born at the zoo, and did not want the young females to mate with their own father. The zoo argues that the new male would have killed the adult male and two young cubs, as part of a male lion's natural behavior of killing all the cubs and killing the adult male when he takes over a new pride of lions.
The zoo claims that no other zoos were interested in taking the lion family.
The justifications for killing the lions have focused on the animals' natural behavior, but killing the lions is hardly natural. In the wild, the new male would have to oust the male head of the pride before taking over. This would happen only if the new male were stronger. Survival of the fittest keeps the species strong as it continues to evolve.
While a new, stronger male would have killed the existing male and the young cubs, this explanation fails to address why the older female lion was killed.
While animal rights activist oppose keeping animals in zoos regardless of their breeding and killing policies, the practice of killing excess animals is especially objectionable and draws public outrage. If thousands of animals are killed every year, why did Marius' death garner so much media coverage? It may have been because Marius was dissected and butchered in front of a public audience, and then fed to lions.
The controversy, however, was not centered around the dissection and butchering, but on the reasons the giraffe was killed. As Dickie points out, a zoo's resources are finite. They knew or should have known in advance that Marius would be genetically undesirable for breeding and yet they allowed Marius' parents to breed. The arguments against sterilization or transferring Marius are unconvincing. The British zoo that wanted Marius is capable of making their own determination as to whether Marius was valuable, and the problems with sterilization cannot be worse than death.
The whole problem appears to stem from the zoo's desire to feature baby animals, even if allowing the animals to reproduce leads to overbreeding, overcrowding and killing.
Supporters of the zoo point out that lions are regularly fed meat from dead animals, and many critics of the zoo are not vegetarian. However, whether some critics of the zoo are hypocrites is a separate issue from whether the zoo was right in killing Marius. Animal rights activists do not believe in keeping any animals in zoos (not be confused with sanctuaries), and are vegan, so there is no inconsistency in the animal rights position.
After the four lions were killed, humor website The Global Edition published a satirical piece, "Copenhagen Zoo Kills Four Healthy Staff Members To Make Space For New Employees."
American Zoos and Aquariums
While European zoos would rather allow the animals to naturally reproduce and kill excess animals, American zoos prefer contraception. Regarding Marius' killing, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums stated in a press release, "Incidents of that sort do not happen at AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums," pointing out that AZA-accredited zoos minimize overbreeding.
AZA zoos do sometimes overbreed, leading to animals being sold to unaccredited zoos, circuses, and even canned hunting operations.
Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, called the killing of Marius "the most abominable, insensitive, ridiculous thing I've ever heard of."
What is the solution?
Many have argued that Marius could have been sterilized, that his parents could have been sterilized, or that Marius should have been transferred to another zoo. The lions could have also gone to another zoo, the zoo could have built a second lion enclosure, or the zoo could have passed on bringing in the new lion. While these solutions may have saved these five lives, the issue is bigger than these five animals.
Keeping animals in captivity, regardless of whether they are bred, overbred, or intentionally killed, violates the animals' rights to live their lives free of human use and exploitation. From an animal rights viewpoint, the solution is to boycott zoos and all animal cruelty, and go vegan.