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Copenhagen Zoo has been under fire since February after employees shot a healthy four-year old giraffe, Marius. In under a month, they euthanised four more animals: two elderly lions and their two 10-month-old cubs. David Williams-Mitchell, the communications and membership manager of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), defended the culling as a necessary step to “prioritize animals that can contribute to the future of the species.”

According to Time magazine, euthenizing zoo animals is not  an uncommon practice for European zoos. Every year, 5,000 animals are put down for conservation and “genetic purification” there. Zebras, antelopes, bison, pygmy hippos, red river hog piglets, tigers, leopard cubs, Marius the giraffe and the elderly lions have all been euthanized over the last couple of years.


Overpopulation in the zoos is the primary reason for euthanization. European zoos desire animals to act naturally in their environment; they also use the constant influx of baby animals to lure visitors to zoos. On the other side of the Atlantic, American zoos use contraception to prevent inbreeding in zoos and over-population. However, the results are a lack of newborn animals for visitors to admire, and a change in instinctual behaviors.

A biologist from the Jyllands Park Zoo in Western Denmark, Jesper Mohring-Jensen, said, “It’s better for the animal to have a good life than to live [and have a bad life]. That is the Danish view, which is different from the American view. The discussion can sometimes become unscientific and based more on feelings than understanding of animals. Nature doesn’t have the same concept of justice as humans.”

Lesley Dickie, the executive director of EAZA, released a statement to CNN that castration of any male animal at a young age could have resulted in endangering its species. According to the animal rights group PETA, 7,000 animal species are at risk of extinction. Contraception is therefore avoided as a precautionary measure. But what about releasing the unneeded animals in the wild or selling them to other zoos? Re-introduction into the wild is a long and unsuccessful procedure. “Release into the wild of this single individual would almost certainly result in early death for the animal, after a long and stressful journey of thousands of kilometers – reintroduction is an intensive and complicated process and we would not countenance this unless recommended to by the IUCN, the paramount global body for nature conservation,” Dickie wrote.

The option of selling the giraffe and lions to other zoos was offered to Copenhagen. The zoo refused to sell them Marius the giraffe because two of the zoos would have faced an inbreeding dilemma, which is condemned by EAZA. Another offer for the giraffe came from a private institution who did not match the Copenhagen Zoo’s animal rights standards.

According to PETA, zoos are supposed to be institutions for education, conservation and entertainment, but they fail when they “kowtow to mass demand.” Animal Rights in Sweden asserted that “When the cute animal babies that attract visitors grow up, they are not as interesting anymore.”

Many argue that wild animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity at all. Zoos have been validated for being able to provide a level of protection for at-risk species, but the seeming normalcy of euthanization raises questions over whether they can be trusted with the responsibility to do so, or if they are simply prioritizing profitability over the well-being of the animals they are meant to guard over.

Image courtesy of Julia Suber