People around the world were stunned when Copenhagen Zoo killed a healthy 2-year-old giraffe named Marius, butchered its carcass in front of a crowd that included children and then fed it to lions. But Marius’ fate isn’t unique as thousands of animals are euthanised in European zoos each year for a variety of reasons.

Zoo managers say their job is to preserve species, not individual animals. In the U.S., zoos try to avoid killing animals by using contraceptives to make sure they don’t have more offspring than they can house, but that method has also been criticised for disrupting animals’ natural behaviour.

U.S. and European zoological organizations refuse to release figures for the total number of animals killed. But David Williams Mitchell, spokesman of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) estimates that an average zoo in its 347-member organisation annually kills about five large mammals, which adds up to 1,735. The number doesn’t include zoos and animal parks that don’t belong to the association. Animal rights groups suggest numbers are much higher.

Why kill?

Zoos euthanise animals because of poor health, old age, lack of space or conservation management reasons. EAZA policy for zoos in Europe suggests euthanasia may be used as a last resort to achieve a balanced population within breeding programs. Marius was killed to prevent inbreeding. But Williams Mitchell insists only “a fraction of 1 per cent” of the killings are for such reasons. The idea is to maintain a group of genetically healthy animals in zoos that can be used to reintroduce the species into the wild should it become extinct.

Mike McClure, general curator at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says his zoo’s policies theoretically allow for killing animals for breeding purposes or lack of housing, but it’s not something his zoo has done. Generally, he says, animals are only killed due to quality of life issues such as old-age or ill-health. In Asia, the parent company for the Singapore Zoo said in a statement that “euthanasia of animals is necessary to maintain the health and welfare of the herd, as overcrowding could lead to injuries, stress, and disease outbreak.”

When animals reproduce, most zoos first try to find another one in their network they can send the offspring to. Earlier this week, a German zoo said it would send a monkey to the Czech Republic because he’s produced so many offspring that he would soon start having children with his own relatives.

Zoos generally avoid selling the animals on the open market, fearing they will end up in poor conditions. Some European zoos and most zoos in the U.S. choose to use contraceptives, sterilisation or separation of males and females to avoid breeding more animals than they can house.

Both endangered species and other animals are killed at zoos. EAZA says five giraffes have been killed in European zoos since 2005. On Thursday, Jyllands Park Zoo in Denmark said it may have to kill another giraffe soon for similar reasons as in Marius’ case. Coincidentally, the giraffe’s name is also Marius. Aalborg Zoo in Denmark kills up to 15 animals a year, including red river hogs, antelopes and capybaras. Copenhagen Zoo says it kills 20-30 antelopes, llamas, goats and other animals yearly.

Animal rights groups have said Marius’ case highlights what they believe is the overall problem with zoos. The Captive Animals’ Protection Society says its studies show between 7,500-200,000 animals are considered “surplus animals” at European zoos at any one time and director Liz Tyson says the only solution to the problem is not to visit zoos.

Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, questioned whether the zoos’ breeding programmes contribute that much to conservation. He says research by his foundation has shown that the majority of species kept in zoos aren’t threatened with extinction in the wild and called for an immediate review of EAZA’s euthanasia policies. — AP

Keywords: Copenhagen ZooMariusEAZA

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