The Tallest Debate Of 2014

Why do we have zoos?

You must stop and ask yourself, what is the purpose of a zoo? Commercial profits, regional tourism, and awareness of biodiversity are just a few. 

Over 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums worldwide, with institutions promoting environmental conservation, research, and education across the spectrum. 

Marius the Giraffe

When young Marius the giraffe found himself at the end of a shot gun last week, a furore elapsed across the media, with many criticising the actions of Copenhagen Zoo to be simply ‘sickening’, ‘inhumane’, and ‘disgusting‘. 

Indeed, weeks before Marius met his death, international institutions including Yorkshire Wildlife Park here in the UK, invited Copenhagen to transfer Marius into their care. Unfortunately, Copenhagen ignored the offer and proceeded to put Marius down. 

By Irina Polikanova (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Irina Polikanova (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

What is euthanasia? 

Marius was killed by ‘euthanasia’, the practice of intentionally ending a life in a tranquil manor. Fed his morning rye bread, Marius was put down in front of an audience that comprised of adults and gaping young children. His remains were dissected in a public autopsy, before parts of his body were fed, rightly, to the lions.

Why did Marius die?

Many are not aware of an important purpose of zoos for international breeding programmes. Ex-situ conservation is practiced between institutions, where specimens are traded and bred in order to increase their genetic pool. A population below a certain threshold number will revert to inbreeding, leading to disease and inherited disorders. 

Amongst the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), institutions may transfer animals to increase genetic viability. Sadly, Copenhagen Zoo found that Marius’ genes were not compliant with the rest of the population. Copenhagen Zoo quotes:

We see this as a positive sign and as insurance that we in the future will have a healthy giraffe population in European zoos. The same type of management is used in deer parks where red deer and fallow deer are culled to keep the populations healthy.

Were there no other options?

Contraceptives would interfere adversely with the giraffes vital organs, thus rendering them useless. The option to transfer the giraffe to a second international institution, not a member of the EAZA, was dismissed on the basis of institutions sticking to their own collaborative rules.

What will happen next?

By Graham Racher from London, UK (IMG_0925.jpg  Uploaded by McGeddon) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Graham Racher from London, UK (IMG_0925.jpg Uploaded by McGeddon) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Criticised recently by Conservation champion Chris Packham as a ‘PR disaster’, the story has struck up a wave of hugely negative attitudes towards animal welfare and zoo ethics. Packham stated:

The belligerent arrogance of this particular zoo in the face of a worldwide campaign to save the animal will have global repercussions. People are polarised about zoos: they are either for or against. And the vast majority will not bother to find out why this happened.

Though the incident will bring the importance of genetic conservation to light, it will no doubt continue to instil negative feelings in much of the international community based on why zoos seem to be killing healthy animals. 

Though Copenhagen had every right and belief that euthanasia was the right answer, some still believe that dropping the rules of the EAZA, allowing Marius to be transferred to another institution such as Yorkshire Wildlife Park to prevent a PR disaster, would have been the right answer. 

The World Association of Zoos and Aquarium (WAZA) concludes:

WAZA regrets the loss of the young giraffe in Copenhagen, but we affirm the important role zoos and aquariums play in assuring species survival and individual animal well-being.