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Posted by on Feb 10, 2014 in Nature, News, This is Broken | 40 comments

Re-Writing the Death of a Giraffe

Baby giraffe killed at Copenhagen zoo despite worldwide protests

Copenhagen Zoo

Giraffes at Copenhagen Zoo (photo: Copenhagen Zoo)

My Twitter feed has been abuzz for the last 24 hours with the story of the young giraffe in a Copenhagen zoo that was shot in the head, then dissected and fed to lions in front of a crowd of people, including children.

The healthy 18-month-old male giraffe, named Marius, was considered surplus and useless for breeding because his genes were too common. Despite worldwide outrage and a number of offers to provide Marius with a new home, the zoo ignored the protests and shot the giraffe. Startling images and video of the process, showed a picture of a large chunk of meat with an unmistakably spotty hide being fed to the lions.

Did those paragraphs upset you? If so, you aren’t alone. The wording was designed to provoke anger and outrage.  In fact, that whole thing is a mashup of sentences from the popular press.

But let’s try it again  —

Giraffe’s Death Provides Up-Close Science Lesson

Reticulated Giraffe (Wikipedia)

Reticulated Giraffe (Photo: Dan Lundberg / CC 2.0)

My Twitter feed has been abuzz for the last 24 hours with the story of a zoo in Copenhagen that used a giraffe’s death to give visitors an up-close science lesson in giraffe anatomy.

The 18-month-old male giraffe, named Marius, was humanely euthanized Sunday morning and underwent a routine necropsy in front of interested students and families.  This unique science outreach event attracted a crowd of visitors who watched as veterinarians explained what they were doing and what they found inside the animal.

Because they took time to answer questions, many from children, and to carefully communicate their findings, it took the veterinarians nearly three hours to complete the procedure.

“I think we have given children a huge understanding of the anatomy of a giraffe that they wouldn’t have had from watching a giraffe in a photo,” Stenbaek Bro said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. (CBC)

This was not the first such event at Copenhagen Zoo. The zoo takes its educational mandate seriously and has, in the past, autopsied zebras, snakes, and other animals in front of public audiences. Far from being appalled or even queasy, visitors are interested in the process and are glad that their children have the opportunity to experience first-hand what goes on in a veterinary building after a zoo animal dies.

[Insert quote from a parent here*]

After the autopsy on Marius, some of the giraffe’s remains were sent to research facilities to help further the understanding of the species. This knowledge is important both for wild and captive giraffes, helping veterinarians and wildlife biologists better understand the physiology of the animals.

The rest of the giraffe was fed to the zoo’s lions. As the zoo’s Scientific Director Bengt Holst explains, it would have been a terrible waste to throw away 250 kg of fresh meat only to kill another animal to feed to the lions.

“It helps increase the knowledge about animals but also the knowledge about life and death.”  Bengt Holst, Scientific Director. (The Guardian)

Healthy zoo animals are seldom killed to control populations; however Marius’s genes are already well-represented in the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes and there were no zoos within that program that could accept the animal. Maintaining variability in the genetics of zoo animals is an important part of captive species management so breeding is carefully controlled by zoological organizations worldwide.

The Copenhagen Zoo houses giraffes in mixed-sex herds, similar to the way giraffes would group in the wild. This allows them to interact and breed naturally. At this time, safe birth control for giraffes is not feasible, but veterinarians are working on new methods that would prevent the birth of animals such as Marius while still allowing animals to interact.

Meanwhile, Marius’s death gave students and families and unprecedented look behind the scenes at the zoo and piqued at least one young visitor’s interest in veterinary medicine –

[insert quote from a student here*]

 ***

That was just a quick (and not so great) rewrite, but my point should be clear. Here was an event that had the makings of a great science communications story, a reflective piece on how and when children are exposed to death, an examination of how zoo animal populations are managed — or any number of other interpretations.

Those opportunities were instead wasted on sensationalist spins that gave us, “omg the children!” and “Cute baby giraffe murdered!”  And while I expect that kind of thing from the likes of The Daily Mail, The New York Times frankly shocked me: killed by “shotgun blast”?  Where did that come from? It’s patently not true. But it sure makes for good inflammatory copy.

“I know the giraffe is a nice looking animal, but I don’t think there would have been such an outrage if it had been an antelope, and I don’t think anyone would have lifted an eyebrow if it was a pig,” said Holst. (CBC)

Indeed.

*we have no quotes because nobody thought to interview the parents and their children.

See my follow up post HERE.

40 Comments

  1. I think the problem is that educational opportunity is lost when you five the animal a name and the public watches it grow up for two years.

  2. I feel sorry for you that you seemed to have found a way to tell yourself that this was OK. It might be scientifically OK, it doesn’t make it less cruel. Learn to think with your heart, not only your head.

    • So true! You are spot on!

  3. It’s amazing that people can be so outspoken in their criticism of the zoo, when hundreds of thousands of animals are slaughtered for human meat consumption every single day of the year. The lack of personal perspective is just utterly staggering! As a vegetarian (and animal biomechanics researcher), I’d rather that people didn’t kill animals for food, and I’d rather zoos not keep animals if they can’t accommodate any resultant offspring. But seriously, in the blood-thirsty world we inhabit, this mis-placed outrage over just ONE giraffe is crazy! There are far more common and relevant things over which to become angry.

    • Well im a vegetarian and I feel just as outraged at other animal cruelties. Im glad people got outraged because it has opened up a debate and got people thinking that killing animals is WRONG!!!!

  4. Are you on drugs? You clearly lack journalistic skills on top of empathy for life. Animals are not ours to kill. Our humanity is what is supposed to separate us from them. And fyi, I would have been just as sad if it was a pig or a rat! Life is life.

  5. If an animal is abused, then shame on the perpetrators.
    But I see that a few people consciously overlook the fact that humans are omnivores. We have canine teeth, like it or not, that serve to rip and tear meat. We NEED meat. Even the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist monk, admits that he has to eat dead animals. Otherwise, he suffers from some kind of deficiency that turns his skin yellow.
    Shame on those who find cruel animal killings entertaining, but I really don’t see what’s wrong with butchering game and livestock for the table.
    http://data2.whicdn.com/images/101652/large.jpg

  6. my four son grew happy , and still now ignored what is inside one 18 month Giraffe,..

  7. Reasonable language still does not excuse the action taken. Nor does educational benefit.

  8. People should be caring about the conservation of the habitats of the great mammals. Worldwide population control is needed to return habitats to the animals.

  9. I don’t understand the hoopla about this. Does anyone really think that the people running the zoo didn’t consider every option carefully, and that you are the first to think, ‘Hey, let’s check with other zoos!’ No zoo, not even all the zoos in the world taken together, has an infinite capacity to house animals, and one does not just walk a giraffe into a van and toddle off down the road to the next wildlife park. Their necks are too long for anything but the Super Guppy for air transport, a rather pricy option I’m sure. One cannot release it into the wild, I suspect, because it doesn’t know about the sharp toothed critters that abound there and its fate will be far more dramatic and painful than a carefully placed rifle bullet. Children got to see it dissected and dismembered, something every meat eater should see at as young an age as is possible, and the lions got a good meal. There is no shortage of giraffes, it seems, and, here’s an idea, because cows have eaten all the grass, or are about to do so, perhaps we should consider raising giraffes for food. Yeah, that’s the ticket! Beef cattle and giraffes together in the same field, with grass for the cattle, and tall leafy trees for the long necked burger critters. Call it the ‘Double Decker Pasture Plan.’ Twice the meat production, and fertilizer, from the same area of countryside!

  10. Thank you everyone for your comments — kind and critical. The attention this post has generated has been astounding. I do appreciate those of you who stopped to comment and who passed it along to others, whether you agree with me or not. And thank you for keeping your comments civil. (PS: No, Sarah, I am not on drugs. :) )

    As an interesting aside, addressing Jennifer Welsh’s comment, zoos have long debated the pros and cons of naming animals. Perhaps I’ll talk about that in a future post.

    Again, thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  11. I can understand so many people, who are not in the zoo world getting upset, hurt, angry, and so forth. Before I became a zoo student, in fact, I swore of zoos. “I don’t do zoo’s” This is very common place in the zoo world. You just happened to hear about this particular case. It is quite true about the habitats, we continually push the line with animals, slowly destroying their habitats, encroaching on their territories, then get indignant when “animals cross the line.” , The article said.. that his genetics were common.. meaning to breed him to another giraffe would only cause another issue down the road, another giraffe unwanted. See? It would be perpetual. So, end his gene line and move on. What’s brilliant is, the zoo doing a necropsy, infront of people that were interested in learning. What they did is called culling, which in the zoo world.. that is not one of the most easy decisions. Stop being naive, and research before you spout off about how cute he was ( which any baby giraffe is), and bringing in the vegan debate.. I proudly have and use my canine teeth everyday.

  12. It’s pathetic that anyone would try to put a good spin on the real issue. Zoos have a god complex these days thinking they are the only ones able to properly care for animals. Yet, the only times I see primates show signs of depression are in zoos.
    I cannot believe for a moment that any child requires knowledge of the anatomy of a giraffe, and to justify this as a science lesson or a means of free food for the lions is laughable and an insult to my intelligence to try and make me believe that. Considering how much it costs to feed and house such an animal for nearly two years would deem this a very costly meal for the lions. If you want to make it about money then how much more meat could have been bought with the sale of the giraffe?
    Trying to put a positive spin on this act is for those of lower intelligence who are too far removed from the interest of exotic animals to truly know what thy speak of.

  13. So tell me, what is your reaction when a lion kills a baby giraffe in the wild?

    sure it seems terrible. and animal rights. and don’t eat meat. and animals have feelings. blah blah blah.

    people seem to worry more about what happened to a giraffe at a zoo than what is happening all over the world to their fellow human beings.
    or is it that they don’t care?

  14. Hana – Seems as though you’re the idiot as you can’t see the conflict between what you are alleging and the fact that the zoo passed up 500,000 Euros to execute its planning.

  15. As an animal lover I was initially saddened by this story. And then I got thinking about abused animals all over the world who are beaten just for fun or for their fur, some skinned alive. I thought of all of the cattle and pigs killed every day, some much younger than Marious. I still feel it’s sad but I also feel many other things are sadder. He was killed quickly and humanely, many animals don’t get that benefit.

  16. When I first read about the giraffe being killed, I will admit that I was disheartened and angry that the zoo would do this. *Not to the extent of issuing death threats, though. People, get a handle on your anger issues unless you will actually put it to good use. Say work on population genetics, help starving kids or save abused animals; Do something that will actually benefit society.

    They tried to relocate the animal but no zoos within the program had room. If you actually read why the zoo chose to kill the giraffe and critically think for yourself, you will realize that this was a decent choice and is no different than the wild. Lions normally attack animals for food so, you all should be happy that they killed it humanely before feeding it to the lions.

    Conservation of species is about more than just individual animals. They have to look at the herd as a whole and keep diverse genes in the population. If they just kept breeding the same line of animals, you would get inbred populations with big issues. Overall, the zoo chose to take action in the best way possible whether you like it or not.

  17. James, to me the passing up of the funds is more of an indication that the zoo was determined to press ahead because it did not want to back down and admit that there were alternatives. Indeed the passing over of those funds to me is an indication of mismanagement – after all it could have been used to fund an exhibit of stag unwanted giraffes. That is another natural behavior when the males get kicked out of their birth herd they band together.

    Everyone of the arguments you have put forth can be refuted. For example the comment about the young visitor’s curiousity being peeked to become a vet is totally swamped by the numbers who found it abhorrent. That was not interest in the faces of the youngsters but disgust.

    I do agree it was sensationalised with some very poor reporting – the shotgun and age come to mind – but I think it was need to jolt the awareness of practises which may have been previously acceptable have to now be reviewed.

  18. I can understand the emotional reaction that people have when they first read the story. I can also understand why the zoo “had” to put Marius down. I get “herd health” and the welfare of the species as a whole dynamics. I get it that the necropsy was a learning opportunity for the layperson, scientists, vets and zoos. I am not against zoo’s what they provide to society and what they do for preservation and conservation. I even understand why a zoo would what to be part of one of the groups. They have rules and standards of housing, and care that are truly beneficial to the animals. However the politics of it all is not beneficial.What I can’t understand is the elitist attitude of organizations like the EAZA and the AZA. The point of this story that really gets me is the fact that a private individual offered an extremely large sum of money to purchase the giraffe. Money is one thing that any zoo no matter how well they are funded always needs. Keeping animals especially exotic animals is labor intensive and very expensive. The fact that the offer was declined because the individual was not “with in the organization” is PURE politics. Yes arguments can be made that maybe this individual wouldn’t be able to care for Marius properly. But all that can be fixed if the zoo vets and animal curators are willing to help the individual with the information needed to properly house and maintain a giraffe, or require regular inspections by an exotics vet from the area. Obviously it wasn’t a random person with no means to provide for the giraffe, which is evidenced by the large sum of money that was offered to purchase him. Basically what I am saying is, individuals, small wild life sanctuary’s, wild life parks and small zoo’s that are not a part of the AZA or EAZA can and do provide good enclosures, veterinary care, proper nutrition and enrichment to their animals. If quality of life for individual animals and herds or maintaining a species in a genetically viable way is truly the subject at hand then Marius would have been transferred elsewhere. Unfortunately it was not and is not.

  19. Kelly, I completely understand your view but the zoo is not responsible for teaching the individual how to take care of a giraffe. Money is not the only deciding factor. There are many well-off individuals that buy lions, tigers, bears and all kinds of other animals because “they can.” Most of these animals then end up being abused, housed in too-small cages and not cared for properly. In my home town, there is even a rescue devoted to taking in these previously bought animals because the individuals, in turn, figure out that the care is not as easy or accessible as they previously had thought. I’m sure the zoo thought about that option but it wasn’t feasible. Think about the PR they would have received if it got out that the giraffe was abused by the buyer. They would be accused of bad practices and selling animals to unfit individuals.

  20. I feel sad that the animal rights-groups uneducated ways of “helping” animals by criticizing zoo’s will, if they succeed, lead to the extinction of some of the same species that they think they are helping.

  21. I don’t understand why it is important for people to watch this. So they learned the anatomy of a giraffe. Are it something useful that they will use in the the future? And the London Zoo was willing to take him. But because his brother was there they wouldn’t allow it. That zoo also belongs to the group that was required for them to give them the giraffe.

  22. It was wrong to murder an animal that did not need to die. Don’t put a clinical spin on it. To make a show of him being cut up for food is disgusting. He was offered a place to live. This was a publicity stunt for the zoo and I hope it bites them.

  23. A few thoughts. What is the cruelty issue here? Giraffe killed by bullet to the head. Sounds a quick way to go to me. Fed to the lions cruel? Lions would probably argue with you there, and burying the giraffe would be throwing it for the worms and other soil beasties. So not a very logical response. More one based on human values of reverence of the dead. From the perspective of the zoo I can see they look and think,bigger than one animal, their business is saving species, there was no alternative in their minds so it had to go. Personally I think they should have considered fundraising to find it another home, but I think people ought to give the zoo some credit, employees get paid peanuts and I’m sure cared very deeply for this animal. If the issue is one of welfare, well maybe is should cross your mind that was the reason the zoo put it down. No appropriate place to keep the animal. Not sure placing equal,weight on the life of a giraffe to a pig to a fly is a great scientific argument, more a philosophical one. Whilst reassuring people are getting into a twist over one giraffe I would refer them to the issues such as bush meat, over population by humans, destruction of habitat, use of harmful pesticides, and poaching and divert your well meaning energy there.

  24. I think the reason people are so outraged by this incident is because of the moral contradictions it demonstrates. For a start people think of Zoo’s as a place where animals are protected. Not put down because their genes don’t fit in with the breeding programme. Yes we kill pigs and cattle all the time to eat meat and you don’t get the same public outcry, but that’s because we are desensitized to this, it’s not because it’s right. Maybe we don’t take the time to question this enough. It is not humane to take species from the wild and place them in zoos, they should be protected in their natural habitat. It is clearly a contradiction to use the words humanely and euthanized in the same sentence, especially when putting down a fit and healthy animal. It seems that the obvious motivation behind the zoo’s choices are the same as any business and it comes down to money. I really don’t doubt the zoo’s claim that the children learnt a lot more from watching the autopsy than from looking at a picture but if education was going to rely on teaching methods such as these what else are you teaching the children. Are they promoting a message that life is expendable in the name of science. A zoo should have a duty of care to any animals taken from the wild or bred into captivity. This story highlights some serious flaws in our claim that we are a humane society.

  25. Good try but no go — you lost me with the last comment, when you stated that the public would have not reacted if the animal had been an antilope or a “pig”. WRONG, Mister! No animal should be treated this way, period.

  26. This was just wrong on so many levels, keep telling yourself the story and eventually you will believe it was right, twisting your words and trying to convince yourself of it! You know darn well it was not the right thing to do, God sure knows it was not the right thing to do!!! I’m in the medical profession and I am all for the learning process, a necropsy on an animal that dies from disease or of normal causes due to age, etc. would be one thing but not, I repeat NOT by the killing of a healthy animal just for the sake of ‘teaching’ (if that’s what you want to try to call it) others from its death. It saddens me to see what this world is coming to. I for one feel that this zoo should be closed forever, none of those involved in this massacre should be allowed to care for or even personally own any animals ever again! To try to justify this just makes you look more pitiful, heartless and stupid in trying to defend this heinous act!!! I would have been upset no matter what animal was SLAUGHTERED in this manner and this poor baby Giraffe was definitely slaughtered…

  27. Treated what way? how was this animal inhumanely treated? Give it up Francine.. research and understand culling, and why he could not go to the london zoo.. inbreeding leads to many more issues. The costs could be astronomical, and whatever animals this giraffe would have sired, would have been put down.. stop knee jerking and know the facts.. this animal was not torn apart in front of the public.. a necropsy was performed.. and any of us who have any zoo background know that this animal was treated with dignity and respect as it was so.

  28. I heard that in the victorian era admission to the zoo was a dog or cat, obviously for feeding the animals!

  29. Thanks for the post, Kim.

    This comment comes from your final quote, how no one would have batted an eyelash if it was an antelope or a pig.

    Having been raised in Newfoundland and witnessed first-hand the barrage of international headlines calling for an end to the “inhumane” seal hunt, I couldn’t help but relate to the truthfulness of that statement.

  30. I would like to inject a different word to this discussion…decency. I do not find any of the comparisons of the killing of this giraffe to cattle, pigs etc. appropriate. I do not consider the argument that lions eat giraffes in the wild appropriate either. The problem here is the giraffe was a known individual (probably with stuffed twins in the gift shop) that was killed for expediency. He could have been moved…probably for free to a facility that would have allowed him to live out his life before he was given up to animal fodder. I find the continuous suggestions that this animal was used for educational purposes with equal disdain. Without further comment, I would like to sum up my view on the event AND THE WAY IT WAS DONE. This was simply not the decent thing to do.

  31. Dr. Ervin, I wonder if you have any idea what the maintenance costs for the lifetime of a giraffe would be, all thrown together, you know, staff, housing, medicine, food, etc, and who would pay them?

  32. Want a parent quote? Here’s one… “While we weren’t present at the dissection of the giraffe, we have taken our children (currently 11 and 6) to other ones at the Copenhagen Zoo, as well as a number of other venues. Biology and zoology are refreshingly open and accessible in Denmark and we value the educational opportunity provided by the professional zoologists and vets across the country. The kids – like the thousands of others who have the opportunity to see dissections across the country every year – are always fascinated and we talk about it for a long while afterwards. Kids can never get enough science.”

    Interestingly, this being winter break, the Natural History Museum in the city of Aarhus has dissections for the public every day this week. You can see the schedule here: http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=da&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.naturhistoriskmuseum.dk%2Fkalender%2FDissektionsplan.htm&act=url

    We don’t live in a Disney film. The Copenhagen Zoo has been integral in nuturing my childrens’ love of animals thanks to our countless visits.

  33. ‘We don’t live in a Disney film. The Copenhagen Zoo has been integral in nurturing my childrens’ love of animals thanks to our countless visits.’

    Sums things up very nicely. Thank you.

  34. This article is the biggest piece of SHIT I’ve read so far about Marius the baby giraffe that was MURDERED at Copenhagen zoo. What a shammy way of trying to justify the HORRIBLE thing they did to a completely healthy animal which could have easily being moved to another zoo or reservation because MANY of them offered to.

    The person who wrote this article clearly lacks of journalism skills and has no idea of the value of a LIFE. ANYTHING WAS AN EXCUSE FOR WHAT THIS DISGUSTING ZOO DID.

  35. Giullana, how many times have you seen ‘Bambi?’

  36. Interesting article on how differently the same story can be told.

    I have to say that this case has been a real eye opener of just how aggressive, abusive and downright nasty many people who call themselves animal lovers can be. Many baying for blood, literally. It has also highlighted how selective the outrage is, with the primary criteria seemingly being cuteness. Case in point being 6 lions put down recently at Longeat Safari Park in the UK, where you would be hard pressed to find an outrage express on that case.

  37. Ethics exist to control behavior when there is a huge power differential. This giraffe was not on the Serengeti where the survival of a lion depended on its death. This giraffe was defenseless in the face of man, the ultimate predator who raised this animal to eat rye bread from human hands and then used that same bread to bring that giraffe into range so it could be slaughtered. The most frightening thing to me is the total lack of comprehension on the part of the zoo keepers as to the cheapening of the value of the life of one of the most beautiful and unique creatures on earth. It is a slippery slope when living things are most valued for their genetic makeup. Hubris, conceit, and pride contributed to the unnecessary death of that giraffe. science without a heart is terrifying.

  38. Very well written article Kim. You covered the event rationally, ethically, professionally, while leaving the sensationalism to the uninformed media hounds. This is very good journalism.

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