Baby giraffe killed at Copenhagen zoo despite worldwide protests

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)


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

See my follow up post HERE.