Being natural versus stewardship


The above picture is one of our giraffes from The Phoenix Zoo who gets fed by guests under zookeeper supervision.


I know this is a sore subject that has been discussed thoroughly by experts, but I just wanted to address the Copenhagen Zoo’s situation with the giraffe they killed from the perspective of a Phoenix Zoo volunteer, conservation student, and young adult.

Firstly, I would like to summarize exactly what the situation was and why the outcome was the death of a giraffe. Then later on (Yes, unfortunately I am going to do this) I will provide my own opinion and conclusions on the matter.  I will also talk about how the Phoenix Zoo specifically reacted to this news and how U.S. zoos differ from European zoos. Throughout my post I will be mentioning some quotes from articles and will provide the link to them at the bottom of each quote.

The Copenhagen zoo on February 9th “euthanized” one of their male giraffes who was only 18 months old. Marius (the male giraffe) was shot with a bolt gun, a common weapon used to stun animals before they are slaughtered and often damages the brain therefore killing them, and then a necropsy (the animal version of a autopsy) was preformed on Marius in front of zoo guests. Once this “educational experience” was played out completely, the young giraffe’s meat was fed to the lions (lucky lions). This situation caused a great outcry, from people in Europe and all over the world. It made people question the legitimacy of zoos and wonder if we really need zoos at all in this world when they are just killing their own animals. Next I will explain the reasoning behind the Copenhagen’s decision and some different articles views on the matter.

1st quote from the Copenhagen Zoo page itself:

“In Copenhagen Zoo we let the animals breed naturally. With naturally we mean that they will get young within the same intervals as they would in the wild. That means that the animals get to carry out their natural behaviours. Parental care is a big part of an animal’s behaviour. It is a 24 hour job in longer periods of their lives and we believe that they should still be able to carry out this type of behaviour also in captivity. Contraceptives have a number of unwanted side effects on the internal organs and we would therefore apply a poorer animal welfare if we did not euthanize.”

If you have a chance to go to the zoo’s page, please do. It is interesting to read their logic on the matter and although I find it very foreign, there is some logic in their explanations. Two things bother me about the above quote. First of all, them talking about natural behaviors and then secondly their contraceptives hatred. Yes, animals at a zoo should be able to carry out natural behaviors. Part of being a good zoo is going above and beyond to create a habitat and life for the animals that is as natural as the real thing is. Unfortunately, there is a line between being natural and also being responsible for your animals lives. The fact of the matter is, the Copenhagen zoo wanted Marius’s mother to breed naturally and have offspring. Then, Marius was no longer wanted (which should never happen at any zoo) and they decided to “euthanize” him. I find that path of logic slightly ridiculous. They want their animals to “naturally” breed, but then when things get too crowded they decide to kill their animals, that is not natural. Also, they are against contraceptives, for some good reasons and for some not so good reasons. A good reason is for the animals safety, I probably need to do some more research on this, but as far as I know, most U.S. zoos use contraceptives on their animals and most of those animals are perfectly healthy and most importantly still a live. A bad reason is that they believe it is unnatural to have similar genes intermixing, but I hate to break it to them, sometimes in the wild that happens too. It isn’t a good thing, but siblings mate, cheetahs are so inbred they are becoming less intelligent, similar genes can intermix. So as far as the natural argument goes, they are not completely right. Obviously I know just because nature sometimes brings about inbreeding, doesn’t mean the zoo should allow that, but the point is, there are compromises and they chose to contradict themselves in so many ways.

2nd quote:

“In contrast to most zoos around the world, which use contraception or sterilization to control their animals’ reproduction, Copenhagen Zoo has chosen not to for two principal reasons. Some methods of contraception can have negative effects on an animal’s health and future reproductive ability, although slowly science is eliminating these.

But the Danes also strongly believe that being a parent is an enriching experience for their animals. The problem is that while it solves one animal welfare problem — the well-being of the breeding adults — it creates a subsequent ethical issue, that of what to do with the “surplus offspring.”

To many people in Britain this goes against our cultural identity as a nation of animal lovers. Danes love animals, too, but express this in a different manner. They would, I suspect, agree with animal welfare experts in arguing that death itself is not an animal welfare issue; what is important is that the death is humane, and that the life that preceded it was good. In the United Kingdom we are perhaps too focused on longevity and not on quality of life. This is the key difference in attitude to the case of Marius the giraffe.

Sorry about the very long quote, but I felt like this was an extremely interesting article because it talks about culture and it is also from the view of another European nation. I already talked about the fact that contraceptives seem to work great in U.S. zoos, but this article reinstates that: “Some methods of contraception can have negative effects on an animal’s health and future reproductive ability, although slowly science is eliminating these.” The key word is some methods can have negative effects, therefore suggesting that some do not and the same sentence also mentions that science is eliminating these negative effects. Yay for progress! Another thing to mention is that the negative effects are not explained. Of course any negative effect is bad, but a negative effect might be worth it if it means small issues versus death by a bolt gun and fed to lions. I do find it interesting that in this article the Danish are compared to the British. Both love animals, but while the British love animals and are horrified by such a short life and awful death, the Danish are just happy Marius had 18 months of joy and a “humane” death. If this really is just a cultural difference, then the only way to mend it is through education or just acceptance by people. After all, if the Danes have a different view of animals than we do, then it is really their choice, but just because this one zoo does something that horrifies the public, doesn’t mean all zoos are the same.

3rd quote (another giraffe named Marius in Europe could be killed as well and this is that zoo talking about the possibility):

“At the moment, there is no problem,” said zoologist Jasper Moehring. “Marius is good company for Elmer and they are a wonderful attraction for our visitors.

“But the problem will be when we get a female. The two males will fight, which could result in the death of one of them,” he told the BBC.

I am sure I sound like a broken record by now, but if these zoos are all about “natural” things then why don’t they just let the two males naturally fight. Or why don’t they switch the males on and off exhibits at different times. For example, the Phoenix Zoo has to keep the male zebra in his nighthouse (holding pen, like for a horse) when the females have their babies with them and then they switch the females and babies into the nighthouse and let the male out. I can’t understand why this would be a difficult thing for the zoo in Europe to do too.

4th quote:

“Our aim is to safeguard for future generations a genetically diverse, healthy population of animals against their extinction,” it said in a statement. “Copenhagen is highly involved in these programmes and took a transparent decision that the young animal in question could not contribute to the future of its species further, and given the restraints of space and resources to hold an unlimited number of animals within our network and programme, should therefore be humanely euthanised.”-

Not much to say about this one, except that “the young animal in question could not contribute to the future of its species further” is a bit of a harsh comment. The young animal could have gone to a different zoo, but the Copenhagen zoo is part of a European Zoo Association and if the other zoos offering to take Marius in aren’t accredited under that association they cannot rightfully give him to that zoo. In other words, they would rather kill the young giraffe than allow the giraffe to go to a zoo that is not following all the rules even if that zoo is known to be clean and a safe haven for animals.

5th quote:

“we would hope that due concern and attention should be focused on the real issues impacting the future of species such as giraffes on our planet, not the exemplary care, from cradle to grave to the giraffe herd at Copenhagen Zoo.” -

This quote makes me both mad and compassionate. It is a hard statement to grasp and agree with because it has truth to it but it also has cruelty in it. Yes, we should all be caring more about the wild giraffes in Africa and any other animal on this planet, but part of caring for those animals is caring for the same species at zoos. Part of the reasons why zoos are important is that they are doing conservation for species, like giraffes, via breeding programs, rehabilitation, releasing back into the wild, etc. Therefore, if the herd of the giraffes at the zoo are connected to the survival of the wild giraffes in Africa, then care should be given to both equally. Part of getting people to care about wild animals in Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, Europe, etc. is education. Zoos provide that education by allowing the public to interact and learn about the different species. By treating one of their animals the way they did, the Copenhagen zoo gave the wrong idea to the public. Through the way we care about the animals at the zoo, we can learn to care about the giraffes in the wild. There has to be a connection between the public at that species, because most people cannot afford to go to Africa to see the real thing or donate thousands of dollars to save a giraffe. I’ll give two scenarios to explain this better. A child goes to a zoo (the Phoenix Zoo in this situation) and they get to feed one of our giraffes, one of the females with a heart-shaped spot on her neck. The giraffe’s tongue tickles that kid’s fingers and the kid has a big grin on his face. That same kid goes home and looks up giraffes on the computer because he is just so excited about his experience. He learns about the different species and about their vulnerability and all sorts of other interesting facts. Now he has this clear connection between the giraffe he fed at the zoo and the giraffes in the African wild and he cares a great deal about both. Then he goes and tells his friends and family the same information and now possibly a whole bunch of people care about giraffes in general. Now, another kid goes to the Copenhagen zoo, interested and excited about all the animals, but he comes up to a group of people around a bloody, cut up giraffe. The leg is severed, the skin is coming off, the lifeless face staring at the audience, Sure, he’s fascinated, he’s a kid, never seen something like it before, he does learn about some bones and anatomy, but he’s wondering why this happened. The zookeeper explains that the giraffe wasn’t wanted anymore, he was 18 months old, and they wouldn’t keep him because he took up too much room. The kid is thinking, I guess not all giraffes are important. He might go home and look up giraffes, but still in the back of his head he has this memory of a giraffe not mattering and that teaches him that some animals just aren’t important. So, if a giraffe gets poached in Africa who’s to say that giraffe was important? Maybe just like the Copenhagen giraffe, it wasn’t needed anymore, and was no longer wanted. 


“Indeed, zoos say this is why we need zoos. They’re the guardians of some of Earth’s rarest species, caring for them in captivity, and breeding them with the hopes of one day restoring them to the wild. Zoos, we’re told, are one of the best ways—and in some cases, the only way—to preserve a species and its genetic variability.” -

I find the above quote to be completely true. Sure, I have problems with zoos just like most people in the world. I truly wish we could live on a planet where animals are never kept in captivity, never in cages, but first of all, it’s too late to change that now and second of all with the way we treat our planet some animals will be better off in zoos. Zoos are a really important way to preserve species. They can be the only place where we can rehabilitate certain animals. The Black Footed Ferret for example, was almost extinct in the Arizona wild, in fact it was thought to be extinct twice. Through disease and the decrease in their prey’s population (the prairie dog) the Black footed ferret found itself in trouble quite often. With other facilities the Phoenix Zoo helped bring back the ferret “Phoenix Zoo has produced over 400 ferrets in the 20+ years that we have been involved with the black-footed ferret breeding program.” For more information go to : . Zoos are also great places for education and without education there really cannot be any progress. If no one learns about the extinction of certain rhino species, or sustainable palm oil, or tagua nuts, then nothing will ever change in their attitude and animals will continue to become endangered. 

A few more things before I stop. When the news came out about Marius being killed, the Phoenix Zoo had to send a statement out to it’s volunteers and employees about how to respond to such a situation. I unfortunately deleted the email with the exact statement but the gist of it was that at an AZA accredited (In AZA, “accreditation” means official recognition and approval of a zoo or aquarium by a group of experts.) such a situation would never happen. First of all, AZA zoos makes sure there is room for any and every animal that comes to their facility, factoring in the possibility of offspring. Secondly, AZA zoos use contraceptives, making sure they are not effecting the animals negatively. If they do not want to use contraceptives, they would find a way to separate animals they do not want to breed. It’s as simple as that, at an AZA zoo an animal would never be “euthanized” because it is unwanted because at an AZA zoo an animal would not be unwanted.

Last thought: would the public be as outraged by the situation if it was a tortoise being euthanized and necropsied in front of the public, or any other reptile, amphibian, or insect?