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A photo of two lionesses at the Copenhagen Zoo.

Two lionesses are seen at the Copenhagen Zoo on March 26, not long after four other lions were put to death.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JENS DRESLING, POLFOTO/AP

Marc Bekoff

for National Geographic

Published March 27, 2014

The four lions killed by the Copenhagen Zoo this week, as well as  the healthy young giraffe named Marius put to death in February, didn't have to die.

A global uproar has followed the deaths of two African lions and their two ten-month-old cubs. Their lives ended because the zoo wants to introduce a new male to the remaining females to bear more lions.

The same outcry was heard when a healthy young giraffe named Marius, who had the wrong genes for the facility's breeding program, was killed with a bolt to his head—so as not to contaminate his body with poisons. The giraffe was publicly dissected and then fed to the zoo's carnivores, including lions.

None of the deaths were euthanasia, which is a mercy killing when an animal is suffering or lingering near death and must be "put down," as zoos always refer to such situations.

Rather, it was "zoothanasia," or killing done by zoo workers because an animal is no longer needed for one reason or another and is deemed to be a disposable object rather than a sentient being. (Related: "Opinion: Killing of Marius the Giraffe Exposes Myths About Zoos.")

The "Marius Effect"

Many people around the world were outraged by Marius's death. I call this the "Marius Effect."

Many of them had never previously voiced their opinion about the common killings of what are disparagingly called "surplus animals" by zoos, or had spoken out about other animal issues. (See "National Zoo Deaths: 'Circle of Life' or Animal Care Concerns?")

While some workers at the zoo and elsewhere said the giraffe had to be killed because he didn't fit into the zoo's breeding program, and therefore couldn't be used as a breeding machine (like dogs at a puppy mill), countless others disagreed. An online petition asking the zoo to hold off on the killing until another home was found received tens of thousands of signatures.

Marius was killed despite the fact that another facility had offered him a home in which he could live out his life in peace and safety.

Many others and I figured that the negative attention that the late Marius brought to the Copenhagen Zoo would serve as a catalyst to change the breeding policies of zoos in Europe. We thought those responsible for killing him would reassess what they did and question their killing ways—even if such killings were required by existing regulations put forth by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). (Read more about zoos and saving rare species in National Geographic magazine.)

We couldn't have been more wrong. Now, with the deaths of the four lions, the Copenhagen Zoo wants to become a lion mill, I would argue, and still seems to think killing healthy animals is perfectly okay.

All of the newborn lions whose kin died to make way for them will spend their lives in captivity, and some will undoubtedly be "zoothanized" in the future because they, too, will be classified as disposable "surplus" animals without the right genes to pass on to future captive lions.

The zoo also argued that the new male lion brought to the zoo would kill the youngsters and the captive group, and thus the group wouldn't resemble a wild pride of lions, as if it previously had.

Of course, there is nothing natural about the cage in which they are kept.  While some might call it an enclosure or pretty it up by calling it "lion habitat," it is still a cage in which future lions will be mercilessly crammed, from cradle to grave.

"Perversely Justified"

I see heinous acts like killing Marius and the four lions as a perfect subject for study for researchers in the field of anthrozoology, the scientific study of human-animal relationships.

These easily avoidable deaths, perversely justified "in the name of conservation," are horrible lessons for youngsters. They run counter to global programs in humane education and compassionate conservation, in which the life of every individual animal is valued—and not just because they can serve us in any number of ways, such as by making more of themselves for future captive breeding. (See "Is Breeding Pandas in Captivity Worth It?")

Zoos need to change their ways and respect the caged animals for whom they are responsible as long as an individual is healthy.

Surely, people who choose to go to the Copenhagen Zoo can find other ways to spend their time and money.

Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published numerous scientific and popular essays and 25 books, including Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation and Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation.

181 comments
John Malone
John Malone

Let's close the Copenhagen zoo and perhaps Copenhagen itself.

Daniel Wood
Daniel Wood

Animals need champions, thanks for keeping this story alive.

Tj Watson
Tj Watson

Honestly, I feel very blind to this. I had never realized such a thing occurred. The average person will believe a zoo to be a safe haven. Somewhere to showcase a species but at the same time protect them. To kill them for no apparent reason is wrong and should be illegal for a zoo to do. It is completely against what they stand for.

Seraphina S.
Seraphina S.

this seems to link back to wither or not zoos are ethical in the first place. Why kill two lions and their two cubs just so you can have room? Why not sell them to another zoo or build another inclosure?  Then you have the public killing of a giraffe simply because he does not fit where you want him to. We seem to be killing the animals simply because they don't work into our plans. There is no real justification or even reason to our actions. We simply do what is easiest.

Scott Brown
Scott Brown

I think acts like this show just how far we have to go as a species.  I cannot accept any justification to an act like this that involves numbers, program requirements, or presentation.  I don't like zoo's at the best of times but they are part of our world, but this seams like killing an animal because it is not doing what you feel it is supposed to be doing.  I had hoped that we had moved far beyond that mentality.

Anna Savelesky
Anna Savelesky

It is sad that the animals were killed but zoo keepers have a responsibility to eliminate weaknesses which in the wild would happen naturally.  The animals, alas for some, are livestock, to be managed as such.  In domestic animals, this is done on a regular basis.  Sometimes whole breeding lines are dispensed.  Those who are carnivores eat them; those who are vegetarians eat plant embryos, or plant bodies.  Apparently plants recognize this too.  Bacteria, fungi, parasites, other predators eat humans.  That's the way of life.  Sorry.

I believe that other animals are sentient like us.  We have hands, which helped a lot to allow our kind to survive.  They mourn, play, express affection, get angry, sulk, feel injustice, will accept deserved scolding but resent and remember unjust treatment; I 've seen these things over my life.  We're all part of the whole so must accept this.  Children need to learn respect for each other as well as other life forms.  That's what we need to teach!

KAVETA M.
KAVETA M.

What a sad world we live in. People have no respect for the beings on this earth. To me that was cruelty to the highest level. so many other options were available to save those animals but they resorted to death!!!!! Unbelievably sad. RIP all those animals who suffer from the hands of humans..... xoxo kavi

Shiela Kenney
Shiela Kenney

The facts reported in the news included that not only did they use a bolt-gun on that giraffe, they actually invited parents to have their children come and watch as they let some of their lions eat the giraffe.  What a way to teach children respect for animals, ugh.

Jillian R.
Jillian R.

I feel like it said in the article : zoos need to change this about them. It's so wrong.

Janice H.
Janice H.

While I understand the legitimate reasons behind this culling of the pack, there has got to be a better way to remove the "surplus animals" from the area. Maybe relocate them to a growing zoo, or introduce especially the cubs/young animals to wildlife parks. Breeding programs are incredibly vital for producing strong animals to face the threat to their natural habitats and unfortunate steps sometimes have to be taken, but most of them I think are avoidable. Maybe not as cost efficient, but really, you are working to save an entire species. Is cost efficiency really more important that holding on to all healthy animals that are born?

Karen Lorentzson
Karen Lorentzson

The lions in picture look very depressed and as very intelligent beings they are obviously in mourning! What a horrible zoo to do this despite having large monetary offers that would have funded the zoo does not make sense and to kill perfectly healthy animals of such limited dna species should be against the law, people are insane!

John Hall
John Hall

I believe that any zoo should be required to make known to the world zoos or sanctuaries of any problems they have with animals that don't fit their future plans, so they can be relocated. To just kill these wonderful animals is quite senseless 

Rose Ballantine
Rose Ballantine

This is so wrong.I think that anyone who participated in the killings of these animals should be killed themselves.


Rajdeep Sandhu
Rajdeep Sandhu

This is extremely brutal, foolish reasons. This thing ruined my day, if these animals can't speak and express themselves that doesn't mean they could be treated any way we want. If you can't do any good to them just let them live freely. 

Stop captivating them in Zoos in name of their welfare when actually it ruins their lives.

SO DISTURBING :(

autumn c
autumn c

I found this shocking :(

Martha Andrade-Leyva
Martha Andrade-Leyva

awful, selfish, discussing, murders, I hope they get eaten by one of the wild animals, see  how it feels

Carlos A Vidigal
Carlos A Vidigal

No matter what scientific argument they offer, I think is wrong and inhumane. There must be a better way to deal with this. I see these beautiful creatures as part of my world and therefore they shall not be killed for "aesthetic" reasons.

H. Thogersen
H. Thogersen

Well, the only thing to do is close all the zoos, right?

If we want zoos and breading programs to save wild animal species we need to be selective and careful not to inbreed the captured animals.

And no its not a puppy factory its simple healthy animal control.

In a zoo there is no dangers to control the population of the animals so the humans have to do it.

I think the writer of this article is naive and have not investigated anything to write this.

Joy Smith
Joy Smith

I agree the deaths were senseless and unneccisary.however ,as is everything these days unless the fine for doing so is very high ..it will continue!

Teresa Lucas
Teresa Lucas

If they didn't fit into their "breeding program" the zoo could have found other homes for them or neutered them. 

Jillian R.
Jillian R.

I think this is totally wrong. The last thing they could have done is give the giraffe to another zoo- but instead they killed him with a bullet, dissected him, and fed him to the animas PUBLICLY. That's just wrong.

Michael Pityer
Michael Pityer

Okay, a little information for all of you that say that these people are infinity cruel and that this is the worst zoo in the world. First of all, a zoos main purpose is to provide entertainment and a breeding program to help species of animals that are endangered. Also some of what you people say are extremely disturbing opinions (looking at you D Ram). The killing of the lions was a sad event and other actions could have been taken, but they also have to consider the other animals in this process. They didn't just kill these animals to kill them. The giraffe was killed because they had too many and used em as food for the other carnivores and the lion breeding program was about to have inbreeding which would cause painful genetic issues. Other actions could have been taken but what happened happened. Besides, this isn't even close to the worst zoo in the world, so why not get self righteous about that?

D Ram
D Ram

Morality, eithical views, humanity--all these terms are mere subjective fabrications of what pansies believe in.


People do realize that because of these faults in their thinking natural selection in humans is no longer a thing, right?

Genetically fat people, people with diabetes, people who are genetically predisposed to wearing glasses, etc--all of these people should be dead and don'shouldn't have the right to reproduce. I blame technology and advances in medicine for this; everyone and their mothers is cheating nature and can now reproduce regardless of their ailments.


But back to the article. Everyone in this comment section is an ignorant hypocrite and needs to be put down because of their "views." If you eat meat, don't talk.


Humans are a terrible species of animal; I don't support what these zoos are doing, in fact I hate humans for halting the frowth of animal populations. I wish us humans would disappear for this earth and allow nature to run its course like it's supposed to and allow animals to proliferate and go extinct based on the natural patterns.


Karen Saville
Karen Saville

WHAT ARE THESE IDIOTS THINKING,,,???I WILL NEVER GO TO A ZOO AGAIN,,,HOW CAN WE START THE PROCESS TO STOP THE MURDERING,,,???

marianne Smith
marianne Smith

Baby animals bring in large crowds of paying customers. And in order to have a constant supply of genetically approved babies, zoos kill off their surplus. Proper breeding to sustain the maximum numbers of animals allowed would mean years and years without babies. So the revenues would drop and all that comes with a failing business, as that is what most zoos are, businesses. What is the answer?

Dolores Marconi
Dolores Marconi

Going to a zoo is wrong. Don't go and don't eat meat - you will look and feel much better and this pathetic circus will end.


Douglas Kane
Douglas Kane

Who are humans to play god with animals lives? All should boycott this zoo, then they would capitulate when they see their drop in revenue.

Tomato Tomate
Tomato Tomate

4 lions was killed by  the crazy reasons, i cant understand the zoo's action.

Apisai T.
Apisai T.

We are living in a perverse world. People want to save animals yet endorse abortion. I am just in awe at the contradictions we have in our world. Our world is very confused. Animals belong to the wild!

Nat Ganja
Nat Ganja

If that's the case...We should just kill all the parents that can't provide 100% for their children, and we should just kill their children as well...
But seriously, wouldn't it have been better just to let them die on their own in the wild? I know they would have a hard time to survive, but I'd rather go like that....O Wait...that would cost money? lol...

Matt Rider
Matt Rider

While I totally understand the genetic requirements to enlarge the gene pool over time, this is really applying a theoretical type experiment on live beings. It has no place in a zoo or any other facility.
If a zoo takes on an animal it is surely responsible for the well being of that animal until natural death or another facility takes responsibility. These are not mathematical models that you kill off in an experiment.

If they apply this "logic" to mammals, then why not primates? which ultimately leads to us.


Lisa Polsler
Lisa Polsler

Many zoos are not like this. Many actually prevent "surplus" unwanted offspring by castration or spaying - or even birth control (yes, lions have birth control)! This zoo just used the cubs to make money from crowds going to see them...now they are going to repeat it. They act like we have no scientific knowledge of controlling populations except killing...no...and they ignore the requests to rehome these unwanted animals. Check your local zoo - if you see something you don't like, say something! They will never change if the public doesn't voice concerns.

Shiela Kenney
Shiela Kenney

That's what kills me is that they had better offers than simply braining/shooting them.  Those lions are not only in mourning - they now know what will happen to them and how humans have no consideration about it.  I think they're not just depressed, but trembling in their "boots."

Shiela Kenney
Shiela Kenney

Naivete has nothing to do with it.  I think most people are aware that zoos must have breeding programs - that's not the point.  The point is that there are many other more humane ways of doing it than this Swedish zoo chose.  Other zoos offered to take the lions, and a wildlife sanctuary was ready to take the giraffe.  For them to kill the animals just to save themselves the cost of transporting the animals is criminal.

Rebecca Hall
Rebecca Hall

@H. Thogersen We don't need selective breeding in zoos.  Plenty of other zoos offered to take Marius and the lions at the offering zoo's expense.  Inconvenience is no excuse.  If zoos breed it, zoos must keep it, or make other arrangements for their living care.  It is simply irresponsible, unprofessional and BAD PLANNING that causes zoos to breed and a couple of years later decide that, "Nope. Mistake. Gotta kill it."  There are animal contraceptives and ways to plan these things other than "zoothenasia".  We are supposed to be the species with the better brains and capability to plan ahead.  

Shiela Kenney
Shiela Kenney

Not a bullet, a bolt-gun... they didn't want to give him a needle because that would introduce toxins into the body they planned to feed to the lions in front of children.  Nice lesson in animal husbandry there.  At least it was quick.

Maggie Loughran
Maggie Loughran

Its not the same  as abortion, and i do no think we are endorsing abortion.  I do not see it as the same. As a women we have the choice to make the decision for ourselves.  And i am not endorsing the act of abortion.  That is also a necessary thing also i.e. woman has been raped by someone. Or they can die in childbirth, believe it or not there are so many ignorant things about abortion and the circimstances to making a woman make that choice.  Thank god that option is available to women otherwise the back street doctor thing would still be going on. Again a very controversial subject. The animals have no voice. Yes but i do agree that animals should be in the wild.  A lot of species are dying and even Jane Goodall has pointed out not in these words it is an necessary evil. They should be sanctuary's not Zoo's.

My point is these animals are at the mercy of human's who are clearly playing god with another species and these animals are going into extinction in the wild.

Dolores Marconi
Dolores Marconi

@Lisa Polsler    Animals should not be kept in cages for the amusment of other animals; humans. It's depressing to watch them eat and have sex.

M C
M C

Daish, you have no soul. I feel bad for you.

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