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A photo of people watching as a veterinarian begins to do an autopsy on a giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo.

Visitors watch as Marius the giraffe is dismembered after being killed at the Copenhagen Zoo in February 2014. The zoo fed the 18-month-old animal's carcass to lions.

PHOTOGRAPH BY KASPER PALSNOV, SCANPIX DENMARK VIA REUTERS

Christine Dell'Amore in Copenhagen

National Geographic

Published June 26, 2014

The zoo official who euthanized a giraffe and four lions earlier this year may be stoking more controversy.

Many zoos, especially in the United States, are perpetuating a fairy-tale world that masks the realities of nature from visitors, he said this week in Copenhagen.

"We should not tell the Disney story that animals are only cute and only get born and never die," said Bengt Holst, the Copenhagen Zoo's science director, at the 2014 Euroscience Open Forum. "We have to tell the real story: 'Death is a natural consequence of life.' If [we] don't tell that story, [we're doing] a bad job, because then we don't work for conservation—we work for an imaginary world." (Related: "Hey Kids, All Deer Aren't Like Bambi.")

Zoos in Europe have been euthanizing, or culling, captive animals for about 30 years. The goal has been to create a healthy and genetically diverse population of different species, many of which are threatened by extinction. Animals are sometimes killed to make room for other animals or to avoid inbreeding.

European zoos also breed more animals than they need, because it's impossible to predict how many females will get pregnant and give birth to healthy offspring.

Holst told National Geographic on Wednesday that the need to euthanize is actually a "positive sign," since it means that zoos are breeding animals well enough to create a surplus.

The Mercy Rule

According to rules set by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, a "quick death without suffering" is permitted when a captive-breeding program yields too many animals.

The U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums did not respond to a request for comment. But in a previous email interview, the AZA's senior vice president of external affairs, Rob Vernon, said that euthanizing healthy animals is not as common in the United States as it is in Europe.

"Each of our accredited zoos and aquariums follow humane euthanasia practices, which are most often used for medical reasons related to quality-of-life issues or to prevent the transmission of disease," he said.

According to Holst, culling zoo animals is the same as what happens in the wild. For instance, only one in four African lion cubs makes it to adulthood; many are eaten by adult lions.

Zoos "are afraid to talk about the real thing," Holst said. "Some zoos in the U.S. don't dare show that animals eat carcasses, or [that the zoos] feed them cat food. That's crazy, because that's not telling the right story."

Dalia Conde, a biologist at the University of Southern Denmark who studies and supports zoos, says that too many of them avoid shocking or saddening visitors, which is counterproductive to saving rare species.

"People say, 'We don't want to talk about the biodiversity crisis in zoos because people are so depressed.' Ten percent of the planet's population [goes] to the zoo every year. If all those zoos really have a strong commitment [to] education and conservation, they can make a huge difference."

But Conde says there are other factors at play. Some U.S. zoos, for instance, avoid putting bonobos—a chimp relative—on public display because of their frequent sexual activity, whereas European zoos don't have such rules.

"It's really challenging to [determine] the role of zoos," she said. "[Should they present a] fairy-tale Bambi story? Or [should they] show ecology, evolution, mortality, and reproduction to the general public?" (Read more about zoos and saving rare species in National Geographic magazine.)

Ethical Considerations

Others experts, like Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, say killing zoo animals in most instances is simply ethically wrong.

"None of the [Copenhagen Zoo] 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," Bekoff wrote in a March opinion piece.

"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.")

Many in the public agree.

In February, an online petition—which asked the Copenhagen Zoo to hold off on killing its unwanted giraffe named Marius until another home could be found—received tens of thousands of signatures from around the world. Wildlife parks in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands also offered to take Marius in. (Related: "National Zoo Deaths: 'Circle of Life' or Animal Care Concerns?")

But Holst says the decision not to relocate the giraffe was based on his zoo's commitment to "always take responsibility for our animals from A to Z. We don't just send the animals to strange places that don't cooperate under the same framework as we do."

Crossing Borders

Though Holst says he was "surprised" by the global outcry, he's glad that the question of how to best manage zoo populations is now "on the agenda all over the world."

For instance, the controversy has highlighted many countries' restrictions on moving animals across borders, which prevents facilities from maintaining viable populations of zoo animals. For instance, if new animals aren't introduced to zoo populations, the existing animals can become inbred. (See "Is Breeding Pandas in Captivity Worth It?")

"Strict legislation is good at protecting animals from illegal trade," Conde said in a statement, "but unfortunately it can also prevent zoos from exchanging animals."

The Copenhagen Zoo is working its way through what Holst calls nine months of "bureaucratic red tape" as it tries to send two endangered Amur leopards to the U.S. He said zoos should work together to get these laws changed in order to allow movement of animals.

"Too many zoos all over the world are bragging of working for conservation without doing what they're actually supposed to do," he said. "That destroys [the reputation] of zoos—they have to take on that role even if it costs money. Those who are only talking about it should get [it] together."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

88 comments
Ann Geoghegan
Ann Geoghegan

I agree.It was sad to read about the giraffe but he was not shot in front of the public like we were lead to believe.Zoo's have become too unnatural and have failed to show a realistic side to wildlife.This is leading to an increased demand for exotic animals. We need show the true nature of these animals.

Joyce Breems
Joyce Breems

Some people here seem to think that these children were forced to watch the giraffe get killed and dissected. The killing was done in privete and the dissecting was done in an enclosed area where people who wanted to watch the dissection could do so. This was not mindless disembement but showing the evolutionary adaptations to having such a long neck. Like in the tv program, Inside nature's giants.

Chere Boscio
Chere Boscio

This is ridiculous. If animals are breeding 'in surplus', why allow their poor offspring to reach maturity instead of aborting the animal before it's born? And what about contraception for over-breeding animals? That's literally like trying to solve the problem of human population through murder rather than family planning. 


In any case, living in captivity is something so unnatural and constraining for these animals that they often become sick and depressed. http://eluxemagazine.com/magazine/the-ethics-of-zoos/ 


Pure cruelty!

Katrina Gnip
Katrina Gnip

I haven't seen anyone commenting on this... but isn't euthanized meat unsafe to consume? Part of the euthanasia mix is a paralyzing sedative.

Bev Stayart
Bev Stayart

The largest "animal welfare" organization in Denmark applauded Bengt Holst's decision to kill Marius.  What does this tell you about the mindset of Denmark towards animals?  Marius was just a commodity to the zoo, to be exploited for profit when he was born and then again exploited as a macabre attraction when he was killed, publicly dissected and further degraded by throwing his lifeless body to the lions.  There is no justification for what the Copenhagen Zoo did to Marius.  It isn't "nature" when a human being deliberately kills a healthy baby giraffe.  Who wants to see a giraffe during the final hours of his life, knowing he will be killed and dissected within a few hours?  I cannot even begin to grasp the kind of people who enjoyed this as "entertainment."  This is beyond evil.

Marshal Moser
Marshal Moser

Perhaps humans should get more "back to nature" and manage and harvest wild game rather than cows as being done some places in Africa and elsewhere. Cows do lots of damage to the natural ecosystems, including the large animals, where they have been artificially maintained. We can monitor the wild herbivores and their predators for a healthy balance and give additional reasons to humans to maintain healthy habitats and the animals that occupy them.

Dallas T.
Dallas T.

If it was illustrating nature, he would have died old or diseased in a lingering fashion and been left on exhibit for vultures to clean his carcass, or lead to the lion exhibit so that they could fight and rip him apart while the world watched. Instead they euthanized a perfectly healthy animal that was less than 2 years old, and showed how to cut him up (like dissecting cattle for steak cuts) to feed the lions (which from what I remember, 2 of those were also euthanized to make way for 2 younger lions at a later date). This was a zoo officials stubborn choice to deliberately kill an animal because it was cheaper than moving it to another facility, or sterilizing it and feeding it until it was old. It was all about appearances (not wanting to look 'incapable' of caring for their animals) and money, not Disney stories and the reality of nature. The world is not upset because we don't understand that things die. The world is upset because there was no legitimate reason for Marius to die.  I'm just glad that I will never visit Copenhagen Zoo.

Dana Buxcey
Dana Buxcey

Many people can say this is twisted logic, however, death in the wild could have been worse than this. If the animal was sick and going to die, I believe that euthanizing and feeding the giraffe to the lions is what should have been done.  I also believe that in order to prevent inbreeding this is what should have been done.  Would we rather zoos cover up how they treat animals and not know about this story?  The fact is, what happens in the wild, is WILD.  Showing people elements of nature that are only cute and happy is not the honest truth.

Margo Tracey
Margo Tracey

The logic is so twisted here, I can't even believe what I'm reading.  Since when is it a zoo's responsibility to show what goes on in the wild?  I've been going to zoos for almost 60 years, myself, and zoos have always been about allowing the public to view a variety of animals.  It is supposed to be about enjoying their beauty.  We have placed our trust in you that you have been and will continue to protect those animals, not kill them!  Some people have been in the business too long.  We need some fresh, new, compassionate people at the helm. 

Marsha Freburger-Gumpf
Marsha Freburger-Gumpf

I am not buying a Disney story...I am 60 years old and the day I am not needed on earth, I pray I never have to murdered, cut up and fed to the lions.  The way this went down is so very WRONG. You will answer for your misguided deeds.  Animals belong in their natural habitat, not in a place where people can look at them like they are only on earth to be stared at!! 

C T
C T

On a side note, what was that about Disney never showing us animals dying?  I believe the entire plot of Lion King would be screwed up if Mufasa hadn't died.... What was that whole thing about the circle of life?  Wasn't that the point of the whole movie?

Shahrizam Adzman
Shahrizam Adzman

Steven Spielberg already thought us through Jurassic Park. You cannot keep a wild from the wild. Would you want the catastrophic scene to be happen in reality?

p/s: just saying :P

Anon Anon
Anon Anon

It was unnecessary and wrong. For such a lesson, you can teach children hunting and biology...and not on a giraffe, either. 

M. Renga
M. Renga

US is worse in hiding the truth, as usual in their well known hypocrisy! Sorry, face it guys, it's real!


Now generally speaking, this practice has to stop. Why don't they put them back in nature!?!? Owww yeah... waste of money (sarcasm)! I was convinced that Zoos try to keep animal species alive, but not giving them back their legitime freedom when it is needed is ODIOUS!!!

Antonina Peneva
Antonina Peneva

This is morally disgusting. This person should be sacked and never allowed close to animals. He is criminal in my eyes. There is nothing to excuse his sick mind and I am ashamed to call myself a human! And someone to stop asking public opinions but start doing something!

Maria Couto
Maria Couto

Persons with his profile should not be allowed to rule a Zoo. If we follow his perverse mind, why shouldn't we do autopsies in front of children, for exemple? Show them scenes of decapitation, torture, etc.? Isn't it real life? This guy stinks...

Rocco Yiu
Rocco Yiu

I know child abuse exist, that does not mean I want to witness it carry out  in public.

Rachel Lee
Rachel Lee

first of all, how did those animals from the wild reached those zoos? captured. correct? what is their first reason (zoo) to take them in? some says for conservation purpose and some says for entertainment purpose. ok accepted. Now when your zoo is facing out-of-space problem, is it not should be under expectation that one day that would happen? so your only solution to the expectation is just put them down? if that so, does that mean you already expected to put them down in the first place after all that hassle capturing them from the wild just for your own benefit? nice job then I would say to you if so. and conservation part, some of you say to conserve them from being hunt down illegally in the wild. but what makes the bloody difference when you expected to put them down in the end? longer living years for them? excellent then I would say. sometimes it is not up to you to decide whether the world is concious of the truth behind "fairy tale" or not by putting them down like that, but it would be the best if you could just release them back to the wild at young age. that at least, they can take time to adapt to environment in the wild and also back to where they belonged. This at the same time would be a positive way to solve your over crowded zoo and your reputation from being a "cruel zoo". think about it.

Mona Kf
Mona Kf

They euthanize to open space!!! I am sorry but that is very ridiculous excuse, why they don’t open more space thought?!! Who said no one can accept the death of animals?! Death if part of any creature’s life! Why you make a drama to make people believe what you do is correct?

If there is no room what is the point of keeping more animals in?! I think that they have forgotten that animals can get returned to the nature also!

Shahrizam Adzman
Shahrizam Adzman

I think to have a zoo is not a good idea. You want to learn more about wildlife, go to the wild. Animals are not display figures. Be a zoologist work in a field not in a facilities. It is not the animals that need to be conserved and preserved but their habitats too.

Lotta Nygård Mattsson
Lotta Nygård Mattsson

Bengt Holst should not work with animals, and human children. Not one thing is good about him. He look at himself as God, but I really thinks he comes from a hot place.

I will never go to Copenhagen again. Close all Zoos

David Higgins
David Higgins

NAZI Zookeepers of Copenhagen 

Teaching us all a Lesson in Human Cruelty 


Leif Leifnephewson
Leif Leifnephewson

@Margo Tracey They weren't showing "what goes on in the wild". They dissected the giraffe to show how a giraffe works. You can find a similar dissection on youtube, starring Attenborough, have a look at it.

Leif Leifnephewson
Leif Leifnephewson

@M. Renga 

The endangered animals are endangered because there is no place left for them in nature. They are kept in zoo because the alternative is that the species goes extinct.

Anon Anon
Anon Anon

@M. Renga And where, pray tell, are we to release said otherwise wild animals bred and born to captivity? Do you even biology, bro?

Robert Brimlow
Robert Brimlow

@Antonina Peneva To expand on Stephan Wagner's reply...  


Lions (and other carnivores) eat meat.  Meat is living tissue; it comes from live animals.  So is it better to kill a cow to feed to the lions or a giraffe that is unwanted/unneeded, that cannot be released into the "wild"?  


We kill animals for human consumption.  Heck, we even breed and raise animals for the sole purpose to kill and dismember for human and pet (cats/dogs) consumption.  So how is killing a giraffe morally disgusting, simply because it's a giraffe and not a cow, goat, sheep, fish, pig, etc.?


How is killing an "exotic" animal somehow morally disgusting simply because the animal is not domesticated?


In popular vernacular, it's called the "Circle of Life".



Stephan Wagner
Stephan Wagner

@Antonina Peneva I think this guy makes a good point. The giraffe did serve a good purpose, it was fed to lions. Yes, they could have saved the giraffe and killed a cow instead to feed the lions. Would that be morally less disgusting for you? To feed an animal, another animal will die. Thats nature, period! People have to learn to deal with it. Or, to go back to the articles topic, we could just pretend to live in a fairytale Disney world, where animals are super happy, love each other, and never die! But that, I'm afraid, Antonina, thats not reality.

Cheryl Kristensen
Cheryl Kristensen

@Maria Couto Maria, how is this more wrong than, for example, growing up on a farm and butchering your own meat? Catching a fish and cleaning your catch? Bengt Holst is a responsible and knowledgeble biologist. Just because you don't agree with him, does not make him perverse in any way.

agnatha hagfish
agnatha hagfish

@Rachel Lee  Almost all animals in European and US zoos were bred and born in captivity, the product of many dozens of generations of captive animals. Many species of animals have a much larger population in zoos than in the wild.  The purpose of zoos is to breed and keep a healthy, genetically diverse population of the species it maintains.


This is because there is very, very little "wild" left for animal habitat; the loss of wild habitat is the main reason for animal extinction, world wide. Is it possible that this is your first venture into reading about animal preservation and conservation?

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Rachel Lee Sometimes animals are being born in the zoos, which is even more cruel. It`s like killing 2 puppies of the litter just because nobody wants to take them. As far as I remember giraffes are not topping the list of most sustainable populations ever. Killing animals in the zoo is no more different than killing them in the wild. Just because an animal lives between four concrete walls gives more options to humans to kill them and get away. 

Colin Netzley
Colin Netzley

@Mona Kf Zoos a lot of times don't have the necessary time, money, or facilities to be able to release an animal back into the wild. A zoo animal is highly dependent on the keepers from day one. The animals do retain some of their instincts, but normally not enough to survive in a predator-filled world. If the zoos did have a way to raise an animal without having it depend on the keepers, they would still have to have the time and money to send it back to it's natural habitat. Moving an animal (especially a big one like the giraffe) would be extremely difficult and very expensive. And who's to say that would actually work? The animals still haven't experienced predators before. I'm not agreeing with the idea of "zoothanizing" animals, but breeding for the purposes of release can be risky and very resource-heavy.

J. Schlumpf
J. Schlumpf

@David Higgins From what I read, it was the animals that were being treated in a way that many consider cruel, not humans. That would be the actual Nazis in WWII, unless I missed something in the article that talks about cruelty against humans. In that case, my bad.

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Robert Brimlow giraffes were never bred to be steaks. This is the thing you miss. Cows exist only because we gain profit out of their products. A cow is sent to slaughterhouse  the moment she starts give less milk than expected. Nobody expects or demands anything from a giraffe/lion/zebra/crock/hippo/great white etc.


So as I stated in one of my posts - start breeding giraffes for products and then it`s ok to make mops out of their tales and cat food if you wish. 

Nurul Adiningtyas
Nurul Adiningtyas

@Stephan Wagner They fed it to the lions. Ironically, those lions were killed as well a few months after. I still think that relocating the animals will be the better option than killing them. 

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Cheryl Kristensen Bengt Holst is responsible for keeping animals healthy and alive. Being a butcher determines a role in food industry, not in conservation. Also giraffes are not livestock. And you catch fish and hunt wild animals for food, not because the forest has a surplus of them.

Владимир Предоев
Владимир Предоев

@Colin Netzley Ok, but killing animals? Especially when there are a hell lot of options to save them? It`s like a spoiled child - I cant` have it therefore no one will have it. We should act like adults. Animals are no property.

Ange Young
Ange Young

@Владимир Предоев @Robert Brimlow You completely miss the point that this giraffe only existed, as a commodity, to "entertain" the people visiting the zoo. Everybody expects something of these poor animals in zoos, and you are naive to ignore that fact

Leif Leifnephewson
Leif Leifnephewson

@Владимир Предоев @Robert Brimlow That doesn't make any sense. Why would a cow's life be worth less than that of a giraffe because "we gain profit out of their products"?

We "gained more profit" from the giraffe than we did from a cow, and it lived a better life, and died a less stressful death.

Colin Netzley
Colin Netzley

@Владимир Предоев I totally agree with you. I'm just saying it's really difficult for breeding/release programs to work for a zoo. I know at the place I'm working at we do try to either make room for the "extra" animal somewhere and/or we find it another (better) home at an accredited zoo elsewhere. Another issue with releasing back into the wild is bacteria. The animal might carry with it some sickness that, while not harmful to itself or the animals at the zoo, could be harmful to any natural populations. Those natural groups could also be doing the same thing to the new animals by giving them a sickness that they haven't ever experienced before. I agree with Holst that we might not be showing the best conservation message (there are some of those "Disney" zoos), but the AZA director put it very well by saying that we save euthanasia for quality-of-life and transmission of disease issues. 

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