A Surplus of Giraffes

As a welfare scientist, it’s remiss of me not to discuss the fate of Marius the giraffe.

Copenhagen zoo killed one of their giraffes, dissected it in public, then fed it to their lions.

Or, if you prefer a second interpretation: Copenhagen zoo, who believe that they should keep their animals as naturally as possible, and allow them to fulfil their natural behaviours such as mating, getting pregnant, giving birth, etc. decided to control their breeding population by removing an animal with replicated genes, killing him humanely, furthering the education of the public, and then provide the lions a little bit of enrichment to ensure the death wasn’t needless.

It is undoubtedly a complicated and emotive issue.

I was recently directed towards the Animal Ethics Matrix which, once registered, gives you a short test to determine your philosophy with regards to animals. I am strongly utilitarian in my view of animal welfare, as I am in my view of human welfare, politics, life and everything else. I was raised a Trekkie, after all, and the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few. With this caveat, I would like to dissect this ethical dilemma from my utilitarian, animal behaviour scientist viewpoint. You need not agree with me, because our own ethics are all different, but let me know if you think I’m obviously wrong in some respects…

Let us first get the lions out of the way. 

Lions are carnivores and I fully support giving them hunks of meat. They need carcasses to show their natural behaviours (incidentally – it would be lovely if they could hunt too, but lions will happily scavenge carcasses in the wild), and if people can’t tolerate that I have little patience for them. That being said, I doubt the lions look at the skin of their carcass and say “oh yes, this is a giraffe, like I would eat if I’d been born hundreds of miles away.” Cow or giraffe, it’s all meat to the lion.

Point: If the giraffe’s to be killed, then sure, feed it to the lions, but it’s not a reason in favour [Nul points]


In another life, I worked in a wildlife hospital. We had a freezer chest of animals that had died under unusual circumstances, or simply unusual animals who had died under normal circumstances, and in the quiet periods I liked nothing more than coercing a working vet to helping me post-mortem them. Post-mortems are unbelievably valuable in my opinion, but dissections are a trickier business. Killing an animal simply to learn from it does not sit so easily with me. This is why places like the Jeanne Marchig Centre focus on developing models for educational use, it’s why my first year biology lab balked at killing 100 rats for live dissection.

Dissecting the giraffe in public is not a problem for me. I’m sure none of the fascinated children pictured were forced to watch, Clockwork Orange style, by the zoo. In the UK, channel 4 ran a series of dissections which were so interesting I’ve used them as teaching tools for some of my undergraduate lectures. Physiology is just a kind of mechanics, and every mechanic knows that taking something apart is the best way to understand it.

But again, those who would most benefit from this can learn in other ways. Giraffes do die of natural causes, and dissections can be done then.

Point: Yet again, if the giraffe is to be killed the dissection is no issue, but there is no need to kill the giraffe to get the dissection. [Zip]

The Inbred Giraffe

Copenhagen Zoo are part of the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria (EAZA) and so abide by their rules for the international breeding program. The ruling is that Marius is not suitable for breeding.

The zoo’s own FAQ about the issue says that:

Unless it is part of an official release program animals are not reintroduced and currently there are no release programmes for giraffes. Should this become the case in the future then it is not just any giraffe that will be reintroduced. The natural habitats will be full of dangers and challenges so animals that are part of a reintroduction programme will be carefully selected to increase the chance of survival.

The bolding is my own. The zoo are breeding for giraffes that there are currently no plans to release. Therefore they must be operating on the belief that there is a value to keeping captive giraffes, presumably for the consumption of humans. This is breeding giraffes to preserve them, because they’re endangered, but not to preserve their natural environment, as they’re not actively releasing them. Therefore the value has to be that humans value them and don’t want them to disappear completely. In this case, the PR disaster that has befallen them is a problem. The very people they are preserving these animals for are upset by their choice to euthanise. Those replicated genes are an issue only because we are choosing to breed the animals.

However, inbreeding in a captive population is a problem. For the healthiest population to be preserved for human entertainment, we do need to get rid of those genes.

Point: This one comes down on cull, but only just. [1 point – but it’s a massive PR disaster and distressing the customers]

The Behaviour

And so it comes down to the crux of it – if there was no intention to breed this giraffe, why was he around at all? The zoo say that they don’t like to give the giraffes contraception because it has side-effects, and I confess that in the arena of Giraffa camelopardalis contraception I am entirely uninformed. I know my contraception has side effects and it’s been tested on generations of women. I also agree that parental behaviour is a very important part of a giraffe’s life.

But so is roaming the savannah, foraging, fighting, and being picked off by lions when they’re young, sick or weak. I applaud the zoo’s dedication to preserving their freedom to natural behaviours, but have they forgotten that they are a zoo? It is not a natural state of affairs to live in a zoo and inevitably compromises animal welfare. Now as a utilitarian, I am generally okay with this. I think giraffes fare reasonably well in zoos, unlike cetaceans as I’ve already discussed, but we have to ask ourselves why we’re keeping them. I’ve already said that I don’t think we’re keeping the giraffes for their own welfare, but for our own. In this we come back to the issue of whether killing the giraffe upsets the customers or not.

Point: Just to make it fair, I’ll let this one go to the zoo [1 point]


Zoos have rebranded themselves as conservation centres, and conservation is great. But here’s the thing I keep coming back to – WHY do we conserve? Is it because we respect nature? Or is it because we want to see giraffes, somehow, and preserve them for our children?

If it’s nature, conservation is better done by respecting the habitat, and dedicated breeding programs that will definitely result in giraffes being released – the zoo have already stated this is not what is happening right now. If they’re hoping to release giraffes in the future, then having them understand as many natural behaviours as possible will help, but is by no means a guarantee of a successful re-release program.

If we’re conserving them for ourselves, we should manage them for ourselves. Whether that’s appropriate contraception, or selling the giraffe to another place and donating the money to conservation efforts, killing a charismatic animal never helps PR.

In essence the zoos need to carefully investigate their motives for keeping animals, and how they should be kept.

Point: I’m not sure I can give this one to the zoo as they have no overt plans for introducing captive-reared giraffes to the wild, and from a human perspective this has upset people. [Nope]

In conclusion…

My highly scientific discussion of the debate has come out with 2/5 points in favour of the zoo. Now you could argue that my first two points don’t deserve equal weighting as the last three, but I still think that gives us a very close debate. Emotionally, I am not bothered by the death of a giraffe, but I know that others can be. I think the zoo should consider itself a business, and it destroyed an asset publicly, with reasons that do not resonate well with the customer. So from this perspective, I come down on the line of ‘this was a mistake’.

But does a giraffe have a right to life? Just because we like looking at them, when the steers we see every day don’t? I’m not sure I buy that argument. This strange, volatile, insubstantial scale that we place animals on when we think about killing them is a product of our culture, our ability to empathise, and our own relationship with individual animals. Cases like Marius are times when we need to consider why we have our emotional reactions, and how appropriate they may or may not be.

5 thoughts on “A Surplus of Giraffes

  1. As a geneticist, I still do not understand why 1. This giraffe was ever conceived. A breeding program knows which male will mate with which female and it is the sole purpose of the program to avoid inbreeding. 2. Once conceived, why wasn’t Marius culled as a baby giraffe as so many male offspring are in a zoo (lion cubs for example). The zoo knew this individual was going to be culled at some point (knowing its inbreeding coefficient), thus why then name it, sponsor it and raise it, only to be culled at 18 months.
    From a breeding point of view: Big Mistake.


    1. As an ex zookeeper and animal technician, I agree. To make a public display and to profit from a breeding management “mistake” doesn’t seem to fit the bill as “education” in my opinion. It financially rewards the error. The fact such deaths are commonplace in zoo’s is a welfare issue that needs to be addressed, there is no need for it to be commonplace in my opinion.. on the one plus side, it has raised awareness of such things. Zoo’s would do well to find a way to actively reduce such “waste” rather than finding ways to profit from it.


      1. Hi Hayley – it’s great to hear from someone on the zookeeping side of the fence. would completely agree that these breeding ‘mistakes’ should cost the zoos.


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