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Global Environment

Of breeding programmes and Danish giraffes

Copenhagen Zoo recently destroyed a giraffe as part of their breeding programme and the world reacts with a visceral sense of disgust and anger. The story turned slightly more sensational when zoo officials started received death threats and protesters camped outside the zoo to demand the public to boycott it. Is such a negative public reaction justified in the wake of what is described as a well run breeding programme?

Marius the giraffe (Photo credit: theguardian)

What is a breeding programme? According to The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), these are defined as

“more to it than just putting a male and female together in the same enclosure. Breeding is carefully managed to control numbers and to prevent inbreeding. The aim is to ensure as much genetic variation in the captive population as possible”.

As an environmentalist who has studied ecology and the role zoos play in species management, I have to agree with the decision taken by Copenhagen Zoo. The giraffe euthanised, named Marius, was genetically too similar to other giraffes present in the breeding programme currently run by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). Breeding animals with similar genes would result in a high probability of genetically transmitted diseases being passed on to the population of giraffes present in the programme.

Copenhagen Zoo currently participates in the European Endangered Species Programmes, which also enjoys participation from leading European Zoos such as ZSL, Belfast Zoo, Chester Zoo, Edinburgh Zoo, Rhenen Zoo, Bratislava Zoo and many more. There are currently an estimated 340 species managed under EEPs across participating European zoos.

The reaction by these protestors is beyond preposterous, as culling of animals as part of breeding programme is not an uncommon practice. Edinburgh Zoo destroyed two endangered piglets in 2010 since they were considered as being a surplus to the programme and they had to comply with regulations set by the EAZA. In 2011, a German zoo euthanised three Siberian tigers since they were genetically classified as ‘hybrids’. There are also numerous undocumented cases that occurring in every zoo on annual basis.

After the killing, Marius’ corpse was fed to lions in the zoo. This sparked a further outcry by the protesters, since they consider it inhumane to feed lions meat which they naturally consume in the wild. (Photo credit: JimmyJangles)

The only reason why people are up in arms over what happened to Marius is because giraffes are cute animals that people can warm up to. It is the classical case of how conservation is portrayed in the media and how it is perceived by the public. People are far too selective on which animals merit conservation, or in this case, should be saved from culling. I highly doubt people would have been too bothered if a Zoo decided to destroy Frankie the Partula Snail or Giorgos the Corfu killifish – who cares about such ‘ugly’ animals. A good example would be the law enacted in 2013 by Florida, where surplus Burmese pythons could be removed from the Everglades National Park, even allowing ‘hunting contests’ (but pythons aren’t loved animals, so this is not a problem).

Partula tree snails, native to French Polynesia. Towards the end of the 20th Century, 61 species became 5 as a result of uncontrolled biological pest control
(Photo credit: Woodland Park Zoo)

It is quite unsurprising to note that the majority of animals paraded in the media to promote conservation are mammals with cute faces and a high ‘soft-toy’ appeal – elephants, seals, pandas, giraffes, big cats, monkeys etc. Unfortunately, people are not sympathetic about the survival of snakes, lizards, jellyfish, insects and other similar critters – which is alarming when one considers that the vast majority of endangered animals are not mammals!

Join the discussion

  1. JD Farrugia

    Not sure I agree with you here.

    On the one hand there’s this whole concept of inbreeding and all the issues it brings. We don’t need to go too far… just look at the many problems our pedigree dogs have through constant gene-meddling. I don’t know… maybe the whole zoo concept should be questioned. I know that many have a role in conservation but is this the best way forward? But this is a whole other debate.

    However I think the biggest issue here is… why kill it? It’s perfectly healthy. It might not have a place in this particular zoo due to inbreeding and whatnot, but why not sell it to another zoo? Like the Yorkshire Wildlife Park for example that offered some €50,000 for it. The giraffe is on the IUCN Red List… it’s listed as Least Concern but it is on the list nonetheless. If zoos are killing other animals further down the list just because they’re not genetically viable I think there is something seriously wrong here.

  2. Antoine Borg Micallef

    the issue I have is that Marius was a bloody ‘cute’ giraffe. And the reality is THAT is the main reason why people are so upset. These breeding programmes have been ongoing for years, and so has culling of ‘inbred’ ‘surplus’ and ‘hybrid’ individuals. Imagine they culled a an endangered species of shark, ground him up and used it as fish food – do you think people would have been bothered?

    Why bother spending the €50,000 on one giraffe, when Yorkshire Wildlife Park can use it for feed and other things – or better still invest the money in further conservation?

    • JD Farrugia

      The reason that the giraffe is cute is probably the main reason why people are upset yes… and it’s quite twisted you’re right. But this doesn’t change the fact that the zoo killed a perfectly healthy giraffe which is found on the IUCN red list. Just because this sort of stuff has been happening for years doesn’t make it right.

      Also it’s funny you should mention sharks… the shark cull in Western Australia has seen thousands of people flocking to the beaches in protest including the surfers who are usually the target,

      • Antoine Borg Micallef

        Unfortunately I do not know the exact details of what is included in the EAZA – they must have set such regulations for a specific purpose. truth be told, if it weren’t for these breeding programmes, who knows what state such species would be in. A healthy giraffe was culled, yes, but the programme is contributing to the long term survival of the species.

        What I meant to say in terms of the shark culling is that the global media isn’t up in arms over the culling of sharks as they are for the giraffe – because sharks do not get pet names and people are unfortunately scared of them

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