By David Harrison

He was young and healthy, but Marius the giraffe was put down by staff at Copenhagen Zoo to avoid inbreeding.

The killing of Marius has caused widespread consternation. But there was an even bigger outcry came over what happened next: the two-year old giraffe was skinned, cut up and fed to the lions – in front of watching children.

When news of Marius’ imminent demise became public, more than 30,000 people signed online petitions to save him. But the zoo claimed that there were sound scientific reasons for culling giraffes, and some argue that animal lovers who criticised the feeding “show” were just being sentimental.

The Danish zoo explained that Marius’ death was necessary because his genes were too close to other giraffes in the same breeding programme, and inbreeding has to be avoided under European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (Eaza) rules. No other zoos among Eaza’s 347 members could have taken him and Copenhagen Zoo does not sell animals. Castration was ruled out and releasing him into the wild was thought unlikely to be successful. And so last Sunday Marius was shot dead with a bolt gun.

Animal rights campaigners said the culling was barbaric and unethical. Robert Krijuff, the director of a wildlife park in the Netherlands, which offered to take Marius, said: “I can’t believe it. Zoos need to change the way they do business.”

Indeed, the story of Marius throws up questions about the purpose of zoos, which often insist that they play a key role in protecting endangered species and other wildlife.

Marius had been offered a home by other zoos, including Yorkshire Wildlife Park in the North of England. But Copenhagen Zoo said that any available spaces should be reserved for “a genetically more valuable giraffe”.

Tobias Stenbaek Bro, the zoo’s spokesman, defended the decision to show the giraffe being skinned and fed to other animals. Parents had decided whether their children would be allowed to watch, he said, and he was proud that “we have given children a huge understanding of the anatomy of a giraffe”.

Bengt Holst, scientific director at the zoo, said he had received death threats but would not alter the policy. Giraffes bred well and had to be selected “to ensure the best genes were passed down to ensure the long-term survival of the species”, he said. “And it would be absolutely foolish to throw away a few hundred kilos of meat.”

But campaigners were unconvinced. One said: “Why couldn’t Marius have been allowed to live in a field somewhere with other animals?”

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. What is the purpose of a zoo? Is there more than one purpose?
  2. In your opinion, is it ever okay to kill an animal? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Other zoos were willing to take the giraffe. What was Copenhagen Zoo’s reason for not sending the giraffe to them?
  4. “Humans get in the way of the animal kingdom’s natural order” Discuss this statement using examples from the article to illustrate your points.

Relevant resources

Zoological Society London
Check out these resources from ZSL, including scientific blogs, animal videos and much more.

Guess Zoo
This great animal classification quiz from ARKive will engage your students and inform them about animal species.

Should animals be kept in zoos?
Formulate an effective and succinct argument for or against animal captivity and zoos with this persuasive lesson.

Giraffe reading comprehension
This primary school resource includes a short non-fiction passage about giraffes and some questions to assess understanding.