Zoos face ethical dilemmas in their breeding programmes

The killing of a healthy giraffe at Copenhagen’s zoo this week illustrates the ethical dilemmas within breeding programmes.

The story [February 2014] attracted international interest. Requests to save Marius were considered and rejected.

The zoo found that its breeding programme had produced too many giraffe births. Marius, a two year old healthy male was judged less genetically valuable than others. Breeding from Marius would have put the gene pool at risk through in breeding. So Marius was culled. His fate was to become post-Mortem a specimen for scientific research and a food source for carnivores at the zoo.

Protests followed. Animal interest groups argued the broader issue. Zoos, for all their claims of being in the animal conservation business, were deeply unethical. Marius was treated as an undesirable end product of its business processes.

Stine Jensen, from Denmark’s Organisation Against the Suffering of Animals, said the situation should not have occurred. ” I can’t believe it. We offered to save his life. Zoos need to change the way they do business.”

Robert Krijuff Director of a Dutch wildlife park said “It just shows that the zoo is in fact not the ethical institution that it wants to portray itself as being, because here you have a waste product – that being Marius. Here we have a zoo which thinks that putting this giraffe down instead of thinking of alternatives is the best option.”

Not so, the zoo retorted through a spokesperson.

Bengt Holst, scientific director at the Danish zoo, defended Marius’s destruction, saying that giraffes had to be selected to ensure the best genes were passed down to ensure the animal’s long-term survival.

He told the BBC it was a responsible practice on the part of zoos to manage their animal populations to ensure they remained healthy, with some 20-30 animals put down at Copenhagen Zoo in a typical year.

“Giraffes today breed very well, and when they do you have to choose and make sure the ones you keep are the ones with the best genes,” Mr Holst told the BBC.

He said all zoos had been considered and there was no place for Marius – including at Yorkshire where, he said, any space should be reserved for a genetically more important giraffe. The campaign to save him, he said, had gone “much too far”.

The story has alerted the media to the dilemma of caring for animals in conservation endeavors. Within days of the demise of Marius, six lions were culled in an English zoo ‘for safety reasons’.

Life is messy

The broad issue is that of keeping animals in captivity in the interests of preserving their species existence. The selfish gene is not a silent gene. Yet there are other motives of a more commercial consideration in play. Just as in the health ‘industry’ the institutions deal with a mix of commercial, personal and professional interests.

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