The world was pretty shocked early this week to find out what happens to zoos' "surplus" animals when Marius the giraffe was killed, publicly dissected and then fed to the lions at the Copenhagen Zoo.
The Associated Press did some digging, and found that Marius' untimely end wasn't that uncommon:
U.S. and European zoological organizations refuse to release figures for the total number of animals killed. But David Williams Mitchell, spokesman of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, or EAZA, estimates an average zoo in its 347-member organization annually kills about five large mammals, which adds up to 1,735.
The number doesn’t include zoos and animal parks that don’t belong to the association. Animal rights groups suggest numbers are much higher. The Associated Press contacted 10 zoos in Europe — two refused to comment, four said they never kill any animals unless severely ill and four said they kill between one and 30 animals every year. Two zoos in the U.S. said they only ever kill animals for “quality of life reasons.”
Zoos euthanize animals because of poor health, old age, lack of space or conservation management reasons. EAZA policy for zoos in Europe suggests euthanasia may be used as a last resort to achieve a balanced population within breeding programs — Marius was killed to prevent inbreeding. But Williams Mitchell insists only “a fraction of 1 percent” of the killings are for such reasons. The idea is to maintain a group of genetically healthy animals in zoos that can be used to reintroduce the species into the wild should it become extinct.
Basically, zoo officials say that they kill individual animals in the interest of saving entire species, and argue that the alternative -- contraception -- disrupts animals' natural behavior, which would also be sad. (Animal rights groups that are anti-zoo, for their part, say that keeping animals in cages is the saddest part of all.)
In defending the slaughter of poor Marius, Peter Sandoee, a professor of bioethics at the University of Copenhagen, decried what he called the "Disneyfication" of zoos, reminding us that “one of the most fundamental aspects of animals’ conditions in the wild is that only a fraction of them survive." To be fair, though, that's what at least one Disney movie was trying to get at.