Every day thousands of animals across the world are killed for food. Rats, frogs and countless other small animals are also dissected in the name of education and large amounts of meat waste enters the multi-billion pound pet food industry. Most people never give this a second thought, but what if that animal was a giraffe?

On the 9th February this year an eighteen-month old reticulated giraffe named Marius was put to sleep at Copenhagen Zoo. There are only 5,000 giraffes left in the wild and they are part of a European Endangered Species Programme (EEP). So the death of this healthy young giraffe led to a huge media backlash, with the zoo labelled ‘barbaric’ and death threats sent to the zoo’s director. Since then it has emerged that up to 5,000 healthy animals are killed by zoos across Europe each year, so let’s take a look at why and when this happens.

Giraffes, like a number of other species are part of breeding programmes in zoos that have become victims of their own success – there is no more space to house any future offspring and some individuals must be prioritised over others.

Only 40% of wild giraffes in the Serengeti make it past their first year, picked off by predators and disease. But when in a safe zoo environment, with expert care from vets the number of giraffes quickly exceeds the number the zoos can hold.

According to the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums the aim of EEPs is ‘to safeguard for future generations a genetically diverse, healthy population of animals against their extinction’.

To ensure the captive population of a species retains sufficient genetic variation, inbreeding (where closely related individuals breed together) must be avoided as far as possible. For a giraffe like Marius, still living with his family herd and approaching sexual maturity, it means one of three things – moving away to another zoo, castration or euthanasia.

Moving an animal as large as a giraffe and performing a castration is hugely expensive, with no guarantee of success. There are also only a limited number of zoos with the space and knowledge available to keep giraffes and even fewer who are in need of a new breeding male for their herd. Even in a non-breeding all-male group, Marius would never move on to become a breeding male, as his genes were too well-represented within the breeding programme to be of use. Would the space and resources in another zoo not be better used for a more genetically valuable animal? Talking about animals in terms of their ‘value’ or ‘use’ may go against many people’s moral conscience, but in scientifically managed breeding programmes it is a harsh necessity.

Why are zoo animals bred at all if they could become surplus? Copenhagen Zoo believes the process of mating and raising offspring is an integral and important part of an animal’s life – as well as a vital skill necessary to the success of potential reintroductions to the wild. A large number of zoos do use contraceptives to prevent excess births (often the exact same ones used in humans!), but these are not completely effective and sometimes have harmful side effects.

Having to end the life of a young healthy giraffe is obviously sad whatever the circumstances. It’s a decision no one would want to have to make, but may in some cases be a necessary part of ensuring a species survives. Instead of wasting a young giraffe’s life, this decision helped to educate and inspire the next generation of conservationists who were watching the dissection.

It’s easy to respond to reports of healthy animals being put down emotionally, condemning it as cruel and unnecessary. But look past this and there’s a more considered opinion to be taken. With a much larger discussion to be had than could be summarised within one article. Whether this makes it past the hyperbole in the media is yet to be seen.

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