Can Zoos Survive Dead Giraffes and Other Public Relations Disasters?

Editor’s Note: Crystal Miller-Spiegel has an Master of Science degree from the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a policy analyst for the American Vivisection Society and is the author of numerous papers, articles and reports on animal welfare-related issues. The opinions expressed here are her own.

Marius the Giraffe Copenhagen Zoo
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The Copenhagen Zoo's killing of Marius, a healthy 2-year-old giraffe, sparked international outrage.

In February, the Copenhagen Zoo killed Marius, a healthy 2-year-old giraffe, publicly dissected him and fed him to lions and other big cats because it deemed he could not be used for breeding or sent elsewhere. That action sparked a flurry of international news stories and opinion pieces and put zoos everywhere on the defensive. 

Further investigations published in the media showed that the giraffe's demise was not an isolated event at Copenhagen and other European zoos, but this zoo was (for whatever reason) more candid about its management practices. While U.S. zoos often use contraceptives to control animal breeding, officials at the Copenhagen Zoo and other European zoos believe animals should be allowed the freedom to reproduce and that contraception or sterilization would inhibit their natural behaviors, even if that means offspring need to be killed. In 2012, two leopard cubs were killed at the Copenhagen Zoo, and approximately 20 to 30 animals — including hippopotamuses and gazelles — are killed there each year for reasons similar to those surrounding Marius.

As someone who has volunteered in a large, well-known zoo and studied the ethics and conservation policies of zoos for years, the idea that a zoo would kill animals for population control did not surprise me. If the public, or at least those who seek more from visiting a zoo than simply a day out with the family, knew more about zoos and their management practices, perhaps they would not so easily embrace them. The same applies to circuses and aquariums — if you think they are okay, you probably won’t agree with me about zoos.

Zoo Animals Are Stressed

Have you ever seen a gorilla eating his own feces or regurgitation? A tiger relentlessly pacing her cage? I’ve seen those types of behaviors at reputable zoos, and they are signs that the animals are not well. No matter how well-designed an animal exhibit is, it is extremely difficult to replicate an animal’s niche or habitat and provide enough stimulation for highly social and intelligent animals. 

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