STOCKHOLM — People around the world were stunned when Copenhagen Zoo killed a healthy 2-year-old giraffe named Marius, butchered its carcass in front of a crowd that included children and then fed it to lions.
But Marius' fate isn't unique — thousands of animals are euthanized in European zoos each year for a variety of reasons by zoo managers who say their job is to preserve species, not individual animals. In the U.S., zoos try to avoid killing animals by using contraceptives to make sure they don't have more offspring than they can house, but that method has also been criticized for disrupting animals' natural behavior.
HOW OFTEN ARE LARGE MAMMALS KILLED IN ZOOS?
U.S. and European zoological groups 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."
WHY ARE ANIMALS KILLED?
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.
There's a philosophical divide between U.S. and European zoos over best practices. The U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums said incidents such as the giraffe killing "do not happen at AZA-accredited zoos."
Mike McClure, general curator at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says his zoo's policies theoretically allow for killing animals for breeding purposes or lack of housing but it's not something his zoo has done. Generally, he says, animals are only killed due to old age or ill health.
In Asia, the parent company for the Singapore Zoo said in a statement that "euthanasia of animals is necessary to maintain the health and welfare of the herd, as overcrowding could lead to injuries, stress and disease outbreak. "
"All animals in zoos die at some point and maybe zoos forgot to tell people," said Jens Sigsgaard, director at the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark, which, like the Copenhagen Zoo, performs open dissections of animals for educational purposes.
WHAT KINDS OF ANIMALS ARE KILLED?
Both endangered species and other animals are killed at zoos.
EAZA says five giraffes have been killed in European zoos since 2005. In addition to Marius, Copenhagen Zoo says it kills 20-30 antelopes, llamas, goats and other animals yearly.