BERLIN — Some zoologists are baffled that in order to prevent inbreeding, a Danish zoo killed a young giraffe and fed its carcass to lions.
"It's simplistic to say the animal doesn't fit into our breeding plans – so then why let it breed it in the first place if you know it's not a desirable offspring," asked William Amos, professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Cambridge.
"I think it's a rather feeble excuse. It's better to have another giraffe, particularly if it's a healthy one."
Marius, an 18-month-old giraffe, was killed by a gunshot Sunday at the Copenhagen Zoo and fed to lions in full view of zoogoers. It was even broadcast via the internet.
Zoo spokesman Tobias Stenbaek Bro said Monday that he and the zoo's scientific director, Bengt Holst, received several threats over the telephone and in e-mails. They quoted one e-mail as saying: "The children of the staff of Copenhagen Zoo should all be killed or should get cancer."
The killing went ahead even though an online petition gathered tens of thousands of signatures against the killing and the zoo turned down offers from other zoos and individuals to take in the animal, which was born in captivity and was one of seven reticulated giraffes, a species native to Africa.
Holstsaid the giraffe was killed to maintain a healthy giraffe population. Inbreeding can cause animals to be born with significant deformations.
"If an animal's genes are well represented in a population further breeding with that particular animal is unwanted," he said in a statement posted to the zoo's website.
"As this giraffe's genes are well represented in the breeding program and as there is no place for the giraffe in the Zoo's giraffe herd the European Breeding Program for Giraffes has agreed that Copenhagen Zoo euthanize the giraffe."
But Amos said nature has its own way of dealing with inbreeding.
"Basically, we don't understand enough about these things," he said. "The subject of inbreed depression, which is what you can get when close relatives breed, is a concern. However, when you get that, you tend to get (the death) of animals which (are overbred)."
At the Giraffe Center in Nairobi, Kenya, visitors feed the 10 giraffes that live on the spacious colonial-era grounds. Officials said that here, at the center, which is devoted to the Rothschild breed of giraffes threatened by extinction, the animals are given a protected environment where they can breed naturally. If there is a danger of inbreeding, the giraffes are taken elsewhere.
The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, which monitors international standards and of which Copenhagen is a member, said it backed the zoo's decision.
"Our aim is to safeguard for future generations a genetically diverse, healthy population of animals against their extinction," it said in a statement posted to its website. "Copenhagen is highly involved in these programs and took a transparent decision that the young animal in question could not contribute to the future of its species further, and given the restraints of space and resources to hold an unlimited number of animals within our network and program, should therefore be humanely euthanized."
The petition that once called for saving Marius is now calling for Holst to be fired.
"Take action now so other innocent animals do not suffer the same fate as Marius!" the petition says.