I am agog! I am aghast!
The uproar about Marius, the 18-month giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo, being euthanized on Sunday has caused social media and news reporters everywhere to go viral with their thoughts and anger towards the zoo. A number of articles attacked the Copenhagen Zoo with far fewer defending or comprehending what a tough position the zoo managers were faced with. As a conservationist who has lived in Africa for a number of years many people asked my thoughts about this act. While I tried to voice my opinions to as many people as I could ultimately I felt I had to write about it as well.
An effective zoo today should not just preserve the animals they have but they also should conserve those species as a whole. No longer do we want zoos to be an establishment for people to just come and see animals on public display, but we want zoos to also play an integral role in protecting these fascinating species. If the sole purpose of zoos today were to keep wildlife locked up for our entertainment then I’d be right next to some of those activists calling for the termination of these “enclosures”. But zoos are no longer just a money-making scheme and they now play an integral role in captive breeding programs and the conservation of the worlds diminishing wildlife.
Many zoos have captive breeding programs to help restore otherwise threatened or endangered species. The California condor’s comeback from near extinction provides an excellent example. Saved by the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, the endangered California condor population numbers went from just 27 condors in 1987 to over 412 by the end of 2013 (see here). Other captive breeding success stories include the Arabian oryx, the golden tamarin, and the red wolf. One of the most important purposes of the breeding programs in zoo is to conserve the species population as a whole, not just protect individuals within that population. Too often humans get attached to individuals rather see what is the greater good for that species. To focus on saving the species, you want the largest amount of genetic diversity possible. The greater genetic diversity, the better chance your population is going to survive through adapting environments over time. Kind of like the saying, “Don’t put all you’re eggs in one basket”, you don’t want to have the same genetic structure within an entire species when a stochastic event might wipe out the entire population in one go. The issue, however, is that inbreeding is more and more difficult to avoid as successive generations remain in captivity (Rollinson et al. 2014) In Marius’s case, his genes were not only well represented in the breeding program, but in fact over-represented, meaning it would have been detrimental to the population as a whole if he had been allowed to mate with his close relatives in the zoo. The Copenhagen zoo was faced with either “maintaining the genetic purity of populations, at the risk of inbreeding depression, or interbreeding populations, at the risk of outbreeding depression” (Rollinson et al. 2014).
This was not only a decision made by the Copenhagen Zoo, but also one made by the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes. It was not taken lightly, and the fact that the zoo stuck to their guns instead of caving with all the negative propaganda being thrown their way is impressive. Alternatives for little Marius were also not viable, both for him and for the institutions willing to take him. Contraceptives at this stage for giraffes are dicey and can cause horrible side effects such as renal failure. Taking such steps such as neutering the giraffe would only prolong his fate with the same results. Without the ability to breed, his contribution to saving the giraffe population is minimal to none and there could be other giraffes with stronger genetic diversity that would be able to better contribute to the breeding program. Other alternatives included transporting him to another zoo, but one of the zoos already had ample supply of Marius’s genome already and the other could not guarantee that Marius would be sold somewhere else later down the line. The stress and cost of transporting such a large creature would also undoubtedly cause some long-term damage that could easily be avoided. Re-introduction into the wild can barely even be suggested as Marius was captive-born and has no sense of predators or how to survive on his own.
What I am most impressed with was the fact that the Copenhagen Zoo was so open about their decision. Not only were they open and honest to the public, but they stood by their decision and made it clear that emotion cannot play a role if one is to be serious about science. The zoo invited the public to watch an autopsy after the adolescent giraffe was killed (humanely and instantly, I might add), allowing adults and children alike to learn more about such fascinating and unique creatures. I, for one, would have loved to watch.
The one argument that I cannot defend is that of how Marius was allowed to be born in the first place if the zoo knew his genes would not contribute to the genetic protection of the species. I don’t have an answer to that, however it’s quite possible 18 months ago the zoo did not realize the consequences of Marius being born. It’s possible that the breeding program did not know that Marius’s genes would already be so well represented. I don’t know if that is true, and I kind of doubt it is. But then we cannot shake our fingers just at the Copenhagen zoo, but rather raise the question of captive breeding programs as a whole, and what direction to take when too much inbreeding threatens genetic diversity.
I feel for Marius, and I understand why some people have reacted they way they did. However the conservationist inside me, and the one who lived in South Africa for 3 years and witnessed the effects of inbreeding firsthand, knows saving Marius would be no solution to protecting the species. It’s all part of the circle of life. And after the autopsy of the giraffe, the meat was fed to the carnivores at the zoo. So, to be honest, Marius probably led a more accurate life to his wild brethren than most of captive giraffe around him…