Official On Killed Giraffe: 'He Didn't Fit Into The Whole Puzzle'

Why was Marius, a healthy 18-month-old giraffe, killed on Sunday at the Copenhagen Zoo? Employees say it's because Marius had genes too similar to other giraffes and was killed to avoid inbreeding. But the act has caused an uproar on social media and among animal activists. Robert Siegel talks to Bengt Holst, the scientific director at the Copenhagen Zoo, about the decision to put the giraffe down.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A coldly scientific decision to put down a giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo has outraged animal lovers around the world. Yesterday, the zoo killed a young male giraffe named Marius, conducted a public autopsy and fed the carcass to the lions. The animal wasn't stricken by illness or injury. The intent was to prevent inbreeding. The animal's death caused an uproar on social media and among animal rights activists who say that there were ways to save its life.

Well, joining us now is Dr. Bengt Holst, who is the scientific director of the Copenhagen Zoo. Welcome to the program, Mr. Holst.

BENGT HOLST: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, the idea here was to avoid inbreeding. Can you explain what hazard would have been posed by this male giraffe remaining - remaining alive at the Copenhagen Zoo?

HOLST: Well, actually he didn't fit into the whole puzzle of if you take all the animals in the European population and try to give them the best position in the various zoos that are available, then he didn't fit in because his genes were not as valuable as the other ones. And if we put them together, just let them breed with some of the other ones, we'll get inbreeding.

They should be self-sustaining so that you can keep this population healthy and sound, not only now but also for 50 years or 100 years, 200 years. And then, if necessary, you can also use for (unintelligible) if that is the question. That is not a question now but it may be in the future.

SIEGEL: Now, as you know, animal-rights activists and others have said that there could have been another zoo - something short of killing the animal. Or, for that matter, perhaps he could have been castrated to avoid contributing to the gene pool.

HOLST: But first, to the last one, if we castrated this male then he will still take up space for genetically more valuable animals than the other ones. So that would not be an option. And then send it to another zoo; if we sent him to another zoo it should be within the breeding program, because they have all the same values that we have. I mean the way you manage your population.

For example, we don't sell our animals. We only give them for free to other zoos in order to optimize quality of the population. But if you send them to other zoos that don't want to join this framework, then you risk that they're sold next day to another substandard zoo or to a circus and we will never deliver our animals for those.

SIEGEL: Though you can imagine someone saying was that really worse than that giraffe being dead yesterday.

HOLST: Yeah, I do think so because I think it's much worse if we sent this giraffe to a place where he just spent the next 20 years in very bad conditions.

SIEGEL: Visitors were invited to attend the autopsy of the giraffe and some of the giraffe was fed to the lions. Videos of this have gone viral around the world.

HOLST: Yes.

SIEGEL: First of all, was this something that you zoo chose to be a learning experience, a teachable moment? How did you regard it?

HOLST: When animals die in the zoo that's the general routine here, so considering this and we have to do it in the open because he was too big to be in the autopsy room, then we said that's a good opportunity to educate people. And this space is, and I must say, it's off exhibit area. It's a place where public normally don't have any access. So we said you're welcome to join this autopsy if you want. And if you choose not to, it's fair enough, so then you just pass by so you won't see it by accident.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the reaction from those who chose to view the autopsy?

HOLST: It was - they were really fascinated, especially the kids are really curious when standing there. They have no filter behind themselves and the questions they asked. They just ask which is good because then you also get the right answers.

SIEGEL: Dr. Holst, let me ask you about what appears to be an inconsistency here that's a problem for zoos. On the one hand, you speak very clinically. It's a case of eugenics for the giraffe population. On the other hand, this giraffe had a name. He was Marius.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLST: No.

SIEGEL: He's been anthropomorphized for people.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLST: No. Yeah. Well, it was not official. We have never given him this name. This name was picked up from the visitors from when the keepers among themselves talked about this animal. But this has never been an official name. And that's what we should strive at in the zoos, not to personalize the giraffes or the animals we have, but to make them part of a population. So what we strive at is to ensure the populations for the future, not necessarily all individuals.

SIEGEL: Dr. Holst, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

HOLST: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Bengt Holst who is scientific director of the Copenhagen Zoo.

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