Outrage over the recent killing of a healthy giraffe at a Danish zoo misses a crucial point, an official argued.
"Conservation is not always simple. It's not always clean," said Lesley Dickie, executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, a European body governing 345 institutions.
"I'm afraid that when we have limited space in zoos -- and it's limited because of problems in the wild, of course, and more and more animals need our help -- then we sometimes have to make these really tough decisions."
The Copenhagen Zoo said it "euthanized" the animal, named Marius, to avoid inbreeding. A veterinarian shot Marius with a rifle as he leaned down to munch on rye bread, a favorite snack. After an autopsy the giraffe was dismembered in front of an audience that included children and fed to the zoo's lions, tigers and leopards.
While some American zoo officials have said this is not standard practice for their facilities, Dickie said that this can be chalked up to a misunderstanding about what is "normal in Danish culture" and that zoological experts could do a better job of communicating.
"People have perhaps lost sight of the bigger picture and perhaps we as zoos have not been good at explaining why on very few occasions we need to make decisions like this," she said.
Staff at the zoo have received death threats as debate rages online over the killing, which took place despite a petition signed by thousands of animal lovers.
Several staff members were targeted after the giraffe was shot Sunday, Copenhagen Zoo spokesman Tobias Stenbæk Bro told CNN on Monday. He added that Bengt Holst, director of research and conservation at Copenhagen Zoo "received threats via telephone and e-mails."
"Our giraffes are part of an international breeding program, which has a purpose of ensuring a sound and healthy population of giraffes," Holst told CNN. "It can only be done by matching the genetic composition of the various animals with the available space. ... When giraffes breed as well as they do now, then you will inevitably run into so-called surplus problems now and then."
As for the public autopsy, Holst said Monday that the zoo staff saw it as a learning opportunity because zoos have an obligation "not to make nature into a Disney World," but rather show those interested in "the real thing."
He further pointed out that most of the children in attendance brought their parents to the autopsy, not vice versa.
"It's not by accident that people came by here," he said.
This may speak to the cultural gap Dickie referenced. At the Copenhagen Zoo, she said, all euthanized animals are autopsied, with some parts used for research and the rest of the animal fed to the zoo's carnivores.
"They strongly believe that the public should know how autopsies are done, what is the work of a vet in the zoo," she said.
Shame on whom?
That didn't dull the outrage sparked by the killing, as many people expressed their revulsion on the zoo's Facebook page.
"I find the killing of innocent baby giraffe Absolutely Barbaric. And to do it in front of children just desensitizes them to brutal killing of animals. SHAME ON YOU!" Hope Welch posted Monday.
However some users pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized the zoo without any understanding of the reasons behind the decision, or who ate meat without knowing its true origin. "The level of crass hypocrisy demonstrated by the vast majority of comments on this thread is absolutely repugnant. Shame on you, armchair warrior, shame on you," wrote Matthew Ogden.
More than 27,000 people had signed a "Save Marius" petition, appealing for a last-minute change of heart. "The zoo has raised him so it is their responsibility to find him a home," author Maria Evans wrote on the petition site.