Poor Marius. At 10 a.m. Sunday morning, the young giraffe was put down by his minders at the Copenhagen Zoo, despite the fact that he was perfectly healthy (and utterly adorable). Then, with television cameras rolling and dozens of families watching, the giraffe’s body was skinned and carved up for tiger meat.
The zoo said it had no choice but to euthanize the 2-year-old giraffe because Marius was part of an international breeding program whose bylaws prohibit inbreeding in an effort to maintain the health of the stock.
“The purpose of the breeding program is to have as healthy a population as possible, not only now, but in the future,” said the zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, in an interview with TIME. “As this giraffe’s genes are overrepresented in the breeding program, the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes has agreed that Copenhagen Zoo euthanize him.”
A staff veterinarian anesthetized the animal before shooting it through the head with a bolt-action rifle. Marius died instantly.
Animal lovers did not take the news lightly. In the days since the zoo made its plans known, thousands around the world signed petitions demanding that Marius not be euthanized. Holst has received numerous death threats, and one animal-rights group is calling for a boycott of the zoo. Since Feb. 7, a Danish Facebook page dedicated to the giraffe has posted regular pleas from the giraffe’s supporters. Its last entry before Marius’s death featured a photo of the young giraffe, and a plea, “Help me.”
Did Marius have to die? Other alternatives, like administering contraceptives, can cause side effects like renal failure. And neutering the young giraffe would have diminished his quality of life, says Holst. “Our most important objective is to ensure that the animals have the best life they can for as long as they live, whether that’s 20 years or two years. Breeding and parenting are especially important behaviors for a giraffe’s well-being. We didn’t want to interfere with that.”
On Friday, the Copenhagen Zoo received two offers from other zoos willing to take Marius. But one, a zoo in the U.K., already had an ample supply of Marius’s genetic line, and accepting him would mean denying room to a giraffe with less well-represented set of genes. The other, in southern Sweden, offered no guarantee that Marius would not later be sold elsewhere.
About 15 people gathered outside the zoo when it opened this morning to protest the giraffe’s death. After he was killed, technicians performed an autopsy for research purposes that was open to the public before breaking down the body to be served to its carnivores. Although the operation lasted for well over three hours, Holst said, many parents and their children stayed and watched the whole thing. Their fascination with learning about giraffe anatomy — how big the animals’ hearts are, or how they have the exact number of vertebrae in their long necks as humans do in their short ones — reinforces his sense that the zoo acted properly.
“We were open about it because we know [the euthanasia] was the right thing to do,” Holst says. “If we’re serious about science, we can’t be led by emotion.”