Zoos have been getting a pretty bad press in the last couple of weeks. Which is understandable, really. Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to kill Marius, a healthy baby giraffe, and then feed him to lions as an educational exercise was, with hindsight, probably not the best way to advertise how well they were doing at breeding endangered giraffes. And then a second healthy giraffe (which even had the same name of Marius) was rumoured to be about to be killed by another Danish Zoo. Last week, all giraffes in Denmark were probably checking to see if they were called Marius.

Marius the Giraffe 1 should have been a huge success story for the modern zoo system, where accredited members agree to follow collective guidelines and husbandry techniques to promote the breeding of selected rare species. In Europe this is coordinated by EAZA, The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, and is an enormous operation involving thousands of animals across 347 zoos, mostly in Europe. And because of extremely stringent entry requirements – mere membership of your National zoo governing body, for instance, does not automatically qualify you to join – it is safe to say that these are 347 of the very best zoos in Europe.

By pooling resources and expertise they achieve far more than individual members, or any individual zoo outside their membership, can achieve on its own. In terms of the human race trying to do the right thing by animals, EAZA is one of the very best forums on the planet.

38 zoos cooperate in Europe to breed Reticulated giraffes, like Marius 1. Producing a surplus of such rare and difficult animals to breed - five meters tall, one and half tons in weight, fussy eaters wobbling around on delicate legs – is a huge achievement, requiring hundreds of thousands of Euro, and decades of dedicated expertise. There are 240 left in the wild and only 126 in European zoos. But critically, the captive population is increasing, while those in the wild decline.

I watched Bengt Holst, the scientific director at Copenhagen defend his actions on Channel 4 news, expecting he would announce that a genetic defect in the giraffe had made it unviable even to reach maturity. But he explained that the giraffe was perfectly healthy – as perfect, in fact, as a reticulated giraffe can get, having originated through his meticulous breeding program. And this was the problem. There were too many giraffes of this exact genetic background in the program, so he was surplus.

An offer of accommodation from Yorkshire Wildlife Park was rejected, Bengt said, precisely because they were an excellent facility and part of the breeding program too. They even had Marius’s brother there. Space in Yorkshire should be reserved for designated breeding giraffes, carefully selected by EAZA population geneticists. This much I can fully understand – though initially even Yorkshire Wildlife Park clearly did not, having made a very public attempt to intervene.

A Dutch wildlife park and a Swedish zoo from outside the breeding program offered accommodation among its non-breeding herds, but these too were ruled out. Being outside the program meant that the welfare of the animal could not be guaranteed. And keeping a healthy animal as a non-breeder is also fraught with ethical difficulties. Castration requires a general anaesthetic which can be particularly dangerous for giraffes, and contraception is still not an exact science in exotic animals, and can lead to permanent infertility. And it can be argued that a lifetime of not fulfilling this natural activity is no life at all.
I could see all Bengt Holst’s reasoning, and sympathized with his dilemma, right up until he said, “And so we decided to euthanase the giraffe.”

Once the decision to euthanize Marius was taken, further outrage was caused by the use of a bolt gun rather than a lethal injection, so that the carcass was free of drugs and could be fed to lions. Further educational use of the animal was made in a much publicized dissection, “in front of children.” This part I have absolutely no problem with. The meat played its part in the food chain, and the children, attending by invitation, witnessed a biology lesson they will never forget.

But this act in this zoo doesn’t exist in isolation. In Denmark the culture is more robust – some would say more healthy and realistic – than most towards animals and conservation. Copenhagen zoo apparently regularly receives donations of pet horses, alive, who have reached the end of their lives, and instead of being euthanized and their carcasses incinerated, are killed humanely at the zoo and fed to the carnivores. This, to me, is enlightened recycling of a natural resource.

At Dartmoor Zoo we have a scheme to conserve the Dartmoor Pony, over bred and inbred in the wild. With no predator or market for these animals, as numbers increase they are periodically threatened with a mass cull. By carefully selecting the old, inbred and weaker animals (as nature would), and paying farmers slightly above market rates, we manage the herd and even supply other zoos with protein rich meat more akin to the antelope and venison which they would eat in the wild. This is a delicate story to sell to the public, but we are not shy of it and regularly perform educational dissections for groups such as vet nurses, agricultural students, and yes, even school children. In general the atmosphere is reverential, and very few people walk out. Although one sound man from a tv crew fainted.

Dartmoor ponies are an endangered breed, which needs management in order to survive. The same can be argued for the reticulated giraffe, except that there are fewer of them, and they come with a huge weight of symbolism and public sympathy attached. And this is the critical point, which was not added into the equation of logical science in the decision to kill Marius. Public sympathy, in conservation, is a vital component for its success. All zoos rely on visits from a sympathetic public to survive. Many visitors are actually indifferent or even faintly hostile to zoos but have nothing better to do. Once they are here, we do our best to educate them and try to win them over to our cause of conservation, education and captive breeding of rare animals. It is a tenuous and exacting business, which I liken to running a National Health Service funded by an open air theatre. You have potentially open ended costs, and you hope it doesn’t rain, and that the public like the show.

The predictable media frenzy around Marius shows that, on balance, whatever the success of the operation in scientific terms, and even locally in Copenhagen - 7000 people visited the zoo that day – it was a public relations disaster for zoos. “Zoo Haters Sharpen your Knives” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph, and this was on a rare piece in support of the action.

Yes, it was sustainable (EAZA zoos euthanize 0.006% of their animals for management purposes, which is infinitesimal). Yes, it was educational. But from the perspective of someone running a small struggling zoo, it has made my job a lot harder. I was accosted in the supermarket two days ago by an outraged shop assistant who demanded an explanation from me, as someone who runs a zoo. As I tried to explain, a small, and not entirely friendly crowd gathered to listen. “I can’t get my head around it,” was the disconcerted verdict. “You want giraffes. Why didn’t you have him?” And of course, I would have, but for the small detail that we don’t have a giraffe house. But there were many other more suitable zoos who would have taken him.

Outside EAZA facilities, Bengt Holst felt, he couldn’t guarantee welfare. And with some justification. EAZA does sometimes sanction animals into single sex groups in non accredited zoos, but not very often, as it can lead to problems. This is what happened with the second Marius, threatened with the same fate last week. A non-EAZA zoo held a giraffe from EAZA, but (apparently) wanted to euthanize a healthy specimen to make room for it to breed, against EAZA’s wishes. Quite rightly, media, public and EAZA pressure was exerted, and the idea was quickly quashed.

It is complicated, but there are ways of ensuring that the animal remains under the control of the institution supplying it. We look after several animals belonging to other zoos, and when ethical or welfare considerations arise, we consult with the “owners” before we take action. If EAZA readily sanctioned more non-breeding groups in zoos with, say, National level accreditation, then Bengt Holst would have had more choices.

Science may have indicated one course of action, but the weight of public approval - a vital consideration in conservation – should have led him to place the giraffe in a suitably accredited institution, with the strict proviso that it didn’t breed, and was not passed on to another collection without explicit approval. As to castration vs contraception, I would argue possibly neither, depending on the behavior of the animal. In nature, animals often live without a mate (I myself am doing so right now). It is not ideal, but life goes on. And then if there was a fire at Copenhagen - four giraffes have died in fires around the world since 2006 – then Marius could have been held in reserve. As a creature of awesome beauty with an engaged public behind him, Marius could have been a great ambassador for zoos and an educational resource. Instead he will be a stick to beat the conservation efforts of zoos for some time.

The day after Marius was killed, I did the whole “should we close all zoos” TV debate with the animal rights charity PETA. It’s easy to say “Animals don’t belong in cages,” but is now the time to shut those 38 facilities, and release all the giraffes into the declining wild population? If you put ten animals into the wild, eight of them will almost certainly die a slow death from starvation. Or they might end up on a plate. Why are wild giraffes in decline? Because they taste good, to people as well as lions.

50,000 people signed a petition to save Marius 2. I was one of them. 120,000 people signed a petition to close Copenhagen Zoo. I did not sign that. But this weight of public opinion, so quickly mobilized by the euthanasia, could have been mobilized in the opposite direction, in support of upgrading the giraffe facilities at another institution. If every signatory also gave, say 5 Euros, there would be enough money for a suitably accredited zoo to build a brand new giraffe house. I would have had him at Dartmoor Zoo in a flash, but there were many more suitable institutions ahead of us for this animal.

Watching Bengt outline his reasoning, and being barracked by badly informed sensationalizing journalists, I really felt for him. He stayed calm, and truthful throughout. And without emotion involved, there is little to separate the herbivore he humanely euthanized from a cow - or a Dartmoor pony. But there is emotion involved. And there are other zoos, who have to deal with the public perception of this action.

And if Jo public does get involved, he will also have to man-up to this debate. There will always come a time when you have one too many animals. And what do you do then?