Marius the Giraffe: innocent victim or genetic timebomb?


This past Sunday, the Copenhagen Zoo attracted a storm of controversy when they killed an 18-month old giraffe named Marius. The issue of this giraffe's death is definitely an emotional one, but was Marius an innocent victim of the system or was he a ticking genetic timebomb?

The answer is that he was a bit of both.

Many reports about Marius' death included a lot of unnecessary, and quite frankly wrong, statements — presumably to ramp up emotional fervor for the story. They weren't needed, though. The situation the zoo and the giraffe population is in speaks to the success of their breeding program, but the fact that Marius had to die is sad enough on its own, and casts a dark shadow on that success.

Just to clear things up, though, Marius was not killed in front of the public, and especially not in front of children. He was anesthetized by the zoo veterinarian so that he would feel nothing, and then he was killed with a bolt gun. This method was used so that the meat from his carcass could go to feed the zoo carnivores (chemical methods would have poisoned the meat), so as to not waste his sacrifice. The autopsy they performed on him was standard for any animal that dies or is killed at the zoo, and the public was invited to watch. Any feelings against the staff for performing this autopsy in front of children would be more rightly directed at the parents. Also, from the most complete reports found, Marius was not fed to the other animals in front of the children.

Contrary to many of the reports, Marius was not a 'baby' giraffe. At 18 months old, he was more like a teenager, but he was already around three months past due for leaving the herd he was born into. If male giraffes stay with the herd past 15 months, it results in conflicts with the dominant male. In this case, Marius' father had apparently already started to injure him, and it would have only gotten worse if he stayed. In the wild, he would have already left, hopefully joining up with a 'bachelor group' of other young males, or possibly starting his own herd, but sadly, there's a good chance that he would have ended up as a meal for lions.

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For Marius to leave his herd at the Copenhagen Zoo, he'd have to go to another zoo affiliated with the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), which participates in a breeding program for giraffes. Strict rules guide where animals can be transferred to, and the coordinator for the breeding program found that Marius' genes were just too similar to all the other giraffes in the association's zoos. If he went to any of them, it would cause problems due to inbreeding.

This is where the 'genetic timebomb' comes up.

If ending Marius' life because of his genes sounds cold, that's because it is cold, but in some cases, it's necessary. This same method is used on other animal populations, where culls take the place of what predators would do in the wild, to keep numbers down and effectively protect the gene pool. Either these culls are performed on wild animals because human activity has reduced or removed their natural predators, or they're performed in zoos to prevent inbreeding. If a population of animals starts to inbreed, it can take a serious toll on them. Genetic disorders start to show up, as nasty recessive genes are expressed. This can cause cancers, birth defects, and even stillbirths. The animals develop weaker immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease. It can even lower the fertility of offspring, which puts the future of the species in jeopardy.

Many types of pet animals suffer from these problems. Some breeds of dog have a very small gene pool due to inbreeding to keep the breed 'pure'. As an extreme case, a study found that the 10,000 or so pugs in the UK represented the genes of only 50 individuals. This causes a whole host of health problems for these cute little dogs. Anyone who owns or has owned a pet ferret (this author included) knows of the severe health problems that result from inbreeding. There's no suggestion being made here to perform culls on pugs or ferrets, though. These are just cases that show the horrible problems that crop up due to inbreeding.

Unfortunately, culling has reportedly been used for certain dog breeds, at least up until recently. As an example, a 2008 BBC documentary revealed that the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club code of ethics called for the culling of puppies that did not display the characteristic ridge of fur along the spine. Since then, they have apparently revised that part of the code. It's not just with dog breeds either, and it's not always because of genetics. There's a case in Alberta right now of wild horses being culled because their numbers are growing too large. Millions of cats and dogs are killed every year in shelters because they're unwanted.

An exception being made for Marius wouldn't cause an instant disaster for the giraffe population in European zoos, of course, but the strict rules that are in place are responsible for those zoos having a very successful and healthy population of giraffes. When you're dealing with a limited number of genes — starting with a small population and all (or nearly all) additions to that population being from breeding, rather than bringing in new animals from the wild — you have to be very careful. That care has paid off up until now, but with the success of the program now comes the unfortunately case where giraffes being born in the last few years may not have a place in the system.

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When it comes down to it, Marius was an innocent victim of the system, though. He didn't do anything wrong. His very existence is testament to the success of the European giraffe breeding program. However, he was still killed despite that. The least that can be said is that he lived a happy, healthy life for 18 months, the zoo put him down in a relatively humane way, and his death actually served a purpose to feed the lions, rather than his body being dumped somewhere to rot.

There's still some questions about why he wasn't sent to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, though. According to BBC News, they have a bachelor herd of giraffes (only males, which eliminates any dominance issues), that Marius could have joined. Park officials contacted the Copenhagen Zoo in a last-ditch effort to save Marius, however, it seems that the decision by the breeding program coordinator still ruled that his genes were over-represented in that herd, and he would have been taking up a space better filled by another giraffe with different genes.

As for other options, the rules forbade sending him to a zoo outside of the EAZA. It may seem better than being killed, but the association and zookeepers couldn't take the chance of him being forced into a life of neglect and abuse (intentional or unintentional). Also, their rules prohibit selling animals (for obvious reasons), so the offer of a half million euros from someone had to be refused. Contraceptives are harmful to the animal and risky to administer (some giraffes have broken their neck after being sedated for this process). Releasing him into the wild would have been cruel, since he wouldn't know how to take care of himself and find food, and he probably would have ended up being a meal for lions anyway.

Unfortunately, culling animals is very likely to continue. The very same day that Marius was killed, a whistleblower told the press that a lioness and her four cubs were put down at the Longleat Safari Park in the UK, following the euthanasia of a male lion last month. Should these practices continue? That's a hard question. It would be nicer if they didn't, but conservation sometimes demands that we sacrifice some for the protection of the species. Also, if we point fingers at these instances and demand change, we need to also look at all the other animals that are killed due to our activities, and change our ways there too.

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