Copenhagen Zoo, which sparked global protests over its killings of a young male giraffe and four lions, will continue to be open about its culling to show the truth about how animals are kept in captivity.
“We tell the story of what goes on behind the curtain to build credibility and we’ll tell the story of how animals are managed and live,” Steffen Straede, the zoo’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. “I can’t speak for animal parks elsewhere and why they aren’t equally transparent, but I’d much rather do it our way than withholding information.”
The 154-year-old institution this year triggered a wave of protests after it killed a giraffe named Marius to avoid inbreeding and then dissected him in public before feeding him to the lions. It then put down two lion cubs, saying they would have been slayed by a newly arrived young male, and also killed two adult lions, citing old age.
The zoo has received tens of thousands of complaints and threats via e-mail, phone, Facebook posts and tweets, the CEO said. A recent spoof article making the rounds in Denmark suggested the zoo had killed older employees to make way for younger workers more attuned to social media.
Straede, who joined the zoo in 2012 and has a PhD in park management and a forestry degree, said killing is necessary to help preserve gene pools and the welfare of the animals. “We can’t manage a zoo on people’s emotions toward individual animals and whether they have cute eyes or big eye lids.”
The actions have highlighted a practice among global zoos that has received little publicity. As many as 5,000 animals, from tadpoles to mammals, are culled in the world’s animal parks every year, according to David Williams-Mitchell, a spokesman for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.
“Culling is carried out in most zoos to manage populations, except in Italy, where it’s illegal,” Williams-Mitchell said by phone.
Animal rights’ advocates argue that there are other solutions and question the very premise of zoos. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the park in Copenhagen had an “ethical obligation” to sterilize animals if it lacks space to keep offspring.
“These recent killings should be a wake-up call for anyone who still harbors the illusion that zoos serve any purpose beyond incarcerating intelligent animals so as to try to turn a profit,’’ Mimi Bekhechi, a director at PETA in the U.K., said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
On online petition calling for the zoo to be closed and all of its animals to be relocated has received almost 150,000 signatures. People who took to Twitter to protest the killing of Marius include actors Ricky Gervais and Kirstie Alley. Jack Hanna, director emeritus at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, also criticized the culling and said no healthy animals are killed in his park.
The Copenhagen Zoo posted a profit of 4.7 million kroner ($870,000) in 2012. It employs about 180 people and has about 3,900 specimens, covering 240 species.
“I suspect the reason why us putting down an animal suddenly becomes global news has something to do with how urbanized the world have become,” Straede said. “We’ve been engaged in animal breeding programs for decades and have been open and honest about them.”
Ole Rasbech, a 67-year-old manager at a riding school visiting the zoo with his wife and grand-daughters, said the visceral global reaction is surprising.
“These animals aren’t pets,” he said, speaking in front of the lion den. “Lots of animals are raised and killed in Denmark each year. The zoo putting down a giraffe and some lions really is no different than the shooting of thousands of Danish deer each year, which is done to preserve the population.”
Denmark, a country of 5.6 million people, slaughters about 20 million pigs every year and is the world’s largest pork exporter. Pork makes up about 5 percent of its exports, or about 30 billion kroner, according to Statistics Denmark.
Straede said procedure is to always examine options to place excess animals elsewhere. In the case of the giraffe and the lions, no appropriate zoos had room and no other sustainable habitats could be found and releasing animals into nature is a very complicated process that’s rare. The zoo exported 220 animals in 2012 including an elephant, two red pandas, a rhino and two brown bears, according to its latest annual report.
The park is Denmark’s fourth-largest tourist attraction, according to Copenhagen’s tourist board. It had a record 1.43 million visitors last year.
So far, the park has seen no drop off in visitors, according Straede.
Danes are after all accustomed to being told that the emperor has no clothes, after the story of its most famous author, Hans Christian Andersen. The zoo in Odense, Denmark, located near the fairy-tale writer’s birth place, earlier this year invited guests to come view the dissection of a lion.
The Copenhagen Zoo “is no-spin territory,” said Straede. “We can’t spin the news and remain credible to our audience, and we’ve chosen credibility to earn the trust of the visitors and the public.”