No animal should be “surplus”

No animal should be “surplus”

A young giraffe named Marius was shot, dismembered, and fed to the lions in Copenhagen Zoo because he was deemed “surplus.”

You may find this horrific, but this is common and practical for zoos all over the world.

And it is exactly why IFAW’s mission and guiding principles do not align with the captive breeding programme conservation model that is being touted today.

Zoo animals become “surplus” for different reasons: because the public does not like them anymore, because they are difficult and expensive to keep, and/or because there is no longer room for them (as the recent case of six lions killed at the Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire, UK, following a burst in the population after a number of pregnancies).

These issues are intrinsic to the zoo industry, and since it is basically that—an “industry”—spending funds to keep something you do not want, or cannot capitalize on, is considered bad business practice. Thankfully, other zoos with vacancies and/or more robust funding oftentimes come to these animals’ rescue.

In the last few decades, an increasing amount of animals have been labelled “surplus” because they have become too inbred to be effective contributors to “captive breeding programmes” that are carried out across the larger community of zoos. Marius and another giraffe facing the same fate (coincidentally also called Marius) at yet another Danish zoo both fall into this category.

Sadly, captive breeding programmes in zoos tend to lead to inbreeding. Since it is uncommon these days that animals are removed from the wild to join such programmes (and rightly so), they tend to consist of very small populations which, after few generations, end up sharing far too many genes to be considered “healthy” enough.

The more inbred the captive populations are, the higher the chance that more individuals of such populations will be considered unsuitable for breeding. Since zoo administrators care about the breeding programme as a whole, they make sure a surplus animal is “out of the programme.”

Investigating for a study in 2003, I managed to get a hold of the secret “available/wanted” lists of EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) zoos from the period 1999 to 2002, and they showed at any given time during that period there was an average of 7,500 surplus animals in EAZA zoos (obviously not all destined to be killed).

Marius suffered his fate because of his genes. Not because of his health, not because of his behaviour, not because of the risk he posed to himself or to others. Only because his genes made him male, and make him genetically too close to all other captive giraffes that are kept in zoos around the world.

(Of course, the zoo directors of these two Danish zoos have been faulted for taking this action so publicly and unashamedly. The Copenhagen Zoo made a spectacle of this in the name of education and invited the public, even children, to the grisly event.)

Again, alternative homes have been offered to the two giraffes, but the Danish zoos have rejected them. The point they are making is simple: In conservation, individual animals do not matter, only genes. Only the species matter, they would theoretically argue, and if we have to sacrifice a few giraffes with the genes we do not want for our “conservation-minded captive breeding programmes, then so be it.

IFAW’s position on conservation is very different.

We know that it is possible to work for the species and the individual at the same time. It is possible to deal with each animal and with the population at the same time. It can be done, and in a century when there are no longer doubts that animals, notably giraffes, are sentient beings who have an intrinsic value that makes each individual unique and irreplaceable, not only can it be done, the alternative is unacceptable.

We also know that there is nothing wrong with empathising with individual wild animals, and creating personal bonds with them without forgetting their natural needs or imposing on them our own. We can create positive relationships equally beneficial to them and us. Examples of successful “empathic approach” in scientific research and conservation initiatives are well known, as has been the case of the exemplary work of Jane Goodall, Dianne Fossey, Cynthia Moss, Mark Bekoff, and others.

IFAW believes you cannot preserve nature by focusing only on the genes. Nature is composed of interconnected ecosystems, which are composed of interconnected species, which are composed of interconnected individuals, which are composed of interconnected moods, behaviours and biological needs.

You cannot preserve nature without preserving the moods, behaviours and biological needs of the individuals that are part of it, and this, we believe, should be the trademark of modern conservation.

We have faced many times situations where there seems to be an apparent conflict between individuals and species. For instance, we rescue wild animals that may have lost the ability to breed, and because of that others may have not bothered to save them. Or when we recently protested against the Dallas Safari Club endangered black rhino auction where one rhino was set to be killed supposedly to raise funds to preserve his own species. The fate of this rhino came about because it was claimed to be too old and beyond “breeding age”… so he could well be named Marius, too.

The Mariuses of this world deserve people and organisations speaking for them and helping them,  not only because they deserve it as unique individuals they are, but because the species they belong to also needs them to contribute to their existence ecologically and behaviourally, not just genetically. Breeding, after all, is just a tiny part of living.

IFAW cannot separate conservation from animal welfare, because we deal with real animals in real ecosystems, not with genes or abstract concepts, and in “the wild,” ecosystems, species and individuals are intrinsically connected and inseparable. And if we humans want to be part of it, we need to deal with the ecosystem, species and individuals with care, respect and consideration.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Sonja Van Tichelen, Vice President of International Operations
Vice President of International Operations
Staci McLennan, Director, EU Office
Director, EU Office
Tania McCrea-Steele, Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime
Project Lead, Global Wildlife Cybercrime