by columnist Jenna Conversano

Hi all – I’m Jenna, a new Science in Museums columnist, with a particular interest in biology, zoos, and aquariums.

The “hot item” in the news last week was the euthanasia of Marius, a two year-old giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo, followed by a massive uproar across the web. If you somehow missed this news story, here is a short recap: the Copenhagen Zoo euthanized their two year-old male giraffe with a shotgun on February 7th. The giraffe’s genes were overrepresented in the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquariums) population and would present an inbreeding risk. Other options—such as sending to a non-EAZA zoo or private individual—were not considered viable. After Marius’s death, zoo staff led a public dissection of the giraffe, followed by visible feeding of the giraffe to its lions. The EAZA executive director, Leslie Dickie, published a statement via CNN fully supporting the Copenhagen Zoo’s actions. The AZA, while itself operating under a firm contraceptive policy, has also been supportive.

One point to consider here, in terms of this column, is whether the Copenhagen Zoo’s culminating actions—the dissection and feeding—was a step towards transparency and the furthering of public science or a misstep in the public perception of zoos.

In the U.S., animal dissections and necropsies are a regular occurrence—behind closed doors that is. Many high school and college students probably pass through biology without dissecting any whole specimen, and most zoos in the U.S. don’t even show carnivores being fed during public hours. Having a public event that actually deals with the realities of animal science could be a bold educational opportunity for a zoo and its guests.

But considering the other circumstances around Marius’s death—and the emotional and social impacts of dissecting a young giraffe that visitors including children had come to recognize over the past two years—the Copenhagen Zoo went too far. While they believed that they were doing the right thing by turning this unfortunate euthanasia into an educational event, they failed to recognize their important position in the public eye. One zoo’s public perception mishap is potentially damaging to the standing and reputation of all zoos, as we can see by the renewed criticism in the news of the role and even existence of zoos.

There are obviously some huge contradictions here: we can watch National Geographic lions hunting in the savannah to our hearts’ content, but to see it in person makes it wrong. And it would be not be exaggerating to say that this event was more publicized because it was a charismatic gawky giraffe that was killed, not an antelope, a frog, or a bird.

Although zoos—or any museums—cannot cater completely to the public’s whim and disregard professional opinion, they have to recognize that it is a part of local and professional communities. Nothing any museum does happens in a vacuum. In our classes, the importance of the visitor is hammered home time and again.

Raising the bar for science education in zoos is vital, but the Copenhagen Zoo’s actions have only served to entangle routine and important biology procedures in unneeded controversy.

If your local zoo publicized an open dissection of a recognizable animal would you go see it? Would it be more “horrible” to euthanize a giraffe or an antelope? Is it science, or is it a stunt?