A healthy young giraffe known as Marius was shot dead and fed to lions in the presence of visitors on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, at Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark.

Danish Zoo Kills Healthy Giraffe, Sparking Outrage

PETA, others use giraffe's death to criticize zoos.

A healthy young giraffe known as Marius was shot dead and fed to lions in the presence of visitors on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, at Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark.

A healthy young giraffe known as Marius was shot dead and fed to lions in the presence of visitors Sunday at Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark.

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Most zoos are known for harboring animals while giving the public a rare glimpse at the creatures in a simulated natural habitat. But a zoo in Denmark has sparked controversy by doing what many feel to be the opposite of its mission.

Despite almost 20,000 signatures on a petition to save a 2-year-old giraffe known as Marius, Copenhagen Zoo euthanized the animal Sunday. The zoo claims it put down the giraffe to ensure “a sound and healthy population of giraffes" in the international breeding program in which it participates.

"It can only be done by matching the genetic composition of the various animals with the available space,” Bengt Holst, Copenhagen Zoo’s scientific director, told CNN.

"Giraffes today breed very well, and when they do you have to choose and make sure the ones you keep are the ones with the best genes," Holst told BBC.

After Marius was executed with a bolt gun, the zoo dismembered the giraffe’s body outside where the public could see, CNN reported. Following the dissection, visitors could watch as the remains were fed to lions, The Associated Press said.

"I'm actually proud because I think we have given children a huge understanding of the anatomy of a giraffe that they wouldn't have had from watching a giraffe in a photo," zoo spokesman Tobias Stenbaek Bro told the AP.

Some were appalled by the crude way in which the giraffe’s body was disposed of, but the zoo said it did not want to waste the meat.

"In this case we would never throw away 200 kilograms of meat," Holst said.

Reaction to the move has been varied.

The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria supported Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to "humanely put the animal down and believes strongly in the need for genetic and demographic management within animals in human care." The organization told the zoo that there were too many giraffes with Marius' similar genes in its breeding program, of which Copenhagen Zoo is a part.

Other groups say the action revealed the true nature of zoos.

”Zoos breed animals in an effort to keep drawing in paying visitors – yet often, there's nowhere to put the offspring as they grow,” Jane Dollinger, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says in an email to U.S. News. “Breeding programs serve no true conservation purpose because giraffes and other animals born in zoos are rarely, if ever, returned to their natural habitats.”

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PETA itself has come under fire for reportedly killing about 2,000 dogs and cats each year at its Virginia shelter, although it has stressed that such animals are "unadoptable." The organization is not alone in criticizing zoos after Marius' death.

Robert Krijuff, the director of a wildlife park in the Netherlands, said he offered to place Marius in his wildlife reserve and was rejected.  

"I can't believe it. We offered to save his life,” Krijuff said. “Zoos need to change the way they do business.” 

Elisa Allen, a spokeswoman for PETA UK, said Marius' death is a reality check for anyone that "still harbors the illusion that zoos serve any purpose beyond incarcerating intelligent animals for profit," according to the AP. 

Debbie Leahy, captive wildlife protection manager for The Humane Society of the United States, tells U.S. News the zoo "shouldn't have bred the giraffe in the first place."

Leahy says that the zoo and the international organization it worked with should have monitored the breeding of its giraffes better to avoid the question of genetic inbreeding altogether.

"No one should breed an animal unless they can responsibly care for it for the rest of its life," Leahy says. "What they did is completely irresponsible."

Leahy says the Humane Society's policy on animal euthanasia is that it should only be an option when there is a "welfare issue where the animal is sick and can no longer be taken care of."

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However, the practice is more common than one may think and is a serious problem in the U.S., especially among roadside zoos, Leahy says.

Traveling zoos overbreed baby animals to entice visitors and then use them for photo ops with the public, Leahy says, but a problem occurs once they get too big. Leahy says typically there are too many for the zoos to keep, so they sell the additional ones in the pet trade, at illegal auctions and sometimes for their meat.

"Black bears and African lions are the most common" victims of this breeding delinquency, Leahy says.

"Next time you go to a traveling zoo with baby animals, ask the zoo management what happens to those animals after they get older," she says.

Dollinger says her organization "urges everyone who genuinely cares about animals to avoid zoos and instead donate to campaigns that actually protect animals in their native habitats.”