Q & A to scientific director Bengt Holst

Why does Copenhagen Zoo euthanize healthy animals?

Copenhagen Zoo’s animals are part of an international breeding programme which aims at ensuring a healthy animal population in European zoos. This is done by constantly ensuring that only unrelated animals breed so that inbreeding is avoided. If an animal’s genes are well represented in a population further breeding with that particular animal is unwanted. When an animal's genes are well represented in the breeding programme and there is no place for the animal in another zoo, the European Breeding Programme has agreed that the animal is to be euthanized. This is a situation that we know from other group animals that breed well. When breeding success increases it is sometimes necessary to euthanize.

We see this as a positive sign and as an insurance that we in the future will have a healthy animal population in European zoos. The same type of management is used in deer parks where red deer and fallow deer are culled to keep the populations healthy. The most important factor must be that the animals are healthy physically and behaviourally and that they have a good life whilst they are living whether this life is long or short. This is something Copenhagen Zoo believes strongly in. 


Why are the animals not given contraceptives?

In Copenhagen Zoo we let the animals breed naturally. With naturally we mean that they will get young within the same intervals as they would in the wild. That means that the animals get to carry out their natural behaviours. Parental care is a big part of an animal’s behaviour. It is a 24 hour job in longer periods of their lives and we believe that they should still be able to carry out this type of behaviour also in captivity. Contraceptives have a number of unwanted side effects on the internal organs and we would therefore apply a poorer animal welfare if we did not euthanize.


Why not transfer the animal to a zoo which is not part of the breeding programme or to a zoo that is interested in getting the animal?  

Only zoos that follow certain rules can be part of international breeding programmes. In Europe this is only the zoos that are members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). EAZA is an association that counts just over 300 members.

As a member of EAZA you agree to the following rules of not selling animals, working on a scientific basis and ensuring animal welfare. The international breeding programmes are fully controlled and open and are collaborations between institutions that follow from the same set of rules. This is important for the breeding programmes to work.


Why can't the animal be released in the wild?

It is not easy to reintroduce an animal to the wild. Many factors have to be considered and these are described in detail in IUCN's Reintroduction Guidelines (IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature). You can not just set animals ‘free’ if there is no possibility of them surviving.  First of all you have to consider what made the animal endangered in the first place and whether this is still the case.

Another important factor is local support as it is the local community that has to live with the animals. Unless it is part of an official release programme animals are not reintroduced. The natural habitats will be full of dangers and challenges so the animals that evidently are part of a reintroduction programme will be carefully selected to increase the chance of survival.


What does Copenhagen Zoo do with the dead animals?

After euthanasia the animal will be autopsied as we do with all our animals. That way we will collect important knowledge about the animal – knowledge that can benefit other animals of the same species. In case of euthanizing for example an antelope, horse or giraffe, the carcass will be used as food for the Zoo’s carnivores. When animals are euthanized with an overdose of aesthetic it is not possible to use the remains for food. However if the animal is first anaesthetized and then put down with a bolt pistol (same procedure as with horses and cows) it can be given to the carnivores.

Why does Copenhagen Zoo do public autopsies?

At Copenhagen Zoo we perform autopsies on all animals that die - from the smallest mouse to antelopes and elephants. We do this in order to gain new knowledge about the animals and to prevent diseases. Sometime, when we need to perform an autopsy, we invite our guests to observe our vets conducting the important work.

The vets are good communicators and during the autopsy they explain what we see, and how the whole organism works in an educational effort directed towards our guests. We are always careful to inform our guests beforehand that the process might be considered overwhelming for some and what they can expect if they chose to attend the autopsy.

By scientific director Bengt Holst


A lot has been said about the euthanasia of the above mentioned giraffe. People and organisations from all over the world have stated their criticque or support of the action, and as so often happens there have also been a lot of misunderstandings. Consequently there is a need for clarification.

In the article scientific director Bengt Holst has described what REALLY happened as well as the background for the decisions.

The three main points of criticism were:

  • Euthanasia/culling of a 2 year old male giraffe
  • Inviting the public to watch the autopsy
  • Feeding the carcass to the lions

Please find the answers in the full article here: