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Outrage over Denmark zoo giraffe brings up questions for Wichita's wildlife park

Visitors at Tanganyika Wildlife Park feed the giraffes as part of the interactive program at the Park which has a giraffe breeding program.
Visitors at Tanganyika Wildlife Park feed the giraffes as part of the interactive program at the Park which has a giraffe breeding program.
Leslie Chaffin

Earlier this week, the news spread like wildfire that a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark destroyed a young giraffe and then fed it to the zoo's lions. Animal lovers and conservationists were outraged over the decision, and 27,000 people signed a petition asking the zoo to look for an alternative for the 18-month-old giraffe named Marius. In a CNN report, Jack Hanna weighed in.

Part of the difference is cultural in how the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) have set up governing policies for member institutions compared to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in the United States. According to the CNN report, the executive director of the EAZA is quoted as saying:

"Conservation is not always simple. It's not always clean."

The EAZA supported the Copenhagen Zoo's decision. According to a BBC report, only five giraffes have been culled in this manner since the European stud book for giraffes began in 1887. In the same week, the UK also saw five lions put down at Longleat Safari Park because of genetic problems believed to be tied to inbreeding. In Australia, Toronga Zoo in Sydney culled 74 animals in the past year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. While there haven't been reports on U.S. zoo activity of this nature in relation to maintaining viable populations, the very public nature of what the Copenhagen Zoo chose to do brings up the issue of managing wild animals in captivity, one the general public normally would not see.

The news from across the pond has also brought questions for Wichita's own Tanganyika Wildlife Park which has bred exotic and endangered wild animals for more than two decades, before the park opened as a public attraction in 2008. Giraffes are a part of the Park's breeding program.

"While we are not privy to the animal management practices, policies and details at overseas institutions, Tanganyika Wildlife Park does not cull animals as a means to reduce or manage its animal collection or to create enrichment opportunities for carnivores," said Matt Fouts, operations director. "We use a variety of means to foster genetically diverse and sustainable populations here and with other known zoological partners across the U.S."

Fouts noted that the keepers at TWP recognize the importance of behavioral enrichment for all species and that they "work hard each day to provide enrichment through variable diets, activities, objects, odors, natural exhibits and substrates."

To manage populations and maintain genetic viability, Fouts said that TWP and its partners use a variety of options.

"These include identification and tracking of breeding age individuals, physical separation, breeding loans and exchanges, importation, creation of compatible multi-species exhibits, formation of bachelor and bachelorette groups, and other methods."

Fouts added that because so many of the species the Park houses and breeds are either endangered or very rare, there isn't an issue placing animals at zoos and other professional wildlife facilities across the country.

The AZA has 223 member institutions and the EAZA has 345, of which several offered to take Marius, but in one case, Marius' older brother was already in the herd which would have violated the regulations on inbreeding.

It's good to know that this is not likely to happen at our own wildlife park, but the controversy raises many more questions than it answers about the challenge of preserving species that are endangered not only by human encroachment, poaching and pollution, but also an accelerated climate change cycle. Accelerated species extinction is tied as a cause of climate change as closely as pollutants by conservation organizations.

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