EThere was outrage across Europe when, almost ten years ago, Copenhagen Zoo killed a young healthy giraffe bull and fed the meat to the big cats. Pictures went around the world of the scene where lions attacked giraffes in front of spectators and children covered their eyes when they saw it. The question behind it is as relevant as it is unanswered today: are zoos allowed to kill individual animals in order to preserve the species and manage the population?

Nuremberg Zoo is now taking it a step further: the French have had problems with the baboon population for years. There are currently 45 small Guinea baboons living in Nuremberg. Not all animals are useful for the preservation of the species. Too many copies of the same sex can be a problem, kinship issues, the social structure of the group – or simply the availability of space. The zoo wants to promote the fact that even in species like baboons, it can be wise to kill individual individuals for the good of the whole species.

About one in five of Europe's 220 Guinea baboons live in Nuremberg, a facility that was once designed for 25 animals. The problem is also a consequence of the success of zoos. Until the 1980s, the reproduction of zoo animals, especially difficult-to-keep species, was by no means guaranteed. In the following years, it was increasingly possible to adapt the housing conditions so that the animals would give birth to offspring. Now there are more individual animals again – but not necessarily the right ones in terms of species protection.

There are no more ways to move forward

According to its director, Dag Encke, Nuremberg Zoo has already tried several things to steer the subpopulation in the right direction with regard to baboons. Five copies were delivered to Paris and another eleven to China. 15 animals, which were also supposed to go to China, remained in Nuremberg because their housing conditions were questionable.

In Nuremberg itself, the zoo has been trying everything possible for years to get the problem under control. About 20 females were sterilized – temporarily, it was mistakenly assumed. However, the animals no longer became pregnant – this had long-term consequences for social structure and also genetic diversity. Because only part of the group can reproduce. “We have again narrowed the gene pool and pretty much destroyed the social structure,” summarizes Encke. Sterile women would no longer have the opportunity to advance in the group hierarchy.

“Reasonable cause” to kill

“In species conservation, we find ourselves facing a human-made dilemma that requires us all to make decisions that don't seem good,” says zoo boss Encke. “We still have a responsibility. It's a matter of common sense that we accept them.” Killing ungulates such as sheep, cattle or goats, birds or kangaroos is already practiced to manage the population. “We think there is a social consensus.” Now the zoo wants to start a debate, to socially implement a measure that makes sense from the point of view of species protection also for primates.

Legally, Encke and his colleagues enter a gray area with their plans. “We are reported with 100 percent certainty,” says Encke. Whether the plan turns out to be a crime can only be known in hindsight – a dilemma. According to the Animal Welfare Act, a “reasonable reason” is required for killing. Whether this is so is a matter of perspective.

Immediately there was a protest from the German Animal Welfare Association. “We clearly reject a license to kill as part of population management,” the statement said. Zoos have a responsibility to each of their wards that they must fulfill. “If this is not possible, the species must not be kept.”