COPENHAGEN (AFP) - A Danish zoo sparked outrage Sunday when it put down a young giraffe then chopped it up and fed it to lions as visitors, including young children, looked on.
The fate of 18-month-old Marius shocked animal lovers around the world, with thousands signing an online petition to save him and a billionaire offering to buy him and keep him in her Beverly Hills garden.
Copenhagen Zoo said the action was necessary to prevent inbreeding and Marius was put down with a bolt gun after being anaesthetised.
A crowd of visitors, including small children, looked on as an autopsy was carried out and the animal skinned and chopped up.
Some grimaced while others took photos.
A full-maned lion later tucked into the giraffe's remains in full view of the public.
"It was put down at 9:20. It went as planned. It's always the people's right to protest. But of course we have been surprised," zoo spokesman Tobias Stenbaek Bro told AFP.
He said some zoo staff had received death threats including scientific director Bengt Holst who "received a call in the middle of the night".
The zoo said it had no choice other than to prevent the animal attaining adulthood in a long explanation of its decision published on its website.
Under European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) rules, inbreeding between giraffes is to be avoided, it said on its website.
Although Marius was healthy, his genes were already well represented in Europe and he could not be taken in by the 300 other EAZA-affiliated zoos as that would cause inbreeding.
"When breeding success increases it is sometimes necessary to euthanise. We see this as a positive sign and as insurance that we in the future will have a healthy giraffe population in European zoos," it said.
Castration is considered cruel with "undesirable effects", while there were no programmes to release giraffes into the wild, which would be unlikely to succeed anyhow.
The giraffe's impending death sparked outrage online, with more than 5,000 people signing a "Save Marius" Facebook petition.
More than 3,000 people signed a similar Danish-language online petition and nearly 24,000 an English-language version.
'Beverly Hills offer'
There were several attempts made to save Marius.
A Swedish zoo, which is not part of the EAZA network, tried in vain to get Marius transferred, the Expressen daily reported.
Another newspaper, Denmark's Ekstrabladet, quoted a Danish promoter living in Los Angeles, Claus Hjelmbak, as saying he had found a buyer for the animal.
"One of my close friends, a billionaire, said that she wanted to transfer a few million so we could save the giraffe," Hjelmbak was quoted as saying.
"He could easily have lived in her garden in Beverly Hills, but the zoo director was not interested in a sale. I'm angry," the promoter added.
The zoo said it had received an offer of 270,000 euros for Marius, but had made clear from the beginning of the protest that its policy was not to sell the animals.
A wildlife park in Britain said it had urgently contacted the Copenhagen zoo on Saturday to adopt Marius but had received no response.
The Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) said it was "saddened" to hear that the animal had been killed.
"YWP has a state of the art giraffe house built in 2012 with a bachelor herd of four male giraffes and the capacity to take an extra male, subject to the agreement of the European stud book keeper," the zoo said.
In September 2012 the Copenhagen Zoo sent a giraffe named Palle to the YWP whan he was the same age as Marius.
Jonas Wahlstrom of the Association of Swedish Zoos said he understood why the animal was put down, but not the way his remains were disposed of.
"If we announced that in Swedish zoos I think the staff would almost be stoned," he told Expressen.