Marius the reticulated giraffe died at the Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday. He was 2 years old.
The cause of death was a shotgun blast, and after a public autopsy, the animal, who was 11 feet 6 inches, was fed to the zoo's lions and other big cats.
Administrators said they decided to put down Marius, who was in good health, because his genes were well-represented among the captive giraffe population in European zoos. But that explanation did not satisfy animal-rights activists who had mounted a furious last-minute campaign to save him.
Besides nearly 30,000 online signatures from those who did not want Marius killed, Copenhagen Zoo officials also received death threats after they turned down adoption offers from other zoos, as well as a bid of 500,000 euros ($682,000) from an individual who was willing to take Marius in.
One group, Animal Rights Sweden, urged people to stop visiting zoos as a protest, The Associated Press reported.
"It is no secret that animals are killed when there is no longer space, or if the animals don't have genes that are interesting enough," the organization said in a statement.
Marius was born in captivity at the Copenhagen Zoo, where there are seven reticulated giraffes, a species native to Africa. The species is not endangered, but it faces threats from habitat loss and hunting.
"A giraffe is not a pet; it's not like a dog or cat that becomes part of the family," Bengt Holst, the zoo's scientific director, said by telephone. "It is a wild animal."
Holst said he had decided against sending Marius to another zoo because doing so would have opened the door to inbreeding and potentially removed a place for a giraffe whose genetic makeup was more valuable in terms of future offspring in captive breeding programs.
He seemed caught off-guard by the public protest, calling it "totally out of proportion."
"People said, 'If you kill the giraffe, I'll kill you,'" he said. "It's insane."
"We don't do it to be cruel; we do it to ensure a healthy population," Holst added. "You have to breed them to make sure the population is renewed."
As for individual offers, Holst said giraffes were social animals and could not be kept in isolation.
Giraffes are allowed to breed in captivity because it is part of their natural behavior in the wild, Holst said, even though breeding can produce what he called "a surplus animal."
"As long as they are with us, we want them to have a good life, with as much natural behavior as possible," he said.
Marius was not fully grown, Holst said. He could have grown another 3 feet or so.
Officials used a shotgun rather than an injection to kill the giraffe so his meat would be safe for the zoo's predator animals to eat. After an autopsy that was open to visitors as an educational opportunity, parts of Marius' remains were fed to the zoo's lions – and there is some left over.
"We still have meat for lions, tigers and leopards," Holst said. "It's just meat that can be fed to every animal."