Some children held their noses and grimaced in disgust. Others got curious and came up close to watch Danish zoo officials carve up a lion carcass and display its blood-red organs in a public dissection Thursday that stirred outrage outside Denmark but little within.
Officials at Odense Zoo in central Denmark said the gory performance was educational, teaching children about the anatomy of a lion. Wearing headsets, they butchered the carcass of the year-old feline with blood-soaked gloves, slicing off its head and pulling out the intestines, heart and liver.
Adult spectators brought scarfs to their noses to ward off the pungent smell. Curious children watched in awe, some pinching their noses. The event was deliberately scheduled to take place during the annual fall school holidays.
"For all the kids living in towns, it's wonderful for them to see and it's only natural," said Gitte Johanson, 28, a visitor who grew up on a farm.
Some animal rights activists sharply criticized Odense Zoo, 105 miles west of Copenhagen, for killing the lion along with two siblings in February to avoid inbreeding as is custom among many zoos in Europe.
Joanna Swabe, head of the Brussels-based Humane Society International/Europe, said in a statement that "zoos routinely over-breed and kill lions and thousands of other animals deemed surplus to requirements."
She said zoos have "an ethical responsibility" and can use contraceptive options "to manage reproduction, prevent inbreeding (and) maintain genetically healthy populations."
U.S. zoos try to avoid killing animals by using contraceptives to make sure they don't have more offspring than they can house. That method has also been criticized by some for disrupting animals' natural behavior.
In February 2014, the Copenhagen Zoo faced international protests after a giraffe was killed, dissected and fed to lions in front of children.
The zoo in Odense has done public dissections for 20 years. On Thursday, scores of children stood around a table where the zoo had displayed a stuffed lion cub next to the lion being dissected.
Odense Zoo employee Lotte Tranberg said the male lion and its siblings were killed because they were getting sexually mature and could have started mating with each other and the zoo wanted to avoid inbreeding. They also could have killed each other because they would have been kept in the same enclosure, she said.
Tranberg talked about the lives of big cats before cutting up the stiff carcass of the lion, which had white tuffs of fur on its legs and stomach. She also held up the lion's blood-red organs to show the crowd. Children raised their hands to ask questions during the operation, which she answered.
Ole Hanson, a 54-year-old military officer, carried his 5-year-old grandson Frej on his shoulders so he could watch the dissection as it started.
"But he wanted to get down and have a closer look. So he ended up front, right before the lion," Hanson said.
The zoo said it decided to dissect a male lion this time because it was bigger than its female sibling.
Zoo officials say the lions were killed after they had failed to find new homes for the animals despite numerous attempts. The remains of the two siblings — another male and a female — are still in a zoo freezer, and officials have not decided what to do with them, said Jens Odgaard Olsson, manager of the zoo.
On Facebook, a few dozen people on Thursday accused the zoo and Denmark of having a lack of compassion. But on the zoo's Facebook page, ordinary Danes defended the dissection, asking English-speaking commentators whether they ever had been to a slaughterhouse.
"Life isn't the Disney Channel. Get over it ..." Mikael Soenderskov, one of the Danes defending the dissection, wrote.
Public dissections are common in Denmark. The Funen Village, an open-air museum in Odense, slaughtered and dissected a pig Wednesday before children while explaining which parts of the animal are eaten.
Odense Zoo itself was elected "Best in Europe" in the category of zoos with up to 500,000 visitors per year in 2013 and 2015.