The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday:
Workers at the Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday killed Marius, a young male giraffe, with a gun to the head and harvested his flesh for research and for (big) cat food. The skinning, carving and eating were all done in full public view. While a zoo spokesman said the spectators were “very enthusiastic,” the reaction elsewhere sounded like, well, the cry of a wounded animal.
Many animal lovers were shocked by the blasting and butchering of one of these impressive and winsome animals merely because its presence had become inconvenient to the zookeepers. Thousands of people had signed a petition asking clemency for Marius, to no avail.
Confronted with widespread dismay, the people in charge of the Copenhagen Zoo were surprised but not apologetic. They said the 2-year-old male had to be eliminated to avoid inbreeding that would lower the quality of the giraffe herd.
“Our giraffes are part of an international breeding program, which has a purpose of ensuring a sound and healthy population of giraffes,” said Bengt Holst, the zoo’s scientific director. “When giraffes breed as well as they do now, then you will inevitably run into so-called surplus problems now and then.”
Zoo officials, however, don’t seem to have spent much time looking for alternatives to blowing Marius’ brains out. Contraception and sterilization were obvious options. But if those were used on an animal like this one, complained Holst, “he will take up space for more genetically valuable giraffes.” Besides, birth control “has a number of unwanted side effects on the internal organs.”
If this zoo didn’t want to waste its limited space on a poor specimen like him, another place could have had more room and a more generous spirit.
Britain’s Yorkshire Wildlife Park offered to provide refuge, only to be declined. If not a zoo, then some game preserve or eccentric Texas ranch owner might have been happy to furnish Marius with acres to roam in peace.
It’s not as though the zoo culled an elderly animal certain to die soon. Giraffes can live 25 years.
Zoos do have a responsibility to ensure healthy breeding. But their obligations don’t stop there. They also owe a duty to the animal lovers who frequent and support them to treat the creatures in their care as humanely as possible. Killing them without exhausting nonlethal alternatives doesn’t quite live up to that standard.
When zoo officials invoke the requirements of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria to insist they had no choice, they have the sound of bureaucrats upholding rules over common sense as well as compassion.
Holst expressed puzzlement that no one complains when the zoo culls goats, antelopes or wild boar. But those animals are commonly harvested for the table, which giraffes are not.
Giraffes are also just more lovable, which is why many a child has a stuffed giraffe and few have stuffed boars. Those comically long necks, gaudy markings and dewy eyes put them in a different category. That’s one reason people flock to zoos to see them, while goats are not exactly big box office.
A full debate on all these issues might have been a good way to educate people about animal conservation. But it would have been a lot more useful debate while Marius was alive.