I’m not sure how widely this story spread, but last week, I read on the BBC website that Marius, a healthy 18-month-old male giraffe, was due to be killed via bolt gun at the Copenhagen Zoo.
Unsurprisingly, there was uproar On The Internet (and In The World, as well). Other zoos in different countries offered to take Marius. There was a petition signed by thousands, pleading with the zoo to spare Marius’ life. But the zoo refused, and last Sunday, Marius was killed, and in front of a crowd in which children were present, dissected, and parts of the body fed to lions.
There’s… a lot to process here, I think, and I think it’s worth breaking the problem up into separate parts. This is useful, both to consider the ethical stance of the zoo, and the the area of animal rights, especially of those in captivity.
Let’s begin with the zoo. The problem most people seem to have is that Marius’ death was apparently unnecessary. He could have been sent to another park or zoo. Further, there’s a question of why Marius was bred in the first place, when his genes were already represented in that giraffe population. And finally, there was some discernment as to whether children should have been allowed to watch the dissection.
The scientific director, Bengt Holst, argued that there was no place for a male with Marius’ genes in his zoo, and when other zoos offered to take him, he said that those places should be reserved for giraffes with more suitable genes. Apparently, giraffes bread very well in captivity, and Marius had siblings, so he was not unique. If he were not to be used for breeding, then it would seem illogical to have him take up a space that could be used for a more exceptional giraffe. Holst also argued that the uproar about Marius was disproportionate, given that the zoo puts down 20-30 animals every year for the same reasons.
So if Marius were redundant because his genes were so well represented, then why was he born at all? Would it not have been better to not breed those particular giraffes together, to prevent the conundrum of having to kill a healthy young animal? Could the zoo not ensure that male and female giraffes are kept separate during fertile periods? Or is contraception not possible? According to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, contraception is still not considered a viable option at this point, due to complications in administering it, and as is pointed out by bioethics professor Peter Sandoe, disallowing sex and pregnancy makes the already unnatural life the giraffe leads in captivity, even more unnatural.
As for allowing children and the public to witness the post-mortem or dissection, this raises an interesting point as to what we want our children to understand about food chains, anatomy and our own dietary habits. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with children being exposed to this. Lions eat meat; in their native habitat, they would hunt giraffe. I recall watching my father butcher sheep for us on the farm, having him point out the various parts of the body, and knowing that it would be something we would eat later. The death of the animal was very quick, and there was a very strong sense of pragmatism. We ate meat, and this was where it came from.
Possibly our discomfort with this is more to do the disparity between what we expect from zoos, and the reality of what happens wherever animals are bred, whether that’s in a zoo or on a farm. As Holst pointed out, there is little uproar about other animals who are euthanised every year. The public simply focussed on Marius: only 18 months old, and healthy, and with long eyelashes and those rather endearing bucked teeth giraffes have.
In fact, the reaction to Marius’ death speaks more to how we choose to view our treatment of animals in general, and how our perceptions of what is acceptable with regards to cruelty, depending on which animal we’re discussing. Marius is a sweet-looking creature, and we hate to see him die. However, how healthy is it for us to keep giraffes in zoos at all? What about elephants? What about lions, eagles, bears, otters? Breeding programmes aside, the animals are there for humans’ benefit, not their own, no matter how well we try to anticipate and accommodate their needs.
We are upset about Marius’ death, but most of us don’t like to think about the animals live and die everyday in far worse conditions. Most of the chicken in supermarkets and fast food meals is produced from birds who have been kept in cages for the entirety of their short lives. Does it matter to us, that this is not only a completely unnatural environment for the birds, but that there could be evidence they are intelligent and can recognise other birds, and faces? Studies have shown that sheep can recognise the faces of several other sheep for almost two years, and appear to recognise emotions, as well. Our understanding of how highly capable and intelligent are octopuses is only just emerging.
Is it sad that a young giraffe died and there might have been a way to stop that? Of course it is. But I think, rather than focussing so much on one animal’s death, we need to see this as an incentive to consider our behaviour towards nonhuman species in general. We usually prefer not to think about whether animals in captivity (or those we use for food or material) experience consciousness, or whether they feel fear or joy, or whether they have friends and relationships and memories of each other, because if we do, it’s likely to make us uncomfortable about how these animals live. We have managed in the past to convince ourselves that their sensitivity to pain is different, and so doesn’t matter as much as ours. Or that they relate to each other differently, and so their capacity for joy or grief is minimised compared to ours. Yet as we discover more about animal responses to different stimuli, it’s clear that we have a responsibility to these animals.
Humans have evolved as omnivores, and many of us use animal products in our daily lives. We also want to be able to observe creatures other than humans up close, rather than seeing them on a screen–it helps us to understand their need for habitat and empathise with non-humans, which is important. So it’s not that we necessarily need to stop keeping animals in zoos, or eating meat, wearing leather, or milking cows. But if we are going to continue to do these things, we need to be aware that simply ignoring an animal’s potential for sentience is no longer excusable. If we want to keep animals in zoos or parks, or if we want to consume milk, eggs or meat, we need to be aware as to the impact these decisions have on those animals, and we need to live with those consquences, and follow best practice so that their suffering is minimised and their lives are as full and as authentic as possible. That may mean it costs us more money, and takes more effort, but to do otherwise is simply inhumane, ignorant and a sad indictment on our species.
Pretending that only cute animals feel pain is no longer an option. We need to work harder at ensuring the wellbeing–physical, emotional, mental–of all other creatures with whom we share our world, in particular those whom we keep on farms, or in captivity. Otherwise, the superior intelligence on which we pride ourselves amounts to little, and we’re simply animals who should know better.