By now you, and most of the connected world, have heard the story of Marius the giraffe killed by the Copenhagen zoo. He was a healthy, surplus teenager, as far as the giraffe world goes. And, as hard as it may seem, the Copenhagen Zoo did the right thing in his case.
Marius could not be bred to other giraffes — he was too closely related to other giraffe breeding stock in the European zoo association to which the zoo belonged, and they were prevented by the association rules from sending Marius to an outside institution. He was old enough that he would face difficulties integrating into the rest of the zoo’s herd. The zoo did not have the resources to house him separately.
The outcry against his death was immediate, and completely foreseeable, but wrong. Humans often anthropomorphize individual animals, while ignoring threats to species and ecosystems as a whole, and often without looking at the long-term prospects for the animal in question.
This tendency — along with economic interests on the part of owners — causes support for trying to save racehorses which have suffered injuries which should have resulted in euthanasia. I have written about Barbaro before, and my dismay at the heroic — and misplaced –efforts to keep him alive long after he should have been put down.
Animals are not people. We forget that too often, treating the death of even a single animal as though it were the death of a person. We treat pets as though they were children. Don’t get me wrong, I love my cat, but the pain that I will feel at her death (given feline life expectancies, and the fact that she is now middle-aged by cat standards, I expect I will outlive her by many years) is nothing compared to the pain of losing a human loved one.
As far as I am concerned, the only people who have standing to oppose Marius’s death are vegetarians (actually, probably only vegans) who strongly oppose zoos.
What makes a zoo animal more important than a cow bred for milk or meat? Or a chicken? (Or, to look at a wild animal, a lobster? Conservationist talk about “Charismatic Macrofauna” — the cute or impressive birds and mammals that almost everyone agrees needs saving. There is less public enthusiasm about the delta smelt, although courts have upheld conservation efforts.) Is it domestication? Why should that matter? In any case the animal is cared for and fed by humans; it is only what we ask of them in return that is different. It is not like Marius is a “wild” animal in any sense: he was born in a zoo, raised in a zoo, and would have been totally unfit for life in the wild.
There was also dismay that Marius’s corpse was autopsied in front of children: from what I understand, the zoo makes all necropsies open to the public. If school children were present, it would have been with the permission of the parent. And as far as feeding Marius to the lions — that is what would have happened to him in the end were he in the wild. It is only fitting that the zoo use the meat for predators. What do people think lions eat on the African plains? Kibble?
I think there are strong philosophical questions about zoos. I know that there are people who object to keeping animals for the purpose of entertaining humans. It is true that not all zoos are well run. It is also true that collection of animals for zoos in the 20th century furthered the decline of some species’s populations in the wild.
I happen to think zoos serve an important purpose: not just educational, but in preservation of species. I would have never seen the California Condor in the wild had the San Diego Zoo not had an intensive breeding program which resulted in birds being released back into the wild. One of my favorite non-domesticated species, Pryzewalski’s horse, was brought back from the brink of extinction by the dedicated work of scientists in zoos. It now has been reintroduced into the wilds of Ukraine and Mongolia, and although it is listed as endangered, its population has increased from 12 individuals in captivity in the 1960s to at least 1,500 in the 1990s. The animal has gone from being classified as “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered” to “endangered.” It is not out of the woods completely (a herd of 200 horses in a preserve in Ukraine was reduced to just sixty by poachers), but there is hope for the species. The same can be said for the California Condor, and the European Bison, and the Red Wolf.
We are rapidly destroying habitat, from Amazon rain forests, to United States old-growth forests, to California rivers and streams dried up so that water can be diverted to support agricultural, manufacturing and municipal needs. Animals are killed by poachers, predators are killed by farmers. We are driving entire species to extinction.
All of that should weigh more heavily on the popular consciousness than the euthanasia of one teenage giraffe in captivity.
[Edited to fix some very stupid typos. I’m sure there are others I did not catch. One of them was the responsibility of an autocorrect system that did not recognize “smelt.” I would say “Damn autocorrect,” except that it has caught far more than it has gotten wrong.]]