When I first heard about the killing of the baby giraffe Marius in the Copenhagen Zoo I thought it was a joke. It seemed like some absurd satire about an evil zookeeper, something I could have seen on Funny or Die: a healthy two year-old giraffe is lured away from the other giraffes by his veterinarian caretaker with a piece of rye bread, only to have his brains blown out, and his lifeless body skinned, sawed into pieces, and fed to the lions. All of this was done in full view of hundreds of people—including a lot of children.
And they filmed it.
So who’s running things over there at the Copenhagen Zoo, Ted Nugent?
No, it’s actually a man named Bengt Holst. His official title is “Director of Research and Conservation.” The “research” involved in this act, according to Holst, was showing children how big the giraffe’s heart was and that a giraffe had the same amount of vertebrae as a human, “and so on.”
The “conservation” part of his title—well, based on his own words, to conserve sometimes you have to not conserve.
I’ve looked over the zoo’s website and I will say that there seems to be a certain consistency between their callous treatment of Marius and their overall philosophy. Their mission statement has only a few mentions of animals, and the language is bloodless, with no mention of animal welfare or ethics except in one example, describing how they are caged: “…high standards and quality regarding the keeping of animals and the standard of animal enclosures… good architecture and design add to the value and quality of the experience.”
They certainly care a lot about their cages. And the “quality of the experience” they are referring to, if the way they dispatched their baby giraffe is any example, is obviously the human one, not the animal one.
The closest their mission statement gets to acknowledging animals as living beings is their last paragraph in their mission statement, “Be actively involved in the international efforts to preserve animal species and habitats and thereby contribute to the conservation of the biodiversity.”
More bloodless language. Keep in mind, the “conservation” zoos supposedly practice always begins with the kidnapping of a wild animal from its natural habitat and its enslavement behind bars—usually for life.
So the Copenhagen Zoo’s mission statement has very few mentions of animals—you know, the point of visiting a zoo—and the section ends with this statement:
“All of these activities must be based on science.”
Holst has given many interviews by now. From what I can gauge the “science” involved in the killing of Marius consisted of an autopsy aimed at children so they could learn the “vertebrae” and “big heart” facts—facts which of course the children could have looked up in a book or online, rather than witnessing the assassination of a healthy young giraffe.
Holst has also said that this live killing and dismemberment “helps increase the knowledge about animals but also the knowledge about life and death.” Surely he is not saying that blowing a giraffe’s brains out, carving it up into chunks, and throwing it to the lions is how life and death works in nature?
The other aspect of the “science” Holst refers to, and the key to why Marius was killed, is the breeding programs the zoos utilize.
Since zoos keep so few animals (mainly because of space), the gene pool of the captured animals is very small. Inbreeding has to be avoided—otherwise unhealthy animals could be born.
Some zoos will practice contraception, sparing the animal’s life. Or they’ll sell them to circuses or less savory animal “attractions,” transactions that the zoos try to keep secret since it is known that animals in these other venues have even worse lives than in zoos.
Keep in mind that this is an artificially narrow gene pool created by the zoos themselves—the ones capturing, enslaving, and breeding very small numbers of formerly wild animals.
In the end, many zoos—particularly European ones, but zoos all over the world, including in the United States—will just kill healthy animals for the sake of the standards of the gene pool. The figure in Europe alone is 3000-5000 healthy animals killed per year.
Usually not in the open though.
Zoos are always trying to uphold a compassionate-toward-animals image, because it keeps the families coming to visit and paying their money. This is why the killing of Marius is so startling and revealing.
Many people were outraged after watching the documentary Blackfish, in which we saw the consequences of kidnapping and enslaving an orca whale named Tilikum—how to SeaWorld, the life of the whale and the safety of the trainers who were hurt or even killed by this abused animal seemed to pale in comparison to SeaWorld’s desire to uphold the image of their “fun” theme parks—and the desire to make money.
Marius and every other animal confined in zoos are seen no differently. With zoos, instead of whales in bathtubs we have giraffes in prison cells. Tilikum and Marius are products, useful as long as keeping them around makes economic sense. Tilikum has been largely banished from performing (without SeaWorld admitting any wrongdoing or addressing the issues), and Marius was shot because his existence was inconvenient.
When I was a kid I visited zoos on several occasions. What child wouldn’t be excited to see a “wild” animal up close? I think every child visits a zoo with an innocent curiosity and a natural desire to observe and maybe even bond with an animal. Certainly as a child I had the expectation that the veterinarians at the zoo cared for the animals and loved them.
Looking back on these visits, I can’t ever remember one animal that was doing anything but lying down, looking dazed and lethargic. They were never close enough to touch—which is what I was thrilling to do, to touch a “wild” animal—and they sure didn’t seem to want to be touched.
They didn’t look happy at all.
The killing of the baby giraffe Marius might just be a watershed event, in that it exposes the lie that zoos really care about the welfare of animals—Holst himself has said, “we can’t be led by emotion,” in the pursuit of “science.”
Of course Mr. Holst doesn’t want us to use emotion when thinking about animals in zoos. Because emotion leads us to feel compassion, and points us to considerations of ethics and morality.
But even putting emotion aside, does blowing a baby animal’s brains out and sawing the carcass up in front of children even make much common sense? The Copenhagen Zoo is so desperate to justify this cruel act they won’t even admit it was a bonehead move on a public relations level.
For me as a boy of six visiting those zoos years ago, I knew that something wasn’t right with the animals. I couldn’t put my finger on it, I couldn’t articulate it, but I knew.
I am betting most of the children who were at the Copenhagen Zoo that day knew there was something wrong about carving up a baby giraffe and pulling its heart out.
You’re right, Mr. Holst, the children did learn a lot that day.
They learned that zoos are horrible places for animals.