Outrage over zoo’s decision to destroy giraffe

Marked mammal: Marius was shot with a bolt pistol, prompting a Twitter storm of protest © BBC

Despite a 27,000-strong petition, a ‘surplus’ giraffe was put down by Copenhagen Zoo yesterday because of concerns about inbreeding. Was the decision justified?

Two days before the outbreak of the first world war, the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey made an unusual visit. He was sick with worry over the unfolding crisis, and to ease his troubled mind, he took refuge for an hour at London Zoo.

Zoos have long been seen as places of calm and tranquility – places where we can better understand and protect animals. So it is perhaps no surprise that yesterday morning there was outrage over Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to shoot one of its giraffes. The news soon became a trending topic on Twitter, fuelled by further details that the carcass would be fed to the zoo’s lions and tigers.

Senior staff at the zoo argued that they had no choice but to put down two-year-old Marius, because he was born as a result of inbreeding. He was ‘surplus’, according to the zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, as there were other giraffes with similar genes in the organisation's breeding programme. Other options, such as castration, contraception or releasing him back into the wild were considered, but were branded as cruel or unlikely to succeed.

To scientists, the decision makes perfect sense. To ensure a species’ survival, the best genes need to be passed down to offspring, and animal culls help control numbers – between 20-30 animals are put down at Copenhagen Zoo for this reason every year.

Zoo staff also defended the decision to feed the carcass to other animals: ‘It would be absolutely foolish to throw away a few hundred kilos of meat,’ said Holst. He added that there should be no difference between how rats and large, exotic animals are treated.

But to animal rights enthusiasts, the decision is callous. Over 27,000 signed a petition to save Marius’s life, and other zoos had offered to take him in, including the UK’s Yorkshire Wildlife Park, which has a state-of-the-art giraffe house.

Dog eat dog

The aim of a zoo is to conserve animals, say animal rights activists. Killing Marius undermines this and calls into question whether zoos are the ethical, benign institutions we think they are. Marius was born into a man-made environment, and the zoo had a duty to protect his life. Animals are sentient, emotional creatures, and treating them with respect is an essential part of humanity.

Sentimental nonsense, argue the scientists. What appears to be senseless cruelty is in fact an act of kindness. By killing Marius, the zoo has helped conserve the species by ensuring a healthy gene pool for future giraffe generations. This is simply natural selection at work – albeit in a man-made arena. Besides, our double standards over animals are baffling – we will quite happily eat and wear animals, so why is the death of a single giraffe so wrong?

You Decide

  1. Was Copenhagen Zoo’s decision justified?
  2. Is it right to keep wild animals in captivity?

Activities

  1. Role play: in pairs, stage a debate between a zoo official and an animal rights activist about whether it is right or wrong to cull animals.
  2. Research other examples of animal culls throughout the world, noting the reasons given behind each.

Some People Say...

“Only when we have become non-violent towards all life will we have learned to live well with others.’Cesar Chavez”

What do you think?

Q & A

Zoos are cruel! We should stop visiting them.
Not all are, and there is some merit in animal culls, although it is a fiercely debated topic. The quality of zoos varies all over the world, and those which are little more than cages are certainly cruel. But others painstakingly recreate the natural environment of a species, and can allow for greater educational understanding, more long-term scientific research and protection of endangered species.
Why do humans think it is OK to kill some animals, and not others?
Animals that are rare, endangered or possess human traits, such as the ability to feel and show emotion, are usually treated as having greater rights than other animals. Animals that are common, cause a nuisance, or serve our desire to eat meat, usually do not fare so well.

Word Watch

Zoos
Zoos affected by war often provoke a strong response. Last year, as the ongoing conflict in Syria continued to claim thousands of lives, an image of a lion from a Syrian zoo being skinned by people desperate for food and warmth went viral. There was also outcry in 2003, when it emerged that lions at Baghdad Zoo had been shot by US troops.
Carcass
Marius was shot with a bolt pistol, instead of being given a lethal injection, to ensure that his meat was not contaminated and could be consumed by other animals.
Inbreeding
When pairs of animals or humans who have closely related genetics reproduce, their offspring can develop recessive traits, known as homozygosity. This can result in the decreased fitness of a population, and culls are often undertaken by livestock breeders to eliminate an animal population’s undesirable characteristics.
Natural selection
Individuals in a species show a wide range of variation due to differences in genes. Those with characteristics most suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce. These successful genes are passed on to future offspring, while individuals that are poorly adapted to their environment die out. The term was popularised by Charles Darwin and formed part of his theory of evolution.

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