What Marius represents

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(Cross-posted at Biocentered.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning.  In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable.  So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats.  That, of course, is equally unacceptable.  But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums.  First, they are finite spaces with finite resources for maintaining captive species populations of relatively constant size and genetic diversity; the only effective ways to achieve this are (1) birth control, (2) euthanasia, or (3) reintroduction of “surplus” animals to protected wild spaces (the latter being the most ideal, but – for numerous reasons – least likely option).  Second, the zoos’ philosophy of captive management is strictly utilitarian; individual charismatic animals might lure in the paying public, but for the purposes of captive management, their value is in their genetic uniqueness, and only as it relates to the rest of the captive population.  In the words of a spokesperson from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), “the giraffe Marius, unfortunately, cannot add anything further to the breeding program that does not already exist.”  (I, for one, am glad my value has not been assessed by the same measure.)  And in a CNN editorial defending the zoo’s actions, the Executive Director of the EAZA, Lesley Dickie writes “While we understand that some members of the public are upset by the euthanization of the giraffe at Copenhagen zoo, the protection of the species as a whole must be our priority” (italics mine).

The event also calls attention to a philosophical difference between European and US zoos concerning avoidance of captive overpopulation and inbreeding.  Zoos in the US favor birth control, while European zoos more often euthanize – after letting animals reproduce and parent young.  In a New York Times article two years ago, Copenhagen Zoo’s director of conservation said, “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible… We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” It is true that manipulating hormones alters natural behavior and whatever remains of autonomy in captivity.  Of course, so does euthanasia (or, as some zoo personnel refer to it, “management-euthanasia” – or as game park managers call it, “culling“) – in a decidedly more permanent way – after animals have been allowed a short but comparatively more “natural” life.

If these events and considerations bother some of us, perhaps we need to be thinking harder about the role of zoos in 21st century conservation and education, and the ethics of keeping animals in these settings. Attendance at US zoological parks and aquariums is higher than attendance for all four major league sports combined.  Zoos have – you’ll pardon the pun? – a captive audience for education and outreach, and that is the often-cited rationale for their continued existence.  Whether they accomplish education and attitude change in an empirically verifiable way remains open to question.

But zoos might also have a role in preserving the last of certain declining species.  For example, without the breeding and reintroduction programs developed by the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos, the California Condor would be extinct.  Do these trade-offs justify the unpleasant realities of captive species management?  Would public interest financially sustain zoos that chose to function only as centers for the preservation and restoration of seriously endangered species?

In her CNN editorial defending the Copenhagen Zoo’s actions, Lesley Dickie points out that only five giraffes have been euthanized in EAZA zoos since 1828.  She then puts that number in perspective for those protestors who might be expressing their outrage at the killing of a zoo giraffe even as they dine on beef or chicken: “Compare this to the 60 billion+ healthy, young animals killed each year worldwide for human consumption.”  (For additional perspective, it’s worth noting that the “bolt gun” that was used to euthanize Marius is the same kind of device used on cattle in slaughterhouses.)  Hinting at hypocrisy is a bit of a diversion (who knows? maybe all of the protestors are vegetarians), but now that she’s mentioned it: Why do those “livestock” animal deaths not raise the same degree of indignation in the public?  Why is killing Marius to feed lions any different?

It’s not different.  It simply points to the larger problem: the death of Marius is just one more example of how humans instrumentalize the value of animal lives.


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