Over the weekend, the Copenhagen Zoo killed Marius, a healthy 18-month-old male giraffe using a bolt gun, and then fed his carcass to lions—all while an audience watched.
In an interview on NPR, the zoo's scientific director, Bengt Holst, justified these actions in order to "ensure the genetic health of the overall population of giraffes at European zoos." Marius had to be killed, according to Holst, to avoid inbreeding.
What was wrong with this course of action? Let's count the ways.
The whole debacle is predicated on the belief that what happened at the zoo differed little from what happens to giraffes in the wild on a daily basis. A "natural" life—to use the words of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)—is fraught with "continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes, 1651, Leviathan, XIII, 9).
But that is precisely why human civilizations have systems of laws to protect the rights of the weak, systems of food storage and distribution to avoid mass starvation, and even central heating to protect inhabitants from the cold. We extend some or all these benefits to other species who are in our care. Animals in zoos are not there by choice. We put them there for captive breeding, for education and research, and for the entertainment of our children. In exchange, we care for them in humane ways, sparing them the nasty and brutish experiences that accompany a free life in the wild.
What the Copenhagen Zoo did had nothing to do with nature, or science, or animal husbandry, or education, or research. Its actions instead constituted blood sport for human entertainment.
For millennia, ranchers and farmers have had to deal with the issue of controlling the inbreeding of livestock. Their solution is a simple and humane one: Gelding the males. For companion animals, males are gelded, females are spayed. This surely would have been an option in Marius' case.
Sometimes gelding (or spaying) is not an option, and animals must be culled from the herd. But anyone with a heart and a conscience realizes that it doesn't just matter that they die. It matters how they die. The zoo's "science" director chose to make a public spectacle of Marius' slaughter for the paid entertainment of zoo "guests." He believed this was "educational." The children present undoubtedly learned that killing animals for entertainment is perfectly legitimate. They learned that "autopsy" means butchering an animal for entertainment, then watching the carcass get devoured by other animals as a form of entertainment as well.
The inhumane and grotesque manner in which this animal was killed had nothing to do with animal management or science. It is apparent that the killing of Marius was nothing more than a canned hunt-blood sport in the name of animal science. What we learned is that scientists can be truly heartless, seeing living creatures as nothing more than collections of organs to be cut open and put on display.
Over the past 18 months, that zoo benefited financially from the people who came to see the infant giraffe. He deserved a better, more dignified death than that. More than that, he deserved to live.
Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins February 10, 2014
Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.
More information about me can be found on my homepage.
Follow me on Twitter.
And on Google+.