Marius was only two years old when he was killed. News reports disagree as to whether it was with a bolt gun or a rifle, but the young giraffe was considered surplus to the population – at least the population of the Copenhagen Zoo and the rest of the accredited zoos in Europe. My heart sank when I saw the report. Is this how zoos are supposed to operate? Not any zoo I know. Not my zoo.
I am not a hypocrite. I have been in the business of running zoos for more than forty years. I do eat meat and recognize that cattle are slaughtered every day to satisfy our needs. I have seen plenty of animals euthanized. It is as much a part of the zoo business as it is that of a veterinary practice. And the practical side of the Copenhagen Zoo’s case was that euthanizing the animal without chemicals made two hundred kilograms of meat available for the hungry carnivores, like some efficiency or “circle of life” argument.
I also recognize the potential educational opportunity. As a Copenhagen Zoo spokesman said in an interview with the Associated Press, “I’m actually proud because I think we have given children a huge understanding of the anatomy of a giraffe that they wouldn’t have had from watching a giraffe in a photo”.
That may be true, but what about the worldwide damage to the public perception of zoos? The LA Times correctly noted in a recent editorial that, “the action, and the explanation, cast a harsh spotlight on the role of zoos, a role that is increasingly being questioned as we learn more about wild animals and their difficulties in captivity.” The editors go on to observe that “more than ever, zoos are taking responsibility for the well-being of their animals, which means keeping them alive and healthy as long as possible. That’s not what happened here. And what lesson does it teach the public about respecting and admiring wild animals when that education includes the killing and dismemberment of an animal?”
The Associated Press reports that animal rights organizations around the world are now claiming “the case highlights what it believes zoos do to animals regularly”.
“It is no secret that animals are killed when there is no longer space, or if the animals don’t have genes that are interesting enough,” said one organization. “The only way to stop this is to not visit zoos.”
A spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in the U.K. said Marius’ case should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who “still harbors the illusion that zoos serve any purpose beyond incarcerating intelligent animals for profit.”
This whole business makes me sad – sad for the giraffe, sad for my own sense of having been let down by my profession, and sad for those thousands (or millions) of people who think this is how zoos operate. According to CNN, “numerous American zoos did not immediately respond to requests for interviews”. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) also declined a request, issuing a short statement stating that European zoo “programs and procedures vary from those of the AZA.” It seems to me that no response is akin to tacit approval.
I am sorry, but I can’t stand by and say nothing. I feel that zoo animals are more like our pets than they are farm animals. We celebrate their births, give them cute names, and commemorate their birthdays every year. We talk about the urgency of our conservation work and how we are the best hope to save animals from extinction. Surely we can’t think it is OK to shoot them and slaughter them for meat at the end of the day. After all the good work zoos have done over the years, and all of the heart and soul that zookeepers put into giving the highest standards of care (and, yes, love) to their animals, we have handed a perfect argument to our critics who claim the true purpose of zoos is “incarcerating intelligent animals for profit”. What a shame.