Copenhagen Zoo and the destruction of innocence

February 12, 2014

I’m going to try, very hard, to keep emotion out of this post, because I know that the best way to put your point across is to stay calm and stick to the facts, to avoid hysteria so that you don’t lose the argument.

So I’ll start off by telling you that last week there was a photograph in the Evening Standard, taken in 1916, of Mary, an elephant who was hung in Tennessee in front of a baying crowd: an unforgettable depiction of what happens when an ignorant society inflicts cruelty on an innocent creature unable to defend itself.

I was reminded of that image on Sunday, when Marius the giraffe died at Copenhagen Zoo.

There have been some extraordinarily confused arguments put forward by the team who ‘euthanised’ and dissected Marius in public to explain their actions; these ranged from the scientifically questionable ‘conservation reasons’ to the downright silly. If you’re not already aware, Copenhagen Zoo has form for this kind of thing. In 2012 they killed two leopard cubs (they are not alone: this kind of killing of animals deemed surplus to requirements goes on at zoos across Europe). The main thrust of their argument for shooting Marius was that they needed to avoid inbreeding in the zoo’s captive population; but we know that there were plenty of places willing and able to take Marius, so that one doesn’t really wash. And as the unfailingly eloquent and rational Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation pointed out on Monday, the zoo did not kill Marius because of a European ‘law’, either: no such law exists, only guidelines. Essentially, this was a healthy animal put down because his face didn’t fit. One can only surmise that their real motives for killing Marius were that he had outlived his usefulness: he was past the baby stage, so no longer such a big box office draw. And some men will kill just because they can.

Perhaps the daftest argument put up by the zoo was that it would educate those who watched the dissection. (This is just nonsense. I opted out of taking part in a frog dissection at biology at school, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a complete understanding of how the body works.) I can’t imagine why anyone would want their kids to witness the dissection, but I’m not going to judge the parents who decided it was a good  idea for their offspring to watch (although I imagine none of them went the distance, since it reportedly lasted three hours). But I do wonder if anyone watching the spectacle at Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday stopped to contemplate the nightmares their children might have as a result.

I saw the word ‘hypocrite’ bandied about a few times on twitter on Sunday, directed at those who protested about the events in Denmark, myself included. I’m not sure where that came from or what the rationale was behind it. Personally, I wouldn’t eat bush meat, but then, I don’t eat any game. That’s not really the point. No one is disputing that it’s natural for lions to eat meat. But it’s also natural for them to run across the plains of Africa and stalk, hunt and kill their prey. The giraffe was tranquilised and killed at close range: that’s basically canned hunting.

As I said in my post about Blackfish and the cruelty towards orcas, how we treat wildlife says everything about us as a society. In societies where people struggle to feed themselves, it’s perhaps understandable, however unpalatable, that animals are viewed as a commodity, something to exploit in order to aid survival, and what’s needed in those places, of course, is intervention where possible and education. But in a society with a high standard of living, there is no excuse for the exploitation of wildlife. Whether it’s badger baiting in Britain or whaling in Japan or bull fighting in Spain or forcing animals to perform tricks in theme parks in the US, animal cruelty is not and never will be OK, and just because something has happened for centuries does not make it right.

A friend said to me on twitter on Sunday that people wouldn’t be making the same fuss if a pig had been killed and dissected in public. He’s right, I guess, but the fundamental difference, surely, is that a giraffe is a wild creature that belongs in the wild. We don’t need to see these animals behind bars to know what they look like; and we don’t need to see their beautiful limbs chopped into pitiful pieces to know how their bodies work.

I don’t make a habit of quoting Ricky Gervais but when he said on twitter on Sunday that he had never met a person who is cruel to animals but kind to humans, he had a point. It takes a special kind of arrogance, cowardice and insecurity to torment those not able to defend themselves, to be cruel to animals, children, the elderly and the vulnerable.

The best possible course of action for anyone distressed by events at Copenhagen Zoo is to boycott, not only that zoo, but any zoo.

Marius the giraffeI said at the beginning of this post that I would try, very hard, to keep emotion out of it. I see now that I have failed.


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  • Ben McClelland February 13, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    I have to say I find the responses from the Danish community that spread the meme of Bengt Holst’s ‘rationale’ disturbing. Here is a man and/or a system whose values are immoral and quite likely pathological, and are far removed from what the world at large considers to be ethical. That is why so many people are upset, in case Danes are having a hard time understanding, which appears to be the case since so many of them are wholly dismissing literally millions of outraged world citizens.

    Just because something ‘is a part of Danish culture’ or happens frequently doesn’t make it moral. And the rote repetition of the ‘reasons’ behind the killing and subsequent public dissection, along with directives to ‘go listen to what Bengt Holst said’ shows a frightening lack of critical thinking and automaton behavior.

    Quite frankly I’m surprised the topic of legal zoophilia and animal prostitution in Denmark isn’t being discussed more as it shows the absolute lack of regard or empathy the ‘Danish culture’ appears to have for animals. It’s real, you can look it up.

    I might add it’s Bengt Holst who is the president of the Danish Animal Ethics Council.

    Holst/Danish policy apologists: You can stop telling us to ‘get real’ and start examining your country’s attitude towards animals. When this many people are telling you there’s a problem, you might be the one needing a reality check.

  • Toke Eskildsen February 13, 2014 at 12:15 am

    In Denmark it is not uncommon to have public dissections of larger animals, whether they be from culling or death by natural causes. In general we find it to be educational for children and adults. Liz dismisses that as daft. A rather harsh and sweeping condemnation of a part of danish culture.

    • Liz Jarvis February 13, 2014 at 6:58 am

      Hi Toke,

      Thanks for your comment. I think for all the reasons I’ve explained that public dissections of larger animals is unnecessary, but that’s not really the point of this post: I’m disputing whether or not the giraffe needed to die at all. I am intrigued though that you claim public dissection is part of Danish culture; as I said, whether it’s whaling in Japan (or Denmark for that matter) or bullfighting in Spain, just because something has gone on for centuries does not make it right or acceptable.

      • Toke Eskildsen February 13, 2014 at 7:56 am

        It is quite easy to verify my claim. Last week, Copenhagen Zoo dissected a lion.

        I see absolutely no relation between public dissection and whaling or bullfighting. The dissected animals are dead when dissected – they do not feel anything. The live animals do not see the dissection and are not traumatized by it. No animals at all are hurt in any way whatsoever, so what is the problem?

        As for the specific reasons to kill the concrete animal, then I have nothing to add besides the interview with Bength Holst. I think you should see it again with two things in mind: 1) culling is part of serious zoo life everywhere as breeding + limited space = surplus and 2) giraffes are absurdly cute – try visioning a hyena instead.

        Note that the decision was not taken in isolation by som random megalomaniac. It was taken under the guidelines EAZA, which condones the concrete killing. You are barking up the wrong tree by going after the zoo that is just extremely open about what happens.

        • Liz Jarvis February 13, 2014 at 1:02 pm

          Again, you are (I think deliberately?) ignoring my point, or misunderstanding the post. My point isn’t about the public dissection so much as it is about the fact the giraffe was killed in the first place, when there was no need to do this because there were other homes available.

          But my main point is that wild animals do not belong in zoos in the first place.

  • Mamacook February 12, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I’m not sure how I feel. I think if there is a reason to kill an animal I’m glad it is fed to other animals to prevent waste. There is part of me that doesn’t see the difference between this and cattle or sheep killed for zoo animals to eat either.

    That said if there was an alternative I don’t see why it wasn’t taken and I really don’t understand why it had to be done in front of people almost like entertainment. That is surely unnecessary.