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.