Surplus to Requirements

As a humanitarian and an advocate for animal rights, I was saddened by the news that Copenhagen zoo finally carried out their plan to end the life of Marius the giraffe last Sunday, especially as an awful lot of people around the world had asked them so nicely not to.

As a humanitarian and an advocate for animal rights, I was saddened by the news that Copenhagen zoo finally carried out their plan to end the life of Marius the giraffe last Sunday, especially as an awful lot of people around the world had asked them so nicely not to.

Carving him up as dish of the day for the lions, under the scrutiny of a bunch of pre-school children, seemed a particularly ungracious act, considering how much publicity Marius had garnered for the zoo. I'm at a bit of a loss to understand what actual benefit there would be in a Danish child knowing what the inside of a giraffe looked like, but then perhaps practical giraffe butchery is a big part of the national syllabus in Denmark.

It's been a similarly bewildering task trying to dissect the numerous, supposedly logical, arguments that the zoo threw together to explain why Marius had become 'surplus to requirements'. Their somewhat nebulous and increasingly creative press releases cited everything from eugenics to the economics of wanting a free source of fresh meat.

We were told that allowing animals to breed without hindrance was the way they do things in Copenhagen. Contraception wasn't generally available for fear that such drugs may damage the animal's delicate internal organs. The damage done by a bolt gun to the head seems to be regarded as less consequential.

There was certainly an element of cold Nordic logic being demonstrated, in particular by zoo director Bengt Holst. His DNA mantra became an obvious point of principle that he wasn't going to concede, even in the face of some pretty attractive offers to take this unwanted animal off his hands.

The over-riding impression was that he'd made up his mind to carry out the cull and wasn't going to be persuaded otherwise. The campaign to save Marius was soon characterised as a battle of wills between knowledgeable, pragmatic scientists under the spell of genetic dogma, and silly, fluffy protesters with a naïve desire to see a young animal enjoy the rest of his life.

A major part of Holst's objection to protests over Marius being killed for his meat was the idea that this giraffe should be treated any differently to hundreds of thousands of farm animals slaughtered around the globe every day. There were many incredulous rebuttals of his point of view, but on the face of it, I couldn't fault his logic.

On any given day thousands of young calves, chicks and other animals in our factory food chain will be blithely destroyed as 'surplus to requirements'. Almost invariably the male of the species, will be treated as little more than an organic waste product, killed so that humans can consume milk, dairy, eggs and meat in gargantuan quantities.

The degree of cognitive dissonance that the human mind can sustain often bends my brain. But never more so than when people who consume animal products show so much righteous outrage over the taking of an animal's life on grounds of practicality. They demand compassion for a single giraffe whilst happily turning a blind eye to an exponentially greater daily death-toll fuelled by their own dietary demands.

I'm not sure if this is the debate that Mr Holst wanted us to have, I rather suspect it's not, but I think any consumer of meat or dairy who signed a petition to save Marius should perhaps re-examine their own value sets. Are they simply reacting to the idea that a cute young animal is being treated in such a dispassionate way, or does their disquiet go deeper? If it does then maybe they need to adjust their stance on things closer to home and in their local supermarket.

As far as zoos are concerned, they remain an unfortunate necessity at the moment. Personally I'm not crazy about the idea of animals being caged for whatever reason, but the need for conservation is a real one, especially when wildlife is being wiped out by hunting, poaching and habitat erosion on an almost equivalent scale to that in the food industry.

However, in our super-connected world, zoos and wildlife parks need a far greater awareness of how their behaviour is viewed outside their own professional circles. The days when they can lay claim to conservationist credentials, whilst slaughtering and abusing the animals in their care are drawing to a close. Whatever the scientific imperatives, incidents such as the recent culling of an entire family of lions and cubs at Longleat are unlikely to keep the gift shop barcode readers beeping. Neither, I fear, will the public dismemberment of a young animal as part of some misguided attempt at positive PR.

The movie Blackfish, detailing practices in many marine parks along with global disgust at events during the Japanese Taiji Cove and Faroe Islands whale and dolphin hunts has made many people question the morality of captive animals being used for public amusement.

Compassion may be seen by zoo-keepers as a luxury they can't afford, but alienating global opinion could be equally as costly in real terms. Whilst I grudgingly admire Copenhagen zoo for at least being open and honest about what they felt they had to do, I think they're equally in need of a reality check on what their public expects of them.

But if spectacles like these make people reconsider the way our society can so easily dismiss the lives of other living creatures for the sake of expediency, profit and convenience, maybe Bengt Holst and his ilk will be proved wrong about the value of one surplus giraffe. Maybe killing poor Marius will then have been worth a whole lot more than a few piles of steaming lion poo.


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