The Death of a Giraffe

by Sherry F. Colb

On Sunday, February 9, the Copenhagen Zoo put to death a young, healthy giraffe named Marius, in front of a crowd of onlookers that included children.  The zoo decided to kill Marius because he was not “suitable” for breeding, since his genes were too common in the giraffe population.  After he was slaughtered, Marius’s body was dissected in front of the same crowd that had watched him die, a spectacle of which the zoo spokesperson reportedly declared that he was “proud,” because the children had the opportunity for a “huge understanding of the anatomy of a giraffe.”

The slaughter of Marius, a gentle young animal, was not – as some described it – “euthanasia.”  Euthanasia literally means a “good death” and refers to occasions when we kill someone for his or her own good.  The zoo, however, killed Marius despite his own good, because he was not going to be a useful conduit of giraffe DNA.  Indeed, the Director of Research and Conservation at the zoo, Bengt Holst, was reported to have rejected an offer of space at another zoo, because such space should be reserved for “a genetically more important” giraffe.

Some zoos, of course, might have found an alternative to slaughtering a healthy giraffe, such as castration.  Nonetheless, it is useful to note that this event highlights a truth about all zoos, not only the Copenhagen Zoo.  Zoos regard their animals primarily (and sometimes exclusively) as natural resources to be utilized, as mere exemplars of their DNA to be mined for more exemplars and for entertainment value.  In zoos, animals who normally range over huge distances are confined to enclosures that are pale reflections of the native environments of these living beings. 

In this case, Marius was “unsuitable” for breeding, so he was instead slaughtered, a process that – like the exhibits of captive animals at zoos, aquaria, and marine parks – was touted as “educational” for children.  As ethologist Dr. Jonathan Balcombe has said, however, such displays effectively, if unwittingly, “teach” children and others that  animals’ lives matter only insofar as they serve human purposes.  This is a familiar lesson of disregard for the inherent worth of animals, as we learn it at the grocery store as well – where the corpses and bodily secretions of innocent, young animals kept in captivity and then trucked to a terrifying slaughter  are on sale by the pound, by the quart, and by the dozen.

Many are rightly outraged by what happened to Marius.  He was not a thing – a container of DNA – to be destroyed when he proved no longer useful to his owners.  But Marius’s death ought to inspire more than simple condemnation of the Copenhagen Zoo.  Perhaps his death will not have been in vain if it inspires people who are outraged on his behalf to reconsider their daily choices as consumers.  As we rightly criticize the Copenhagen Zoo for treating a living, feeling animal as a thing, let us stop doing the same by paying for the slaughter of other beings, less visible but no less worthy than Marius the sweet young giraffe.