Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Why the Danish zoo shot the giraffe

The reaction to the euthanasia of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo has highlighted cultural differences in attitudes to animals and death between Denmark and the United Kingdom — and America, for that matter.

I first visited the Copenhagen Zoo around 20 years ago and met the zoo's scientific director, Bengt Holst, who found himself recently at the center of a campaign to save Marius, and is now the subject of another calling for his resignation.

The zoo had then, as it still does, a policy against using contraception for its animals and consequently a policy of euthanasia of the surplus animals that would arise as a result.

In contrast to most zoos around the world, which use contraception or sterilization to control their animals' reproduction, Copenhagen Zoo has chosen not to for two principal reasons. Some methods of contraception can have negative effects on an animal's health and future reproductive ability, although slowly science is eliminating these.

But the Danes also strongly believe that being a parent is an enriching experience for their animals. The problem is that while it solves one animal welfare problem — the well-being of the breeding adults — it creates a subsequent ethical issue, that of what to do with the "surplus offspring."

To humans, the concept of surplus offspring sounds wrong, but in the world of zoos, where space for endangered species and resources to keep them is limited, it is a different story. An enclosure to house giraffes is very expensive to build and maintain — and zoos do not have limitless pots of money. So if you allow animals to breed as often as they want, inevitably the result is animals perceived as surplus to requirements.

The nations of the world are jointly responsible for managing the world's flora and fauna.

If Marius has many siblings or other relatives in the captive giraffe population, not just at Copenhagen but at other Danish zoos and even those across Europe, then his genes are not important in terms of maintaining genetic diversity. This is one of the goals that drives zoo conservation, as it is genetic diversity that allows species to adapt to changes in their environment — and zoos see themselves as providing a population safety net.

For wild animal populations this is of vital importance. So Copenhagen Zoo would argue that by allowing Marius to live — in any zoo, and especially one of those in Europe already well-stocked with individuals bearing his family's genes, he is taking up limited and valuable space. Space that should be allotted to an individual that will add to or help maintain genetic diversity.

This is a very pragmatic stance. To many people in Britain this goes against our cultural identity as a nation of animal lovers. Danes love animals, too, but express this in a different manner. They would, I suspect, agree with animal welfare experts in arguing that death itself is not an animal welfare issue; what is important is that the death is humane, and that the life that preceded it was good. In the United Kingdom we are perhaps too focused on longevity and not on quality of life. This is the key difference in attitude to the case of Marius the giraffe.

Conservation biology is driven by society's recognition that human actions have driven many species to extinction and that we have a responsibility to do something about it. This is an ethical question, and again, it is society that determines what is right or wrong — not me, and not Bengt Holst or Copenhagen Zoo. Most societies around the world have determined that it is wrong to drive other species to extinction, but many differ on the question of how to save them.

So in this case, I'm sure that Copenhagen Zoo chose to euthanize Marius because it sincerely believes that this is the best course of action for giraffe conservation. Similarly, keepers in Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire euthanized their six lions this month for the same reason. Equally, others sincerely believe that this situation should have been avoided by the use of contraception, despite the welfare implications for the breeding adults.

It is perhaps time for us to remember that the nations of the world are jointly responsible for managing the world's flora and fauna. Intentionally or not, this case has sparked an important debate. It is only by attempting to understand each other's cultures that we can hope to make any progress on global issues such as wildlife conservation.

Robert Young is a professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Salford in Manchester, England. This article originally appeared in "The Conversation."

© 2014 Slate

Why the Danish zoo shot the giraffe 02/13/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 10:38am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. And the most-searched NFL player in Florida is ...

    Bucs

    The Bucs just faced the Jacksonville Jaguars in preseason, and open their 2017 season at the Miami Dolphins. So with the state's NFL competition ahead of and just behind the Bucs, who do you think is the NFL player most searched on Google by Floridians?

    Fans react with excitement moments after the Bucs announce their first-round pick at the team's 2016 NFL draft party. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
  2. Video captures shark attack on seal at crowded beach

    Nation

    ORLEANS, Mass. — A shark attack on a seal at a Cape Cod beach sent beachgoers scrambling, and surfers a few yards away had to frantically swim to shore.

    Thayer Wade captured video of  a shark attacking a seal off a Cape Cod beach. His uncle Pat O'Brien shared the video on Twitter.
  3. Florida firefighter spears giant 409-pound grouper in St. Pete Beach competition

    Wildlife

    ST. PETERSBURG — It took six sets of hands to drag a 409-pound Warsaw Grouper to the stage.

    James Taylor, a Bradenton firefighter, speared a 409-pound grouper near St. Pete Beach during a competition over the weekend. (Courtesy of Michelle Taylor)
  4. Don't know what to do with those eclipse glasses? Donate them.

    Human Interest

    Those who were able to snag a pair of coveted solar eclipse glasses for Monday's event witnessed a moment in history. But now that the eclipse is over, many are left wondering: What do I do with my …

    Workers pass out eclipse viewing glasses during a solar eclipse party on August 21, 2017 at the Museum of Science and Industry, in Tampa, Fla. Tampa experienced a partial eclipse. [MONICA HERNDON  |  Times]
  5. Treasury secretary's wife boasts of travel on government plane, touts high fashion

    National

    U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's wife, Louise Linton, boasted of flying on a government plane with her husband to Kentucky on Monday and then named the numerous fashion brands she wore on the trip in an unusual social media post that only became more bizarre minutes later.

    Steven Mnuchin and his then- financee Louise Linton watch as President Donald Trump speaks during Mnuchin's swearing-in ceremony as  treasury secretary in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 13. [Mandel Ngan | AFP via Getty Images]