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February 13, 2014

A Killing in Copenhagen

Last Sunday’s public execution of Marius the giraffe and his feeding to the lions by witless leaders of the Copenhagen Zoo was grotesque in so many ways, and like the roundup and killing of dogs in Sochi, Russia, it has drawn worldwide scorn. Now, incredibly, like zombies walking over a cliff, a second Danish zoo has announced that it too will consider killing a giraffe it no longer wants, one that is also named Marius. (Note to self: Get other giraffes of the same name and living at zoos in Europe to sanctuary right away.) 

Giraffe2
A giraffe in the wild at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania
Photo by Brad Libbey

The public dissection to which the Copenhagen Zoo subjected Marius was tone-deaf, tin-eared, and tinged with a degree of coldness and disregard that is frightening to see at a public institution trusted by the public to take care of animals in its charge. Commentators have punched through all of the rationalizations and arguments from scientific director Bengt Holst, and in the end we are left with a simple governing principle for handling animals at zoos: Any institution that breeds animals for public display or education must be responsible for the well-being of those individual animals throughout their lifetimes.  Killing zoo animals like this is irresponsible and unethical, and the case of poor Marius -- shot and killed with a bolt-gun -- has highlighted this cynical practice for the benefit of a public disassociated from what some zoo directors apparently think is within the bounds of acceptable management and decision-making. 

I can only hope that one positive outcome in the wake of this incident is that all zoos will decide it’s outside the bounds of acceptable conduct to kill healthy animals, even when their continued presence is deemed inconvenient or expensive.  It should also prompt zoos worldwide to carefully consider their reliance on culling as a management tool, to critically examine their approach to welfare, conservation, and public relations, and to strengthen their commitment to educating public audiences.

In Europe, the killing of animals by zoos that do not want to keep them seems to be commonplace, and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria has defended the Copenhagen facility. 

To his credit, Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, added his voice to the chorus of outrage. Zoos Victoria also issued a statement condemning it, stating that the “situation that occurred at Copenhagen Zoo does not reflect our practice nor do we agree with the practice,” and several American zoo directors have also spoken out.  The U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums says accredited zoos here don’t condone this sort of execution, but there are 2,000 or so roadside zoos in the country, and who knows what they are doing with their animals. 

As the Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh observed, flashpoint incidents like the death of Marius and the roundup of the Sochi dogs are clear signs that the information gap is closing on all sorts of cruelty to animals in the world, and that public opinion, once marshalled, will spell the end of indifference, complacency, and glib rationalization.  

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