protectors or predators?

by kittery

baby giraffe

baby giraffe

So…I just learned about Marius the giraffe. Holy hell. I don’t understand, not even a little bit. He was, according to the Copenhagen Zoo, genetically redundant and of no practical use in the European Breeding Program. So far, I understand; in order to keep (hopefully) healthy animals in zoos, you can’t have a bunch of inbred critters. What baffles me tremendously however, is what happened next. Once people became aware of Marius’s situation, Copenhagen Zoo began receiving offers to save him. From the UK, Yorkshire Wildlife Park (near Doncaster) had this to say,

 “YWP has a state-of-the-art giraffe house built in 2012 with a bachelor herd of four male giraffes and the capacity to take an extra male, subject to the agreement of the European stud book-keeper … one of the YWP giraffes is Palle, who came from Copenhagen zoo in September 2012, when he was the same age as Marius.”

Zoos from Sweden, The Netherlands, and as far away as Canada also came forward, offering to give Marius a home. An online petition urging Copenhagen Zoo to spare Marius from being euthanized gained nearly 30,000 signatures. One person offered the zoo €500,000 ($684,050) to spare Marius. Copenhagen Zoo declined all offers. Why? Yorkshire Wildlife Park was passed over because giraffes in Marius’s bloodline were already present at the park. I think it bears repeating that YWP had male giraffes, so any of their giraffes that were related (however distantly) to Marius wouldn’t have posed the threat of inbreeding. The Swedish zoo was dismissed as an option because they couldn’t promise they would never sell Marius in the future. The reason Parc Safari in Quebec was rejected is unclear. Francis Lavigne, Parc Safari’s assistant curator, tried calling Copenhagen Zoo but his calls went unanswered. According to Lavigne, the president of Parc Safari also attempted to reach Copenhagen Zoo, but his email was also ignored. In an interview with CBC News, Lavigne states,

“I tried to call with no answer. I know our president tried also to send an email, tried to contact them too … We could have taken that giraffe.”

In 1992, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) was formed. Today EAZA consists of 345 member institutions in 41 countries, Copenhagen Zoo is one of them. Following their strict protocols for zoo management and animal welfare, EAZA recommended Marius be euthanized. Lesley Dickie, Executive Director of EAZA said this in an interview with CNN:

 “As for alternative solutions, we cannot in good conscience recommend the transfer of animals under our protection to zoos which are not our members and therefore not subject to our strict standards of animal husbandry and welfare; transfer within our network does not represent a solution to the unsuitability of the individual animal for breeding. Contraception is difficult and in its infancy for female giraffes, and can be irreversible.

Castration of a male animal can have also undesirable side-effects, and a place that could otherwise be reserved for an animal that can contribute to its species’ future is lost.”

To my eyes, that looks like unmitigated arrogance and laziness. We do it so much better than you, so we refuse to let you even try. Have they never heard of a lawyer? Make the interested party sign a damn contract: ‘I solemnly swear to never sell this animal. I promise I won’t let him engage in any mating rituals with another animal of a similar genetic makeup. I will ensure he always gets a snack of rye bread on Friday evenings during happy hour, and Sunday mornings for brunch, cross my heart and hope to die.’

Proximity in this case would have been a plus, the logistics of transporting a giraffe across the ocean would be daunting to say the least, but it’s been done before. Two years ago, Copenhagen Zoo thought the Yorkshire Wildlife Park was a suitable home for Palle, why not for Marius now? When did Copenhagen Zoo get the authority to tell another institution, in another country, what manner of genetic diversity was acceptable? Furthermore, the zoo in Denmark was not bound by EAZA’s recommendation, they had the freedom to find another solution for Marius.

(the sanctions for saving a healthy, vibrant animal don't seem that severe)

(the sanctions EAZA could have imposed on Copenhagen Zoo don’t seem very severe)

Additionally, much has been made of the difficulties of preparing a large animal for a lengthy transport, supposedly it takes 6-8 months of intensive work. The workers at Copenhagen Zoo didn’t suddenly have an epiphany about Marius’s genetic history, he was eighteen months old, the gestation period for giraffes is fourteen months. Giving the bright minds at the zoo and EAZA a generous benefit of the doubt, I’d say they had two years at least, to identify the problem of this “surplus” animal, and come to a more reasoned, moderate solution. Like this image below shows, EAZA could have outlined a very different plan for Marius from the beginning.

EAZA document

EAZA document

Dickie went on, saying:

 “EAZA members do not euthanize animals lightly, and we are saddened by the death of any animal in our care.

Nonetheless, we strongly support Copenhagen Zoo, which has an exemplary record of animal welfare, education, research and conservation, and which took great pains to be transparent about the situation — 7,000 visitors came to Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday, while 15 protesters stood outside.”

I’m trying really hard to not be cynical right now, but seven thousand visitors the Sunday Marius was put down? That must have been an awfully lucrative day…in February…when it’s usually pretty chilly…and zoo attendance is probably lagging compared to any Sunday on a nice spring, summer, or even autumn day…just sayin’.

In general, I’m having a hard time shaking the feeling that EAZA is just a very exclusive club; one that uses location and a self-appointed sense of superiority, rather than any tangible evidence of quality, as requirements for admission.

Points in this sad story I have difficulty reconciling:

1. What happened to Marius was humane and compassionate.

Um, no. Would it have been labor intensive, a gamble, and a huge financial commitment to prepare Marius for rehabilitation into the wild from the start? Yes. If the rehabilitation was successful, were the odds of Marius becoming lion fodder substantially increased? Yes. Does that bother me as much as what happened? No. The facts are: Marius was bribed, by people he had spent the entirety of his life knowing, with his “favorite snack” to get his head in position for a kill shot. As children, we’re taught that zoos/preserves/refuges exist for the care, protection, and stewardship of animals. I fully understand that to protect the many, sometimes shitty things have to happen to preserve a balance within a delicate ecosystem. I get that, but this doesn’t fall in that category, this falls under laziness.

2. Rehabilitation is a wasted effort.

Christian the Lion. Enough said.

3. There was no way to keep Marius happy and healthy.


4. Neutering giraffes can sometimes be lethal. Under sedation, the giraffe could fall down and break its neck.

That’s awful. Though I’m pretty sure we live in a world where thousands of people speak up to save a giraffe’s life, where people work tirelessly to create a prosthetic tail for a dolphin with a life threatening deformity, where people spend entire careers trying to communicate with elephants through art, or spend half their lives bonding with primates, learning to relate to them through simple games and sign language. Surely someone in the world is endowed with enough creativity and skill to engineer a solution to this. Could a specially designed harness laid on the ground and gradually raised up and around a young giraffe as the sedative takes effect be an answer? The hunting industry has gone to great lengths to replicate pheromones in order to lure animals within shooting distance. Panda porn is actually a real thing. Finding innovative (or weird) solutions concerning animals is nothing new. Try harder.

5. Rather than subject Marius to substandard care at another facility, it was better to give him a quick, clean death in his home environment.

Substandard care? Are the zoos in Sweden, Canada, and The Netherlands all substandard? Is Yorkshire Wildlife Park? Is Jack Hanna some guy with little to no interest or concern for animal welfare? If EAZA and the Copenhagen Zoo are correct in thinking this, then the zoological system worldwide needs rehabilitation far more than any of their animals do.

6. Copenhagen Zoo did the best they could in unfortunate circumstances. Marius had a happy (but very short) life, and his death was a valuable teaching moment.

He probably did have a happy life, and it’s sad that EAZA and Copenhagen Zoo held onto their myopic views and didn’t allow him to continue it. As for calling what followed a teaching moment, the idea of anyone possessing a ticket to that chop shop actually learning anything is laughable. Had Marius’s remains been offered to students in the veterinary sciences as a practical learning tool under the guidance of their instructors, I could see the argument. But that isn’t what happened. The “autopsy examiner” held up a dismembered portion of Marius’s leg and pointed out the hoof to a crowd of people with wildly varying ages and levels of knowledge. Kids can see hooves on a living giraffe just as easily. The average lifespan for a giraffe is anywhere from 20 to 30 years. If Marius had been allowed to live out his days in another facility, how many people might have seen him and been inspired to learn more? True passion for a subject is sparked by curiousity, or love; not by hard facts and the systematic mutilation of a carcass.

Since recordkeeping began in 1828, five giraffes in EAZA zoos have been euthanized because of breeding concerns. Now, less than a week after Copenhagen Zoo dispatched Marius, Jyllands Park Zoo, also in Denmark, has announced their intent to euthanize one of their giraffes (also named Marius). Jaani Lojtveld Poulson, Jyllands Park Zookeeper, explains:

 “Our Marius is a hybrid; a mix of two different giraffe breeds … We were accepted into the program for pure-bred giraffes and if we get a female, Marius needs to go. We can’t have two males and a female together, that would cause internal fighting.”

At one time, EAZA may have existed for noble reasons, to protect the health and welfare of captive animals. However, it has become a pedigree contest. Rather than providing a safe and pleasant environment for exotic or endangered species (Marius and his ilk are not endangered, there’s no reason zoos should be breeding them in captivity), EAZA has become a hothouse for blue ribbon babies. Baby giraffes are popular zoo attractions, but once they grow out of their baby phase, they become disposable. I suppose we can all take comfort in the knowledge that “valuable teaching moments” will be as abundant for us as prime rib is for captive carnivores.

As for the fate of Marius at Jyllands Park Zoo, it seems that Columbus Zoo in Ohio is trying to adopt him. Donations given specifically to help their efforts for Marius can be earmarked on the donation page. Currently, $100,000 has been donated to the cause.

You can donate here.