Even Giraffes Die


The Last of Us, Naughty Dog, 2013

by Jenny Diski

Warning – this article may contain sentimentality.

In 2014, there was a bit of a stir here in the UK and in Europe when the Copenhagen Zoo announced that it was going to kill an 18 month-old giraffe called Marius. The giraffe was surplus to requirements, and although other zoos offered to take Marius in (among them, the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, whose head of hoofed animals is Danish, and an individual who offered to buy Marius for 50,000 euros) the zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, explained that there was such a small gene pool among giraffes in European zoos that the risk of inbreeding in Copenhagen or elsewhere was too great. Giving Marius contraceptives was ruled out because of unwanted side-effects and was ‘poor animal welfare’. Giraffes are part of a conservation programme and the move was supported by the monitoring body, the European Association for Zoos, as good management. Unlike Holst, I’d say that killing has even more of an unwanted side-effect than contraception (for Marius, to say nothing of the public’s view of the Copenhagen zoo), but I don’t think the authorities were looking at it from a giraffe’s point of view. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they don’t think there is such a thing as a giraffe’s point of view.

Naturally, there was a petition with 27,000 signatures and demonstrations outside the zoo. But Mr Holst the scientist, was adamant and brought all his scientific understanding of the world to bear on the discussion, although not until the deed was done and Marius had been dispatched. He had never considered cancelling the killing in spite of the outcry. Perhaps, even, the outcry strengthened his resolve. Nor did he consider that another sort of understanding than the strictly scientific also had a place in human decision-making.

“We have been very steadfast because we know we’ve made this decision on a factual and proper basis. We can’t all of a sudden change to something we know is worse because of some emotional events happening around us. It’s important that we try to explain why we do it and then hope people understand it. If we are serious about our breeding activities, including participation in breeding programmes, then we have to follow what we know is right. And this is right.”

His choice of words was exemplary of a particular way of thinking, and one that I would wish did not have all the say in an enterprise that has the power of life and death over sentient beings. Science was held up as the arbiter of what is right, and emotionality used to describe the opposite of right. Science stands firm against an onslaught of unthinking emotion. To make the death of Marius even more scientific, he was dissected in front of an audience in an operation that took three hours, while the paying public looked on, including children. But so they should, because, Holst explained, “It helps increase the knowledge about animals but also the knowledge about life and death.” Not only does Holst’s science know what is right for conservation, it knows what is right for people to learn and how they should learn it. The educational opportunity was expanded by filming it and putting it on YouTube. When it was over, the remains of Marius were given to the lions, who were also filmed tucking into a great slab of spotted giraffe flesh. Butchers should be very grateful to Bendt Holst for suggesting an educational sideline.

On the other side of the argument – the non-science side, as Holst would say, emotionalists used words like ‘ethical’ and suggested that Marius – having been bred by the zoo – was an moral obligation upon them. He deserved to live because he was alive. Holst was having none of this. It wouldn’t be right to let Marius live and take up the space that could be used for a ‘genetically more valuable’ giraffe.

It sounds so simple, I could hand my life over to Bendt. Here, you sort it out, you know what’s right, you’re the scientist, I’m exhausted by the effort of trying to understand what’s right and what’s wrong. I’m sure I won’t manage my life as well or logically as Bendt the Undoubting would. Of course, that’s a silly thing to say, because I’m a human and Marius was a giraffe. I think that sentence needs ‘just’. Marius was just an animal. I’m sure that Holst wouldn’t dream of speaking about humans in that way. Surplus to requirements. Scientific conservation principles controlling the life and death of individuals whose genes might not be diverse enough. And I doubt very much, had a killing of a human taken place for genetic reasons, that Bendt would have authorised the public dissection of the body on the grounds that it would increase our knowledge of life and death.

For one thing, he wouldn’t dare. But that just goes to show that there is an absolute distinction between us, the managers, the rulers of the natural world, and the coarse beasts who are under our control. Yet even among those who accept this disctinction, I think there are many who would say that we had a moral duty to respect the lives of others, including the animals. It is a very extreme position to dismiss a captive animal’s claim to life on the basis of space and scientific interest. It may be what the word ‘inhumane’ was invented for.

But even Holst has his soppy moments. It’s true that he insisted that Marius was killed by being shot in the head by the zoo vet, rather than given a lethal injection, the usual humane way of euthanasing sick animals, because they planned to feed Marius’s remains to the lions. All very scientific and logical – why waste perfectly good meat, even if you’d said good morning to it the previous day. But here’s the thing: in his last moments, before he was shot, Marius was given a last meal of his favourite treat – rye bread.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued.

Cover image from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, by Roald Dahl, 1985. Illustrated by Quentin Blake.