The Culture of Conservation and the Copenhagen Zoo Controversy

Marius the Giraffe
Photo credit: Keld Navntoft/AFP/Getty Images

Last week the Copenhagen Zoo euthanized an 18 month old giraffe named Marius and the world went insane. The decision to euthanize the giraffe was based on the fact that his genes were too common for breeding purposes. The decision was heavily contested by the public and over 27,000 petition signatures were gathered in order to halt the euthanasia. Despite such outcry, Marius was slaughtered using a bolt gun intended for cattle, publicly dissected for educational purposes, and then his carcass was fed to the Zoo’s lion pride.

Listen to the Chief of Copenhagen Zoo defend the decision to euthanize Marius and speak out about the controversy:

From an animal rights perspective, the entire controversy is quite frustrating to witness. It is extremely troubling to learn that a zoo killed a perfectly healthy individual, but this is expected if you understand how zoos function. Besides educating the public about wildlife ecology and conservation, zoos are responsible for maintaining the integrity of captive animal breeding populations. Therefore I understand why the decision was made because Marius’ genes were of no use. This culture of conservation makes sense from a biological point of view, however there are some serious ethical issues surrounding the controversy. From a previously written post about zoos: “The truth is that many zoos are part of incredibly beneficial programs that support wildlife conservation efforts around the world. Also many zoos are the only connection that people in cities have to experience nature and wildlife. While some animals may suffer in cages, they typically do more to help wildlife populations than to hurt them. In conservation biology we learn this mantra: It is not about the individual, it is about the population. However, I am an individual, right? I was inspired to care about wildlife from seeing animals in cages as a child and I actually grew up to become a wildlife biologist. However, it was not seeing the animals in zoos that drove me to want to save them, but it was the compassion that I had for all living animals that made me want to save them… in zoos or in the wild. This is why I came to this conclusion: Even if animals in zoos help wildlife, it is still exploiting animals. I think it is shameful that we tell our children they are special, but allow the incarceration of individual animals to be left to rot in cages in zoos because it is for “the good of the population”. We would not sacrifice one human being to save a group of human beings and ironically human beings have come to this conclusion that keeping animals in cages benefits wildlife populations. This is specism. If we truly respected animals, then we would love them from a distance and let them live their lives. Animals deserve to be left alone. If we are truly trying to be stewards of the environment then we will grant them this peace.” Unfortunately Marius was not seen as an individual, but rather as a commodity that could be carelessly tossed away. This has become the culture of conservation in zoos around the world.

Even so, I cannot help but roll my eyes as I witness the media and public uproar in response to the euthanasia of Marius. Millions of animals are slaughtered every day for food, so what makes this giraffe special? It’s simple: Our society does not value animal species equally. Think about how our culture treats dogs, pigs, cats, ants, etc. All of these species have a different value to people, but the reality is that each animal species has their own intrinsic value which can never be defined by man. However, as stated in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Clearly.

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