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Death of Marius the giraffe reveals cultural differences in animal conservation

The reaction to the euthanasia of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo has highlighted cultural differences in attitudes to animals and death between the UK and Denmark. I first visited the Copenhagen…

Too much of a good thing? Andrew Milligan/PA

The reaction to the euthanasia of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo has highlighted cultural differences in attitudes to animals and death between the UK and Denmark.

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 centre 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 sterilisation 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.

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.

Genetics is the bigger picture

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 UK 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 euthanise Marius because it sincerely believes that this is the best course of action for giraffe conservation. Similarly, keepers in Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire euthanised their six lions last week 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.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article;
    Robert Young; "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." In fairness we can attempt to understand others cultures and the requirements of Zoos and conservation.
    Nothing stops us appreciating that Giraffe are known to be perfectly happy in company of other males. There had to be a logical way to isolate Marius from his siblings of the opposite sex while providing companionship.
    Perhaps this type of male / male bonding would have been a public relations nightmare and where we need to respect the Danish community.

  2. Khalil A. Cassimally

    Community Coordinator at The Conversation

    "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."

    This line pretty much nails it. Too many times, we're quick to judge and somehow take the US, UK point of view as the golden baseline.

  3. Jane Brookes

    Outdoor education

    The crucial point here is that it is the nations of the world (as well as the individuals of those nations) who are JOINTLY responsible for the world's flora and fauna. Having made the pragmatic decision to breed from animals in their captivity, without the space to rear them throughout the rest of their natural life, Copenhagen Zoo should allow other reputable conservation organisations to take on the mantle of stewardship for those creatures.

    It is beyond Copenhagen Zoo's remit to decide whether…

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  4. Albert Buhagiar

    logged in via Facebook

    Wild animals should roam freely and not be kept locked in a zoo, which after all is there to make money

  5. Sara Pinto

    logged in via Facebook

    First of all please accept my apologies on the poor english but it's not my native language, so I'll try my best.

    I have some questions regarding your article:

    Is there any physical impacts of animal sterilization? I'm aware of the problems of contraception but I don't know any problems regarding sterilization. I'm not a vet but If we think of another mammal, dogs for instance, they are often sterilized and have the same quality of life and live the same years as the fertile ones. On the other…

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    logged in via Twitter

    It's also important to remind ourselves that generations of pigs and cows are slaughtered on a daily basis, because our species have a preference for meat and that generations of wild life perish or succumb in nature.

    All these cows, pigs and wild animals do not have a cute portrait picture on instagram and are therefor are non-existent to the people, who took to social media without basing their opinions on this issue on anything, but little Marius's big black eyes.

    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to FARGIN

      Appreciate your perspective.
      FARGIN wrote; " ... without basing their opinions on this issue on anything, but little Marius's big black eyes." That is a very subjective opinion, many are aware of the anomalies within animal husbandry practices, but their species and diversity is not under threat.
      So to tie this event to animals who are not under threat is pointless and unnecessarily emotive.
      The Giraffe has a habit that is threatened and well as their generations of natural diversity.
      Point of fact is; there is an even greater need to protect sharks than giraffe, their population is being decimated by finning and many indiscriminate fishing techniques will lead to extinction.
      No one could say sharks "have a cute portrait picture on Instagram".

  7. Vincent Lalomia

    logged in via Facebook

    Mr Young

    Respect cultural differences is a euphemism. Educational blather. That animal should not have been slaughtered period. Zoos have the responsibility to do everything in their power to protect animals in their care. The idea of killing something to save it is idiotic.
    It appears to me that none in the zoological establishment can take a stand against colleagues whose foolish actions undermine the nature of conservancy. Ameliorating the bad press is the wrong stance.
    Check out the backlash. Those people could be contributing to causes of conservation.

    Vincent Lalomia. NYC

  8. Joen Elmbak

    logged in via Facebook

    Thank you for an informative article. The Copenhagen Zoo and even Denmark is experiencing a flood of social media attacks, mostly based on very short media reports and a need for emotional outburst, on the matter. People tend to ignore other, bigger problems with animal wellfare, or the hypocrisy and dilemmas involved. My only slight concern is that you use the very collective, plural "Danes" - it is the zoological/institutional expertise in Denmark which has chosen the procedure, and we are of course having a debate on these matters as well, following the events, with a broad palette of views.

    The staff has been following the recommended procedures from EAZA (The European Association of Zoos and Aquariums), and the decision has been approved and later supported by EAZA.

    BTW, my thoughts go to the staff of the zoo who are receiving many threats.