It has never occurred to me exactly how animals died in zoos. I had always assumed that they simply died of old age. After all, animals are the main attraction of zoos and it would not make sense to kill them, until I read about Marius.
Marius met his end on 9th February this year with a bullet to his head. He was a male reticulated giraffe who lived in the Copenhagen Zoo. Despite an online petition to stop the killing or euthanasia (as referred to by the zoo) of Marius and offers by wildlife parks to take him in, Marius was euthanised, dissected in public in front of a crowd and fed to the carnivores.
Warning: Yes, the video contains giraffe bits. Although the title says ‘baby’, Marius is 2 years old.
Some debate surrounds the fact that Marius was dissected in front of children. I do feel that dissection of an animal in front of children could be disturbing for them and would do nothing to help cultivate empathy towards animals. With regard to the feeding of parts of Marius to the lions, it is certainly less wasteful compared to simply throwing those parts of Marius away. What I am focusing on in this post are the reasons why a young and healthy giraffe was euthanised.
For the benefit of the captive population
The zoo defended themselves by stating that they were trying to prevent inbreeding. As quoted from their response on their website: “If an animal’s genes are well represented in a population further breeding with that particular animal is unwanted. As this giraffe’s genes are well represented in the breeding programme and as there is no place for the giraffe in the Zoo’s giraffe herd the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes has agreed that Copenhagen Zoo euthanize the giraffe.”
It looks like Marius was euthanised for the greater good of the captive giraffe population and this is a pretty strong justification of their actions (as with typical “for the greater good” arguments). Furthermore, their actions were supported by the European Breeding Programme for Giraffes which makes their decision appear sound and in line with established regulations. The reason as to which why Marius was not handed over to wildlife parks that offered to take him in was because of the rules set by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), another recognised organisation. In general, euthanasia is not uncommon in zoos and since 1828, 5 giraffes were euthanised for similar reasons.
But just because such actions are supported by recognised organisations and benefit the captive population as a whole, does this mean these actions are ethical?
Which is more ethical?
The zoo also provided explanation and answers to questions on alternatives to euthanising Marius. They do not use contraceptives, due to possible side effects, and sterilisation because they believe that their animals should be allowed to breed naturally.
The word “natural” comes up many times in the video of Bengt Holst, director of the zoo, explaining the reasons for their actions. It seems that he is missing the point made by the show host that it is the killing of a young healthy giraffe that is not natural rather than the fact that Marius was fed to the lions.
Holst also mentioned that the zoo tries to be as close to natural as it can get. “As it can get” really just depends on what is convenient for the zoo. It is pretty ironic that in order to allow natural breeding (which they claim contributes to animal welfare), they unnaturally kill the surplus offspring. Surely allowing animals to freely or naturally breed and then euthanising surplus offspring is evidence of irresponsibility and even unethical. If we support and accept the sterilisation of dogs and cats, how are zoo animals any different?
Deciding the fate of captive animals is already far from “natural”. No matter how much we modify an enclosure to mimic the animals natural habitat, it is we humans who designed the enclosure. The plants (mostly), mounds and other structures did not naturally pop up. By putting animals in zoos, it should be recognised that these animals are no longer wild or subject to “nature” but they have come under human responsibility and it is up to us to decide what is ethical or better for them.
Between depriving giraffes of natural breeding and euthanising surplus offspring, I would go with the latter for being less ethical. This does not mean that the former is ethical but simply less unethical. Ultimately, if we want to let animals carry out natural behavior, we should leave them in their natural habitats. If we want to keep them in zoos, we cannot expect totally natural behavior and it must be accepted that compromises will have to be made, such as preventing giraffes from producing surplus offspring, with respect to human ethics since they are under our care.
Forget “natural”, think ethics
To wrap up this post, zoos must be responsible to the animals they care for and bring into the world. The reason behind euthanising Marius might be justified in a scientific sense but not in an ethical sense. Furthermore, the welfare of zoo animals should be separate from their wild counterparts as they live in different conditions. Rather than trying to focus on making things “natural”, zoos should focus on animal welfare and pay attention to the voices of society. After all, zoos are part of the human world and not of nature.