Zoos kill surplus animals. It used to be a dirty secret but now everybody knows.
It is rare the killing is so direct, let alone so public, as in the case of Marius, the cute young giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo. According to the New York Times he was killed "because his genes were well represented among the captive giraffe population in European zoos," making him a poor addition to the breeding program. He was shot in the head and then fed to the lions as children looked on.
More commonly animals get disposed of less publicly. In a searing article in US News & World Report, journalist Michael Satchell described "a little-known practice by some of the nation's premier zoos: dumping surplus, old, or infirm animals into a vast, poorly regulated -- and often highly profitable -- network of substandard, 'roadside' zoos and wildlife dealers who supply hunting ranches and the exotic-pet trade."
Uncomfortable with the outpouring of anger towards Denmark, I share an American tale of Peaches, Tatima and Wankie, who were once attractions at the San Diego Zoological Society's Wild Animal Park: In 2003, to make way for seven young wild elephants caught in Swaziland, the renowned San Diego Zoo shipped the three older elephants off to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. Animal rights activists urged the zoo to instead relinquish the elephants to the wonderful PAWS sanctuary in Northern California. They warned that moving the elephants to a facility where they would stand in barns for months on end through icy winters would be a death sentence. The activists were accused of hysterical hyperbole. Within two years, Peaches, Tatima and Wankie were dead.
In that context we might rethink our outrage over the Copenhagen Zoo's refusal of offers from others willing to take Marius, refusals that may have been based on compassion. One zoo was denied because it could not guarantee that it wouldn't resell Marius. That means they couldn't guarantee that Marius would not eventually die of a gunshot -- not straight to the head -- alone and terrified on a foreign ranch rather than in the comfort of his familiar home. And they couldn't guarantee that Marius would not spend his last days rotting in a hell hole. Other offers were rejected because Marius would be homed without members of his species, which is cruel to a giraffe, and the director has made clear that he views quality of life to be just as important as life itself.
That interest in quality of life led the Danish zoo to rule out castration as a solution to the problem of inbreeding. But quality of life issues should not have ruled out vasectomy.
Still, if one is comfortable with zoos keeping large cats, who must eat meat, then why protest the feeding of this particular herbivore to those cats? His cuteness doesn't make his life more valuable than that of the cow they would otherwise have eaten that day, who suffered miserably on a factory farm while being grown into the lions' dinner.
Many people seemed shocked to realize that zoos are not sanctuaries whose primary goal is to care for animals. Zoos are institutions, funded by people who buy tickets to view captive members of other species. It is true that some zoos have the added goal of helping to conserve species, an admirable goal but one that doomed Marius.
It makes no sense to support zoos in general and then express anger at this one for being so public about its disposal of what it deemed surplus inventory. Rather, as we evolve as a species our relationships with other species must also truly evolve; it is time for us to stop viewing their members as objects for our amusement. It's also time to stop trashing this planet, thereby making zoos into a necessary evil. We must protect and restore large areas where animals can live naturally and flourish. We might, when necessary, help manage their populations via non lethal means, as we would do with human populations. But that must be done in the spirit of aid to other nations, nations with their own gifts, skills and social orders, and with the right to live on the land rather than in cages.
We will honor sweet Marius if our grief over his untimely death spurs not anger at one zoo but a commitment to fundamental change in our dealings with other species. That change should be his legacy.