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Zoos Should Let Surplus Animals Be Pets Instead of Killing Them
The giraffe that sparked the international debate
After the euthanasia of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo, my Facebook wall was literally flooded with comments from my various animal-oriented friends, most of which were critical of the zoo's decision. The untimely, but ultimately humane death of a single giraffe has gone on to spark unprecedented and international outrage, causing the story to trend in every major news outlet—a PR nightmare for the zoo in question.
Many people may not be aware that the culling of surplus zoo animals is not a recent invention. A few weeks ago, six lions at Longleat Safari Park in England were culled, and this surprisingly did not receive the same attention, perhaps due to the lack of the sensationalistic headline that the euthanized animals were fed to other zoo animals. Other animals that have been culled at Copenhagen Zoo include zebras, hippos, tigers, and antelopes.
Copenhagen's misfortune was making the decision to cull an animal that, for whatever reason, majorly tugs on the heartstrings of the public, and having the situation discovered and put on blast by the mainstream media. These circumstances further solidify the fact that social media, as Blackfish has taught another popular aquatic zoo, cannot be underestimated.
At the time of this writing, news of Marius' killing has resulted in:
- Death threats to Zoo staff
- The Copenhagen Zoo's website crashing (or intentionally being disabled)
- A slew of one star ratings for the zoo's Google review page
- A petiton to get the zoo's scientific director, Bengt Holst, to resign, and it has at the time of this writing gathered over 39,000 signatures.
Let's get one thing straight off the bat; I personally feel that euthanizing the giraffe was the wrong decision to make, but I hope to assuage tensions of whichever side might stumble upon this article, by illustrating the perspectives of the polarizing mindsets involved, although it might do the opposite.
As someone who would have liked to see the giraffe remain alive I have this to say: the idea that it is somehow cruel, barbaric, or evil to euthanize the animal under the conditions of which it was culled is utterly without merit. The word 'speciesism' is generally applied by supporters of animal rights, or more specifically, animal liberation, which I firmly stand against, but here the term perfectly describes the attitude that many unknowingly take toward certain non-domesticated, charismatic animals.
- Zoos and Euthanasia
Most people will be surprised to learn that it is the Good zoos which euthanize some of their animals and the Bad zoos do not. Good zoos manage their Species populations responsibly through cooperative breeding programmes with the aim of...
The power of the giraffe
The birth of a baby giraffe, eventually named Sandy Hope after the results of an anticipated naming contest for the calf, propelled an unknown private zoo (that participates in species survial programs) into the spotlight, and now the Copenhage Zoo, after killing the same iconic species, has received similar attention, dramatically gravitating in the other direction.
A giraffe is a beautiful animal, distinctive due to impressive patterns and its distinctive towering neck, making it the world's largest land animal and one of Africa's main stars and attractions. Giraffes, except for a sub-species called the Rothschild's giraffe (the species of Sandy Hope) are not endangered. They are even-toed ungulates, just like deer, bison, hippopotamuses, antelope, goats, and even cows. I'm sure the reader can discern where I'm going with this.
A giraffe may be more impressive to human eyes, and a giraffe may not be as populous as cattle, goats, and pigs, but they are, as individuals, not more worthy than these domesticated animals or more 'deserving of life', whatever that may mean. While someone may dispute my comparisons to animals like cows and other 'higher' animals that are presumably more 'intelligent' (like killer whales), most would agree that giraffes and cows have a strong degree of similarity cognition-wise.
So how can the outrage be justified when not only was the animal humanely euthanized, it also lived a much better life than many agricultural animals? Regardless of whether the person exclaiming "cruelty" is a vegan or omnivore, the fact remains that a single giraffe's death is receiving far more attention than the hundreds of deaths that likely just took place after I finished writing this paragraph, to feed both humans and zoo animals. The favoritism regarding certain DNA arrangements is not a new phenomenon, and prevails amongst many controversial subjects that, if ignorance were not a factor, would have been put to rest ages ago.
The killing was unnecessary
Yet I still don't believe the giraffe should have been put down...why is this? Conscious, conversation-minded facilities do have sound reasons for dispatching surplus animals and they have been thoroughly explained by the zoo's officials. Accredited zoos do not want to potentially jeopardize their animal's well-being by implementing contraceptives or sterilization techniques. Accredited zoos do not want to sell or give away animals to facilities that may have 'poor' standards or may re-distribute the animal to another zoo with poor standards. Accredited zoos do not want animals taking up space and consuming resources if they are not contributing to the propagation of their species, which is why zoos are 'supposed' to be here in the first place.
My problem with these reasons is that the latter sentence simply isn't true. I think most of us are all aware of the main reason why zoos exist, and even zoo keepers are apt to brag about this fact: zoos enrich our lives and help us 'share a closer bond to the natural world'. Or, depending on which side you're on, zoos are here for our mere exploitation. The 'E' word has a negative vibe to it, but that's the reason all animals are in captivity, be it a giraffe, shark, or domesticated dog.
Zoos absolutely DO play an important role in conservation efforts, and may be an essential contributing factor to the recovery efforts of suitable species. In a few cases, zoos and zoos only have saved species from extinction. But let's not pretend that this is the norm. Most zoo animals exist because they are in demand by the public, for the same reason that they are seen as 'more valuable' than a cow; beauty, iconism, and exotic allure. Zoos are a form of entertainment, or living museums that just happen to be more substantial and beneficial than the average amusement park, and they are wonderful additions to our society if they are managed properly and animals thrive within them.
It is for that reason that I consider the killing of this giraffe a mistake, and a waste of a valuable animal. Particularly for a species that does very well in captivity, does not demand a high-resource diet (like the meat-intensive diet of large carnivores), and is obviously captivating to human beings, the giraffe was worth much more alive than its weight in meat.
The giraffe could, in theory, have went to another facility where it would be put to better use than a few enriching meals for the zoo's big cats, benefiting the zoo with the financial returns from the sale, and the purchaser with a new, exciting animal to add to his or her collection. Why couldn't this take place?
This takes us to the second provided reason; zoos do not want to sell animals to 'bad facilities'. And here's where I take the most offense, as an advocate of private pet ownership, whether it is a collie or a zebra. The assumption that all other facilities unaccredited by a particular organization (or maybe even not at all) have poor husbandry is a mistruth and reveals the issue with accrediting bodies taking presidence over all captive wildlife.
- Understanding Domestication: The Ethics of Wild Animals as Pets and in Zoos
Why do people put down wild animals in captivity while being perfectly fine with domesticated animals in human control? Are domesticated animals really that different from exotic animals?
The accreditation problem
While public perception of non-politically correct 'private owners' and non-accredited zoos is mostly negative (and there certainly are large amounts of crappy zoos and owners to support this view), this view does not allow one to discern the good apples in the bunch—the possible places that this giraffe would have likely thrived at if placed there.
Going back to my previous statements about exotic animal favoritism, if a pet dog can be placed in a new home, potentially at the small risk of the owner not being perfect, why can't a giraffe be placed at a thoroughly-screened facility, under a contract that it cannot be re-homed (as many dog rescue organizations do under contract, requiring dogs to be returned to them if they are not going to be kept)? And if there is such a situation where a suitable home cannot be found, or if the sterilization procedure harms the animal to the extent that it cannot have sufficient well-being, then and only then would it be appropriate to dispatch the animal as a last resort and utilize its meat.
- The Sad Animals in Zoos Myth
Exploring the phenomenon of people thinking animals are "sad" in zoos because of the expression on their faces. Can you read an animal's mind by looking at it?
This fantasy situation of mine cannot exist under the current rules of this accrediting body (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria or EAZA) that the public regards so highly (or used to) over the so-called horrendous private owners or lesser accredited zoos, but I hope they will reconsider this position in the future, given the tremendous public outcry caused by the death of a single animal. In fact, the aforementioned giraffe, Sandy Hope, resides in a beautiful private zoo that happens to be currently unaccredited by the major zoo organization in the United States (Association of Zoos and Aquariums or AZA), and I have personally witnessed her spectacular care and living situation.
So what sense does it make to not only forfeit a potential profit from the sale of the animal that can go toward the zoo's animals and conservation efforts, but to also create an uproar towards a zoo, vulnerable to the public's visitation and donations? Plus, the entire scenario of even going as far as to hack up the giraffe in front of small children will appear to many with anthropomorphic lenses as callous and disrespectful in nature.
Better off dead?
Some extreme animal rights activists often ignorantly exclaim that animals are 'better off dead' than living in a zoo, so why would zoo workers maintain a similar philosophy—that an animal is 'better off dead' than taking its chances in a well-managed non-accredited facility?
Going back to another one of my points, zoos have originated for human exhibition purposes and thankfully, both zoo workers and visitors are now demanding the best standards for animal care and welfare that often goes beyond the conservation goal. The giraffe's killing will come off as a betrayal, a breach of the paying public's trust when the goal should be inspiring them to keep these animals around in the wild.
I see no reason why the greater good of conservation aims can't be supplemented by the attachment that people will have with these zoo ambassadors. It's important for good public zoos to not only keep the species preservation goal in clear view, but also take into consideration the emotional perspectives of its patrons, misguided as they can sometimes be.