A Giraffe’s Death and the Meaning of Our Outrage


On Sunday, February 9, the Copenhagen Zoo slaughtered a healthy, 18-month-old giraffe named Marius. The slaughter took place before an audience that included children, and the giraffe was then dissected for the group as well. Upon hearing that the slaughter would take place, thousands of people signed petitions and offered alternatives to prevent the killing, but to no avail. When the zoo ultimately killed Marius, many expressed outrage. In pictures, he appears to have been a sweet young giraffe who had bonded to other giraffes at the zoo. In this column, I will take up the question of why people were outraged and what this outrage could mean for our conduct toward animals more generally.

Marius’s Death

Why did Marius have to die? According to the zoo, Marius’s genes were too common to be useful for the breeding program there. Reportedly, in the zoo’s words, “[w]e see this … as insurance that we in the future will have a healthy giraffe population in European zoos.” Offered space at another zoo for Marius, the zoo refused to hand him over, because—according to Bengt Holst, Director of Research and Conservation there, the space at the other zoo should be reserved for “a genetically more important” giraffe.

The meaning of the zoo’s actions could not be clearer. From the zoo’s perspective, the giraffe Marius was, as I described it in an earlier column, a mere exemplar of his particular genetic material rather than an individual whose life had independent value and who was entitled to respect. The zoo viewed him as a container of DNA that the zoo did not want or need. That Marius was 18 months old, healthy, and might have lived another twenty-plus years was immaterial. Disposing of him meant creating space for another, “genetically more important” source of DNA.

As a child, I used to enjoy visiting the zoo, because I loved animals. I did not think very critically about what I was seeing. Yet I do remember believing at the time that animals had a sickening odor and seemed to do weird things, like pacing back and forth and eating and throwing their own feces. Only later would I learn that humans in cages often smell very bad too and that pacing and feces-eating represent stereotypies, symptoms of mental disorder in animals, common not only in zoos but on modern farms as well.

If a visitor from another planet wanted to learn about what humans were really like, he would not visit a prison or mental institution, and the zoo was no more likely to teach me what animals were all about.

The point of the zoo has never been about helping us connect with animals as individual beings. The best face one can put on zoos is that they (may) prevent the extinction of some species through captive breeding programs. As I described in my earlier column, however, there is a world of difference between preventing the extinction of a species and protecting the life of an individual member of that species, and the two goals can and do come into conflict.

To cage an animal who ordinarily ranges for many miles is to harm that animal. Doing so as a means of protecting the animal’s DNA through captive breeding in no way redeems that harm, any more than holding particular, genetically rare sorts of humans in cages to ensure the continuity of their genetic line would be “worth” the sacrifice of their freedom and wellbeing.

The Copenhagen Zoo, in one sense, took the whole idea of zoos to its logical conclusion. The point (beyond profiting from its entertainment value) is the “well-being” of some of the species, not the lives of the actual animals, some of whom have been forcibly taken against their will from their native environments. For this reason, it is considered acceptable similarly to take the life of an actual animal in the service of promoting the genetic diversity of the species. Animals, on this view, are not individual beings with inherent value, but rather resources for human use and enjoyment.

People’s Outrage Over Marius’s Slaughter

Many people, however, roundly rejected the logic of slaughtering Marius. People cared about the specific giraffe and wanted him to be able to keep his life, even if he was no longer “useful” to the zoo, either by serving as an entertaining exhibit or by providing desirable genetic material. People’s empathy for Marius moved them to express profound grief and even rage toward the personnel at the zoo. What could such grief and rage over the death of a giraffe, often called a “zoo animal,” signify?

I would suggest that it means people were viscerally and powerfully repelled by the view that Marius was simply a commodity belonging to the zoo, to be used for whatever purpose suited the zookeepers. As one writer put it, Marius should have been allowed to live, rather than becoming “cat food” (since his dissected remains were fed to the lions who were held captive in another part of the same zoo). This reaction, in turn, has implications that extend beyond the particular injustice committed against Marius.

To say that an animal’s life ought to count for more than what that life is worth to others is to maintain that animals have inherent value. And if they have inherent value, then it is immoral for us to use them and kill them just to satisfy our own desires. Zoos thus represent an injustice to all animals who are held within them, precisely for this reason, and I accordingly choose no longer to patronize zoos.

Our decision to visit (or not to visit) a zoo, an aquarium, or a marine animal park like Sea World (effectively exposed in the documentary film Blackfish), however, represents a rather small expression of our support for (or rejection of) the commodification of animals.

Few of us, for example, visit zoos, aquariums, or marine parks three times a day. Yet that is how frequently an overwhelming majority of us participate in the slaughter and commodification of animals just as innocent, gentle, and undeserving of execution as Marius. We can see the personalities of some of these animals in this video of rescued dairy cows.

When we visit the supermarket or most restaurants, we will witness the slaughtered remains of mammals, birds, and fishes whose lives were taken for essentially the same reason that Marius’s life was taken—because humans decided that the animals’ lives mattered less than humans’ desire to consume the flesh and secretions (eggs and milk) of nonhuman animals, despite the fact that a diet free of animal ingredients is healthy, delicious, and far better for the planet than a diet consisting of animal parts and secretions that require animals to suffer and die.

“Humane” Slaughter

It is noteworthy, as well, that what happened to Marius strikes many of us as unjust, notwithstanding the fact that he was slaughtered in a manner far less painful and terrifying than what faces the animals whose bodies and secretions people eat. If you have ever passed a truck filled with pigs, chickens, or cows on the road, you can see that the journey to slaughter—even apart from what comes before and afterward—is a miserable one. In this video, you can watch people trying to provide some food and water to animals headed toward the slaughterhouse, and it is plain that the animals have been utterly abandoned to starvation, thirst, and the elements. Things do not improve for these animals at the slaughterhouse.

Marius, by contrast, was individually slaughtered (rather than killed on a line, smelling the blood and hearing the screams of his peers) and given a piece of rye bread right before dying so that he would never know what hit him. Yet this fact—rightly—does not mollify those who find his slaughter ugly and wrong.

The reason that the “humane” slaughter of Marius does not make his death “okay” or morally acceptable to many of us is that people compare it with the alternative of not killing him at all. That is, we find supposedly “humane” methods of killing someone comforting only after we have decided that the death itself is either inevitable (due to a terminal illness, for example) or independently justified (to spare someone unbearable suffering). Too often, however, because people are accustomed to consuming animal products, they allow themselves to assume that the slaughter of “food animals” is similarly inevitable and that therefore, the most ambitious goal on which they can set their sights is to try to provide that the slaughter be more “humane” rather than that it not happen at all.

The truth is that the slaughter of mammals, birds, and fishes in the meat, dairy, and egg industries—whether factory or family-farmed—is rarely as instantaneous as what Marius experienced. Killing over 65 billion land animals (and at least as many sea animals) annually is simply not something that can be done “humanely.”

Importantly, however, our reactions to Marius’s fate evidence that there is more to condemn in the slaughter of animals than the tremendous suffering and terror that inevitably and consistently result. The slaughter itself is independently objectionable, even apart from the suffering occasioned by it, for the unprovoked and unnecessary deprivation of life. We can readily see this point when the animal is one to whose life we have not been desensitized, such as a dog or cat whom we keep as a companion animal.

We need not limit our reaction to Marius, though. We can instead see him as an ambassador for the billions of others, one animal who opened our eyes through his own individuality. With our eyes thus opened, we can each individually choose to end our own participation in slaughter.