A Giraffe’s Death and the Meaning of Our Outrage

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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.

  • Rabeh Soofi

    Fantastic article, Sherry. Very well written and thoughful commentary on the plight of our furry friends.

  • Laffin Mao

    Hopefully, the resulting negative impact will prevent future such economic eugenic experiments. Marius may be the new benchmark to judge our corporate evolution.

  • kevinl4000

    Wow. You turned a story about the herd culling practices of a zoo in Denmark into a plug for the vegan lifestyle. BTW, do you have or wear anything leather?

    • Magnus Petersson, Sweden

      Many serious vegans don’t own or wear anything made of leather, not even my vegetarian cousin does.

    • Foltz Jane

      why not discuss the issue instead of asking people what they wear? Do you have an opinion on the culling practices of a zoo or the vegan lifestyle or do you just like knowing what is in people’s closets?

      • kevinl4000

        Folks working at zoos are obviously animal lovers and I have no opinion on how they manage their operation and I could care less about what’s in people’s closets. I’ve just noticed that many vegans/vegetarians wear leather sneakers, belts, etc., suggesting a bit of hypocrisy in that they condemn others for enjoying a burger but have no problem wearing the animal’s skin.

        • Lin

          I am a veggie through choice. My children eat meat through choice. I do not force my ideas onto others or care if they eat meat, wear leather etc. besides, choosing to eat meat is different to actually wearing it depending on your standing. Also, how do you know what the ‘many’ vegans/veggies wear that you talk of. Do we look different to anyone else? Could you actually point one out in the street? The mind boggles at times !!!

          • kevinl4000

            Good for you, Lin. You probably eat better than most. I think there’s a been some thread drift. My original comment had to do with the article’s criticism of the zoo policies in ANOTHER COUNTRY (!) that concludes with an admonishment to give up burgers and chicken wings (and leather sneakers?). While going vegan may be healthy, noble, and worthy of promotion I think the two issues are separate.

          • The article is about the value of individual lives and how snuffing those lives has no moral justification. BTW many man-made fabrics mimic themselves so you’d never be able to tell them from the animal skins (leather/fur/hide) procured in slaughterhouses. These alternatives wear and smell much better too! ;)

  • Lin

    This is absolutely disgusting. This reminds me of the Hitler regime but towards the animal world. Some might not like the comparison but this is exactly how those who were thought of as ‘imperfect’ were treated. Have we not learned that there is no such thing as ‘perfect’. The fact that a young, healthy and seemingly happy and sociable creature should be erased/destroyed as it was deemed ‘genetically’ imperfect is appalling. Offers of a new home were refused which raises even more questions???? I had a cat who went blind due to medical issues yet continued on for another happy 2 years. She went out ‘supervised’ and walked with us by following our voices or my daughters bike sounds. We only had to admit defeat when she suffered a stroke with no chance of recovery. Then we did have no choice but to have her put to sleep. I am still traumatised by that nearly 2 years later as I held her as she slipped away. Remember the old saying that you can judge a person by the way they treat animals .

  • TMR

    Great article Sherry. Thank you very much. Shared :)

  • veggiegrrrl

    brilliant. thank you!