On Zoos: The Curious Case of the Dissected Danish Camel-Leopard

unnamed-16Part One of a Three-Part Series “On Zoos”

 “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damnèd Dane…”  —William Shakespeare

One month ago, the entire world froze in its tracks agog.  For once, it had nothing to do with some teenager’s twerking buttocks.

The subject—victim—was a two-year-old giraffe named Marius.

With just a bolt gun and a heavy duty fillet knife, the Copenhagen Zoo managed to completely reverse the global stereotype of Scandinavian humaneness—unless, of course, you happen to be a pilot whale casually cruising the Faroe Islands, in which case you are already familiar with the Danish penchant for gore.  (Also, there is Hamlet and all those pesky Norse gods.)

Millions of people were shocked to learn that there is a respected, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA)-accredited zoo that believes it is more cruel to castrate a giraffe calf than to euthanize it and publicly dissect it.  What many truly found jaw-dropping was the Copenhagen Zoo’s outright refusal to accept the offer of other EAZA zoos, including the Krakow Zoo and Yorkshire Wildlife Park, to adopt Marius the Giraffe.

Just how outlandish and inexplicable were the actions of Bengt Holst, scientific director at Copenhagen Zoo, who gave the go-ahead to publicly flay Marius and feed the carcass to the lions?

Even the Russian Minister for Natural Resources and Ecology lashed out against the Danes:  “I believe it was some unforgiveable mistake, an inhumane and horrific act…”  Oddly, though, Minister Donskoy has been rather quiet on the matter of Crimea.

I am an ardent zoo supporter—and will defend the importance of zoos throughout this three-part essay series.  (Or at least I think I will, as I’ll strive to keep an open mind between now and the end.)  But I admit that I had never given the subject of specimen culling any thought.  If you had informed me that, as a practice, zoos euthanize animals which have reached a point of suffering due to age, disease or injury, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye.

However, I confess my blind ignorance to the fact that the captive breeding programs in many zoos—which can be critical to the survival of some species—depend on seemingly coldhearted genetic decision-making.

I can understand why scientists need to approach such decisions in a detached manner; to zoologists, conservational work conducted ex situ at zoos is a big picture story.  Case in point:  giraffe populations in the wild in the past 15 years have dropped nearly in half from 140,000 to less than 80,000.  The fact that giraffe populations are dwindling doesn’t exonerate the Copenhagen Zoo for carving Marius in front of the kiddies, but it does demonstrate that scientists make breeding decisions within a statistical context.

Giraffe Gate, or the Copenhagen Case, as some are calling it, has shed a light on a practice previously unknown by John Q. Zoo Patron:  EAZA zoos cull as many as 5,000 animals per year.  No one knows how many animals are killed in U.S. zoos.  Given American sensibilities, I’m sure this information is buried in the Brookfield Zoo grizzly bear exhibit.

That said, one shouldn’t imagine that the average zookeeper shows up to work each morning eager to volunteer for the super fauna firing squad.  And I think that the anti-zoo political brigade does its cause a disservice by equating the San Diego Zoo with the likes of bile-harvesting bear farms of China.

Heck, there’s even a photo of one of these godawful bear farms on the Wikipedia “zoo” article—the caption describes the facility as a Dalian Zoo.  Calling a bear farm a zoo is akin to calling George W. Bush a compassionate conservative.

Yet for now, the burden of proof lays at the feet of accredited zoos, whose leaders are displaying the political acumen of banana slugs by dimwittedly failing to understand how their official statements come off sounding like the heartless diary entries of Nazi eugenicists.

Frankly, I am shocked that zoo administrators can’t get it in their heads that John Q. Zoo Patron, for better or worse, is going to have more empathy for a giraffe than, say, a babirusa.  Also, that the reading public is bound to go ape shit when it learns that a ZEO has signed an order for a family of six lions to meet Aslan in the great beyond simply because the facility has run out of room.

While it’s reassuring to hear the director of the Dublin Zoo call Giraffe Gate “cold, calculated, cynical and callous,” I also hear the director of the Prague Zoo saying that Marius simply should not have been euthanized in such a public manner.

So which is it?  What is the appropriate ethical position for managing the life of an individual zoo specimen—balanced against the considerations of global wildlife populations?  And how is the scientific community being held accountable for its thumbs-up or thumbs-down genetic determinations?  In short, how are we the zoo-going public now to act?  How are we to press the global zoological community into becoming even better at its job?

Lesley Dickie, the executive director of the EAZA, addresses the issue, in part, in the following manner:

Our resources are regrettably finite, and as a result, the [European Endangered Species Programmes] must prioritize animals which can contribute to the overall genetic health of the captive population.  This means that in rare cases (five in the case of giraffes in EAZA zoos since records began in 1828), animals must be removed from the population by management euthanasia.

Dickie’s statement does not explain why the Copenhagen Zoo refused to accept the invitation by other EAZA member zoos to “adopt” Marius.  In other words:  it fails to justify Marius’ euthanization.

But it does tell me that the EAZA isn’t mowing down giraffes left and right—that it is in the business of preparing the best possible backup population of giraffes it can for that inevitable day when humans reduce giraffe populations in the wild by half, and then by half again, and then again, and then again—until that sad day when giraffes upon the African plains are but a memory.

Because that also is what humans do.

And if you don’t believe me, here is a list of animals that have become extinct in the United States in the past century.  Here’s a list of some projected extinctions in just the next decade.  And if you really want to get depressed, here’s the really big list of global extinctions since Columbus set sail across the ocean.

One thing is for certain:  Marius the Giraffe was a sacrificial creature.

Which is what all zoo specimens are essentially:  sacrifices for public awareness.  Sacrifices for human activity “out in the real world.”

We might as well be honest about that.

I would argue that such sacrifices are important—critical, even, on multiple levels.

What matters, however, is how zoos manage their sacrifices.  And the general public now has an inkling that the global zoological community is hardly in agreement on how to handle the matter.

While zoos seem to be doing their best, it is now time for the zoological community to join hand in hand with the public to do even better.

One thing is for certain:  my local zoo, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, of which I am a member, is about to get a letter from me about its own practice of culling.  It’s not going to be a nasty letter.  It is going to be a letter of inquiry.

I, as a regular zoo patron and member, must now hold my own local zoo accountable for the sake of animal wellbeing everywhere.

Animals lovers everywhere owe that to Marius, the Sacrificial Giraffe.


In “On Zoos” Part II, I will consider the history and evolution of zoos from ancient times to present.  In “On Zoos” Part III, I will conclude with an essay of personal experiences in zoos and what the future holds for zoos.

Postscript:  By the way, if you were wondering this whole time just what the heck a “camel-leopard” is:  when ancient Romans first happened upon the giraffe, they couldn’t make heads or tails of the beast, so they called it “camelopardus.”

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!


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