The Death of a Giraffe

 In Animal cruelty, Conservation, Flagship species

You’d be forgiven to think there would be more pressing matters to report on than the death of a giraffe, but last week Copenhagen Zoo got itself into all sorts of interesting trouble by euthanizing Marius, a two year old healthy male giraffe. They then dissected it publicly before feeding the remains to the lions.  And then, predictably perhaps, the internet absolutely exploded.!Things got out of hand right from the start with the zoo staff labelled as evil murderers, online petitions were signed by tens of thousands to sack Bengt Holst, the director of zoo, and numerous death threats were received by zoo staff.  

The very calm response by Copenhagen Zoo, that the giraffe was euthanized because there wasn’t room in the enclosure and the joint breeding program of EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquariums) had established that allowing the giraffe to breed would lead to inbreeding – was completely ignored, together with a number of other facts, most notably that the giraffe would almost certainly die if it had been repatriated to the wild and that contraception for giraffes is very sketchy at best. Also, as it was quietly remarked, giraffes aren’t considered endangered.

It’s hard to argue that the herbivores with their beautifully bizarre long limbs aren’t fascinating. And they have such big brown eyes with lovely, lovely lashes.  However, giraffes aren’t endangered, and I’d argue that their eyes aren’t any more cute than those of cows – and cows, we of course readily turn into hamburgers – by the million.

What relevance does this hold to scuba divers or to a marine conservation project in the Philippines? – well, quite a bit actually, because the way many people got worked up  over the case, the media coverage, and the momentum this case gained on social media highlights some very important lessons on human perception of animals.

For most of us, our interest in protection of animals (as well as preservation of species) isn’t based at all the actual state of endangerment or what particular role the animal has in ecosystems. You’d think these things would be important, but time has shown us that in order of importance – to be considered worthwhile to protect – an animal would possess a number of these characteristics:    cute, graceful, furry, mammal or be very large. On the other hand, an animal that is scaly, slimy, insectoid (sans pretty butterflies) or lacking locomotion has got a very poor chance of garnering any human interest or help.

This idea of importance based on arbitrary perceptions built on human alienation from nature, Disney productions, and anthropomorphized notions about animals is very evident in Marine Conservation, where there are numerous programs focusing on saving flagship species such as sea turtles, whales or sea horses. While saving these species isn’t unimportant at all – we might just all spend our energy better by focusing on bigger issues. Such as – say, fishing policies and global warming, because – at the end of the day, If we lose the war, then any small battles won’t matter.

Returning to Marius, the unfortunate giraffe. If you’re interested in what Bengt Holst, the science director of the zoo remarked about the whole case on English Channel Four News, you may see the interview here. If you feel an urge to slam your head against something at 06:10 we completely understand…

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