Terra Incognita: Marius: Denmark’s shame

Marius touched many of us. But it was more than the seemingly senseless murder of a healthy giraffe that caused outrage; it was the spectacle with which it was carried out.

A crowd of people look on at the Copenhagen zoo after the giraffe Marius was killed. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A crowd of people look on at the Copenhagen zoo after the giraffe Marius was killed.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘His misfortune is to be male and subject to requirements under rules governing the European breeding program.” That was the explanation the BBC report provided as to why an 18-month old giraffe named Marius was killed with a bolt-action rifle by the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark this week.
The killing prompted worldwide outrage, particularly on social media. Media outlets, especially in the UK and US, offered up analysis. “Did Marius the giraffe have to die?” asked Time Magazine. The Chicago Tribune noted that “a zoo violates common sense and compassion.” CNN explained “why arguments for killing of giraffe Marius don’t stand up to scrutiny.”
Marius touched many of us. But it was more than the seemingly senseless murder of a healthy giraffe that caused outrage; it was the spectacle with which it was carried out.
After being shot, images showed the animal’s body being dragged in front of school children, carved up and then thrown to lions. The savagery and dull acceptance with which an audience of children and some adults watched, with cold calculation and, in some cases, awkward fascination, shocked many of us.
We were then subjected to the “cultural” explanation that always comes along when savage acts offend us. Lesley Dickie, the executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, explained to CNN that “conservation is not always simple; it’s not always clean.” Then she noted that this is “normal in Danish culture.” Bengt Holst, the zoo director, claimed that “it was not by accident that people came here [to watch]” what he called a “necropsy” or autopsy. Dickey explained, “They strongly believe that the public should know how autopsies are done, what is the work of a vet in the zoo.”
It isn’t by coincidence that the killing raised specters of a dark European past. Author Joyce Carol Oates noted on Twitter “still can’t comprehend why the Danish zoo killed the beautiful young healthy giraffe. Yes they had ‘reasons’ – so did Nazi doctors.” There was something too cold and callous in the language the zoo director used; “that is a consequence of the way we manage our populations, for us it is important we have a sound population now and in the future which is part of the international breeding program, and the program must ensure the population is sound and genetically sound for many years and that can only be done if you make sure the right animals get together to avoid inbreeding.”
The BBC interview interjects here: “Couldn’t you neuter him?” Holst responds, “We can do that but then it would take space of other genetically valuable animals.”
Many Western media, despite the outrage, did not actually show graphic pictures of the carving up of the animal in front of children. By contrast Russia’s Gazeta showed numerous photos. They shock the senses. One shows the vet carrying out the autopsy, slitting the dead animal’s neck as, mostly young Danes hold cameras to film it and look on with macabre interest. In another photo he has cut off the bottom of the leg and held it up for all to see.
Children as young as four or five appear in the photos.
The totality of the oddities; killing a healthy young graceful giraffe, bringing children to watch, and the Dr.
Strangelov-like intonations of the officials; were what astounded many.
And the cold expressions raise disturbing questions.
Where is the humanity? The weeping, the shock, the turning away? I’ve been present at the ritual slaughter of an animal, and it is not an easy thing to witness; even if it is an essential thing to understand where our food comes from. When I was five living at the rural lodge my family ran, dad made me hold a flashlight so that he could aim a shotgun to kill a raccoon that was terrorizing and eating our chickens. He told me later that he used the gun because he had been so shocked the first time he tried to kill a raccoon with a mallet. Shock, even in killing an animal that in this case was harming other animals. Shock and humanity must be part of the human condition.
And they seem to have been oddly lacking in this Denmark case.
Consider the numerous levels of illogic that went into the senseless death: A Yorkshire Wildlife park said it would take the animal, but the zoo was determined to reach for the rifle. “It will cause inbreeding,” was the response. But would it? The population of giraffes is quite large. Was there any evidence that the giraffes in Yorkshire were genetically close to the one in Denmark? Other places that volunteered were ruled out because they had “lesser standards of welfare.”
Consider the “logic”: It is better to gun down animals than to let them live in an institution with “lesser standards.”
What shocks us and makes our hair stand on end is the feeling that this is the consequence of faceless bureaucracy. Some of us secretly worry: is this how large state institutions would also view humans if not curtailed? Would we be put down and culled because we take up too much space and we need to make room for the “genetically valuable humans”? Is that a stretch? Didn’t Nazism and Communism seek, in the 20th century, to impose this blind, inhuman approach on mankind? To “rationalize” us, and remove the “unwanted populations”? Anyone who has seen giraffes in the wild or near wild, such as a large wildlife reserve, knows the value of them.
The excuse that one must be killed to prevent “inbreeding,” or merely so it doesn’t have to live in a non-European environment, does not hold up to scrutiny.
The insane desire to bring young children in to watch the carving up of an animal cannot be understood. We who were outraged illustrate our fundamental connection to nature and humanity. As Shakespeare wrote, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”