Marius the giraffe is dead, killed last week in Copenhagen Zoo and then dismembered and fed to lions in front of a crowd of parents and children. Prior to this almost unbelievable public execution, many people visited him in the captive abode he was born in. Perhaps they fed him and marvelled at his slender neck, impossibly long legs, distinctly patterned coat and prehensile athletic tongue. His slow, ambling gait, and wide, quizzical eyes might have struck them as endearing and gentle, although as a young male reaching sexual maturity he might well have grunted and snorted at them like any other teenager!
A sub-Saharan African mammal from grassland and open woodland environment, in his natural habitat Marius would have lived a fairly solitary existence wandering between female herds to mate, keeping an eye out for predators, his long neck reaching high among the tree tops.
But Marius was not free from predators in his captive environment. The people he had trusted all his short life in Copenhagen Zoo were predators of a different kind, you might call them wolves in sheep's clothing. Lured with a piece of rye bread, did Marius know, when the vet raised the bolt gun, that this was it? Marius's knees buckled, his majestic form crumpled underneath him, his bowels loosened, and his tongue lolled uselessly to the side. The light went out from his eyes. What about the children who witnessed the subsequent 'autopsy' of Marius? What went on in their minds when they saw his dismembered head lying on the ground, and a distinctly spotted carcass being fed to the lions? "Not one child went away crying" reported the zoo director. Maybe not, but some of their innocence and their belief in the goodness of human beings was eroded that day. The violence done to Marius, whatever the zoo director says, was also a violence done to the children brought in to watch.
The sad case of Marius the giraffe highlights two approaches when working with animals, that is between conservationists and welfarists. In the conservationist view it is the species, not the individuals, that are important. Most scientists take the conservationist approach. Marius had an over-represented gene pool, and this is what the Copenhagen Zoo directors were focusing on. They even refused offers of other zoos to take him because they couldn't get an undertaking that he wouldn't be bred. Neutering him was also out of the question, because of "side effects". Welfarists, on the other hand, think of the unique, individual animal who, it must be said, doesn't care if its species is facing extinction. "I am not just a gene pool any more than you are" Marius might have protested, "I am a sentient being, my life is important to me, and I don't want to die".
Marius could not run away with his long legs, nor could he hide from the gun. This was not a fair fight. When humans interfere with the natural order it is always in a posture of dominance and control, and with a sense of entitlement that we can do what we want with Nature and with other animals. But animals are not ours to do what we like with - how many more must die because we consider them our possessions? To be human is to recognise that the light in the eyes of our fellow animals is reflected in our own, and when we condone the spilling of their blood, we also die a kind of death; of morality, empathy and compassion. It is time for us to stop imprisoning and slaughtering animals just because we can. Until we begin to have this debate openly and seriously, then Marius should become the face of all zoos.