Copenhagen Zoo, Edutainment, and Public Ethics

Attention conservation notice: I’m not going to make an animal rights argument; instead, I’ll give you a public interest argument. I’m sad they killed the giraffe, for a bunch of reasons, but I am mostly sad at our inability to come together about important global environmental problems in a meaningful way.

The Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark recently killed Marius, a baby giraffe, this week, despite widespread outcry, and then butchered it in public and fed it to the zoo’s lions.

As one can imagine, there is quite a bit of public commentary. This piece from PolicyMic gives a good overview of the scientific rationale for killing the giraffe. The online support for the killing draws on various logics:

1) We kill animals for food all the time; lions eat meat, humans eat meat, why do we care about this particular giraffe? Those lions are getting fed pigs and other animals slaughtered for their benefit, why is this different?

Pigs aren’t an endangered species. Giraffes are.

2. But lions eat baby giraffes in the wild. This is natural.

Yes, they do, but in the wild, people with bolt guns don’t kill a giraffe, butcher it front of an audience, and hand feed it to lions in another enclosure. Human fingerprints are all over this practice. It’s perfectly legitimate to question the human agents at work well as the priorities reflected in the choices they made.

If you are, in fact, interested in the natural relations between giraffes and lions, you should probably focus on habitat preservation rather than zoos.

3. It’s important to show kids where meat comes from.

Denmark has farms. It also has abattoirs. The world is not so full of giraffes. You do the math. If you really want kids to know where meat comes from, show them. It isn’t done humanely or in a sanitary way, like Marius’ death, unfortunately. That’s reality. This is a staged event that has little to do with human food systems except that Marius was made of flesh and flesh is meat. You could do the same with a specimen of a non-endangered species.

4) This is a scientific problem, and we shouldn’t be guided by emotions. (The quote from the zoo’s scientific director in the PolicyMic piece basically claims this.

Oh, how very 1940s and 1950s of you.

Ok, that was snarky, and I know that plenty of people walk around thinking that scientific questions are not moral questions, but those people are what I like to refer to as “completely wrong.” They remind me of libertarians and communitarians who think that “society” and “self” come in distinct little packages like your dried noodles and flavor pack in a Ramen. Precious few questions undertaken in science–I can’t actually think of any–get to divorce themselves from the ethical and moral context of the world they exist in.

In this case, Marius was deemed to be genetically less important than other giraffes who might have his place. I have no doubt that genetics is hard science. Adjudicating what is “important”, however, and our role in determining what is genetically important? Those are social and moral questions within the community of geneticists and subject to scrutiny among the whole of humanity, which has a stake in the survival of an endangered species. It’s not an easy answer either way; if Marius was not particularly important and preserving him at the cost of letting a more important specimen die is just as much of a choice as the choice they took in killing him. But let’s not pretend that the latter has no subjective value judgments embedded in it, either.

If there is one thing we have proven with science, it’s that we don’t escape ourselves with it. It can expand us, enlighten us, and better us, but at the end, it is always a part of, not above or outside, the society in which it is practiced.

Moreover, this was a cost-benefit decision, not a hard science question, and so blowing smoke up people’s fannies about “hard science and emotion” is not going to fool anybody. If somebody had come up with an $800 million donation to save Marius, it’s more than a little likely that he would be galumphing his young adulthood merrily away in a new enclosure at the zoo. Please stop treating us like we’re stupid just because we are not geneticists. We can understand what tradeoffs are.

So Copenhagen Zoo sold plenty of tickets for zoo-goers to come ogle at little Marius when he was tinier and cuter. Now that he’s not as little and cute, and his maintenance is going to cost real money, and he is going to take up real estate, the spreadsheet says it’s time for him to go. That’s what controlled this decision. Not the sort of hard science that makes objects fall when you drop them. You can still argue that killing Marius was the right thing to do, given resources, but pretending it’s not a money-value discussion is disingenuous. This is a judgment about value. Period. Be prepared to detail it.

Why? Because cost-benefit analyses are most insightful when they ARE debated, contested, and detailed, in depth, in dialogue with people who have an interest at stake in the decision.

And that’s the part that really rubs me the wrong way. I am an animal lover, and my default is to let things live whenever we can, but even I can understand why there is a question here.

The Copenhagen Zoo’s public stance, however, has very much been “This is our giraffe and our decision.” Instead of opening up a dialogue about *exactly* the issues raised in the PolicyMic piece, the Zoo marched forward on its own schedule. There was, after all, some bloodsport/educational butchering meant to happen as a big event, and we wouldn’t want the spectators disappointed. There is a great deal that is unseemly about the butchering as zoo showmanship even as they call it educational. Did nobody watch Blackfish? But that strikes me as rather small onions compared to the apparent assumption that members of the world community have *no business* telling zoo managers about the value they place on Marius. You do not get to hold a special status as a custodian of globally relevant genetic material and animal life in the name of the global public and then turn around and tell the global public to piss off when it has feelings about the values in play.

Given more time, another arrangement might have been made for Marius–or more people might have been brought around to the scientific director’s thinking. But the zoo wasn’t having any of it; throughout, it was THEIR giraffe, THEIR decision, THEIR “educational” event that they prioritized. Some of the backlash has reflected quite a bit of Danish nationalism in play, like how dare those American and British ninnies judge us? I’m pretty sure that international visitors and donors contribute substantially to this zoo, as do international foundations and governmental coalitions. Yep, the zoo did what they have the legal power to do. But whether it is right is still another question. (Ask Socrates the next time you run into him.)

My guess: the scientists involved are convinced that giraffes are going to be extinct in the wild sooner rather than later, and their one hope is that zoos will be able to preserve enough genetic diversity in captivity to retain the species. Given that Marius and his kind are doomed and we already have his DNA on tap, we might as well as kill him, cut him up for edutainment, and get as much play of out of it as possible and hope that we get another, nonrelated giraffe to bring more genetic diversity to our conservation efforts.

That discussion strikes me as way, way too important to keep on the down low while you slaughter a baby giraffe and whine that the world is judging you. Yeah, the world may be in an uproar, but engaging with that uproar–instead of pushing ahead on something that was a nonemergency–is the duty of both public institutions and scientists that would hold they have a special role to play in conservation. They have may started this discussion with killing Marius, but I doubt it. It looks far more like that specimens of endangered species are disposable in the zoo business. Well then.

Here’s some Dr. Benton Quest because the whole damn thing makes me sad: