A message to callous mankind: Life is valuable in itself

opinion February 20, 2014 00:00

By Apisak Chuachan, Vanda Phatoom

The killing of a perfectly healthy young giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo raises disturbing questions about how we value non-human lives

After receiving its favourite meal for the final time, Marius, an 18-month-old male giraffe, was shot dead with a bolt gun. A crowd of visitors, including children, watched as the carcass was skinned, chopped up and fed to the lions, tigers, polar bears and other animals at the 
“It would be absolutely foolish to throw away a few hundred kilos of meat,” Dr Bengt Holst, Copenhagen Zoo Scientific Director, told the press.
Did Marius have to die?
Copenhagen Zoo has limited space and resources. There were eight giraffes at the zoo, all female except for Marius, whose common genes made him useless for breeding. The zoo decided to prevent inbreeding by euthanising the young healthy giraffe to ensure the best genes were passed down for the long-term survival of the species. 
Earlier, news of Marius’s plight had sparked a surge of protest. Thousands of people signed an online petition appealing for a change of heart, offering alternatives to save the creature from death. 
Couldn’t the giraffe be released into the wild? 
Dr Holst explained that Marius, born and raised in the zoo, was used to being fed. In the wild he would have been easy prey for other animals; euthanasia was the humane solution.
If the concern was inbreeding, why not castrate Marius? 
Holst explained that castration is cruel, painful and would leave the animal suffering for the rest of its life; it would be more humane to kill it.
Could Marius have been rehoused at another zoo? 
The UK’s Yorkshire Wildlife Park heard about the planned killing and contacted Copenhagen Zoo to offer a new home for Marius, but never received a response. Robert Krijuff, head of the Wildlife Park in the Netherlands, also called the zoo with a last-minute offer, but Holst turned it down. 
Holst told the BBC that his team culls some 20 to 30 animals every year. Copenhagen Zoo now houses only giraffes with the best genes, he said, adding that the Yorkshire park’s space could be better used for a “genetically more valuable giraffe”. The director was standing by his principles and nothing could change that. 
“Castration leaves the zoo with less space for giraffes with good genes … If we’re serious about science, we can’t be led by emotion,” said Holst, after the autopsy and the butchery. 
I am not an animal rights activist, but I found this story deeply troubling. A giraffe being euthanised is not a global crisis, but it is a frightening reflection of the callousness of humans who value animals’ lives so much less than they do their own.
Euthanasia to control healthy animal populations is understandable. I have no objection to the shooting of deer or the killing of kangaroos if that’s what has to be done. When there is no other option, that is acceptable. 
But in Marius’s case, other options were available. There were offers of adoption, with transportation expenses included, but instead Holst insisted on killing the young giraffe. 
Marius might have been born and raised under Holst’s authority but that gives him no right to decide on its life and death. What right did he have to take away a life that people were begging to salvage?
Holst killed because he is used to killing and, to make matters worse, he broadcast it to the world. Numerous animals are killed each year and to him, one more makes no difference.
Holst might indeed have the legal right to dictate the life and death of animals under his care, but morally he committed a crime.
Let’s look at it from a different angle.
If your house is full of pets – dogs, cats and birds both male and female – and someone tells you they are afraid of inbreeding and asks to kill them all, would you agree?
I think not. There might be thousands more dogs, cats and birds in the world but yours are different. They are special. At least you have named them. 
What if you and your wife have a house full of kids and someone tells you to beware of inbreeding. Would you shoot your flesh and blood for the sake of the long-term survival of your species?
Life does not always have to be perfect. Life is valuable in itself. If only Marius could speak, he would probably say the same. 
That is the reason we insist that Dr Holst and his like are dangerous. He works with animals, yet he sees no value in their lives. If he doesn’t love animals, he shouldn’t work with them. Holst might as well work in a slaughterhouse rather than a zoo.
The destruction of Marius has badly affected Copenhagen Zoo, the city and Denmark in the eyes of the world. 
Marius was not the only one to die this month. Our respect for Denmark died with him. 
Those that killed it are Dr Holst and Copenhagen Zoo.