One giraffe creating a world of hysteria

Hysteria: Exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement. How one Giraffe sparked millions of reactions, whether they were for or against the killing of Marius the Giraffe in Copenhagen zoo. I first saw the article, shared by a friend on facebook as the story went viral, not quite realising just how widespread and controversial it would become. My first reaction was that it made sense in the breeding program, as the Giraffe was not genetically suitable for breeding due to too many similarities with other giraffes on the program, and that it was great the death had been used to demonstrate and educate about the wonders of a giraffe to engage fascinated children and adults. But then again, I know about the truth behind the zoo “curtains”.

Backstage, it has become a lot more scientific in zoos, moving away from the pure entertainment it used to be: following breeding programs, providing ‘sanctuary’ for endangered species, educating the public, and providing opportunities for research on the animal species (behavioural, genetic, etc) including filming opportunities for documentaries. However, this involves strict control of the species being housed. There is limited space available for animals and they must therefore be genetically viable for breeding within the constraints of having a relatively small gene pool across the individuals in captivity. Also, keeping animals within close quarters of one and other provides logistical space constraints.

To demonstrate this reasoning, recently (around the same time the Marius story was publicised), Longleat safari park in the UK euthanised 6 lions due to issues with violence after a 40% rise in the population.  1 lion (a male named Henry) was euthanised due to injuries incurred from violent behaviour from other lions. Then 5 more were put down after conclusions of “associated and severe health risks.” These were a female (Louisa), and her 4 cubs. After this, a further 5 lions were relocated to reduce the population. Taken from a statement on the Longleat facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/longleat), posted on 10th February 2014, and from the official statement on their website (http://www.longleat.co.uk/longleat-statement), the lions were euthanased due to the following reasons:

  • Henry was euthanised after being severely injured following a fight on January 7th 2014.
  • Louisa was believed to have neurological problems due to poor nutrition in her past.
  • She had one litter of cubs which died, then conceived again soon after unbeknownst to the Longleat keepers and staff.
  • The second litter of cubs, although they survived, had the same neurological problems as their mother.
  • The lineage of Louisa was then researched, finding cases of moderate inbreeding 5-6  generations prior to her birth. Therefore, inbreeding is believed to be the consistent cause of defects in Louisa and her cubs, after ruling out other possible causes.

Arguably, this could have been stopped with a more thorough investigation into the lioness’ history when she first arrived at the park. In my opinion, thorough investigations should be made into all of the new animal’s history and lineage before arriving at the parks and zoos. This means that breeding would not take place if it is genetically unsuitable or space is limited, working towards removing the need to euthanise healthy animals.

However, in light of all this information, I still believe that the public reaction was quite hysterical. I do realise that this is mainly due to the fact that people do not know what actually happens at zoos (I am not suggesting this is morally right, however). They create the opportunity to see some amazing creatures, which the majority of people may not see in the wild. However, humans in general have become blind to what happens in the world outside of their small bubble of family, friends, and work. Maybe, this opportunity should be taken for people to learn about zoo breeding programs, to formulate a sound opinion rather than jumping to conclusions and creating an argument about how horrific the killing of a young giraffe was.

I agree, the killing of the giraffe was unnecessary. There were open offers from others zoos and private ‘collectors’ to take in/buy the healthy, young giraffe. The more I have thought about it, the more I have come to realise that the actual issue is zoos themselves. They have always been there for entertainment, as a business, to make profit. Some zoos, therefore, may see their animals as commodities to do with as they please. Although this has lessened a lot over the years, and keepers genuinely care for their animals, some people may view profit gained from animals “on show” as wrong. Following this, if zoos can decide to an extent what animals they kill, this can be a very negative aspect. Also, if the birth of “unwanted” animals could be prevented it should be. SO the real question for me is: Can genetics of offspring be well enough predicted to also predict whether or not it will be genetically viable? Also, are the breeding programs being monitored as rigorously as stated?

Having looked at the negatives of zoos, in my opinion, the positives outweigh them in our current situation: species rapidly becoming under threat and endangered. Due to our own doing, humans have destroyed, divided, and replaced natural habitats. This has obviously had devastating effects on the ecosystems. Therefore, arguably, we have a duty to protect the species as best we can now. This involves ensuring survival of species, which in turn includes helping to create genetically viable populations. Zoos provide controlled conditions which are an efficient way to breed those genetically viable populations. The animals can then be released to breed in the wild to boost the populations and the genetic variation in them, as well as supporting in-situ projects. For example, the Aspinall Foundation (Howletts and Port Lympne) is committed to conservation work, including their pioneering gorilla project in Africa that rescued and released over 50 gorillas, as well as having bred them in the UK and released them on their African reserve (http://www.aspinallfoundation.org/conservation/conservation/overseas-conservation-work). This is an excellent example of successful conservation work completed by a zoo organisation. Therefore, I see the value of zoos overall, but there are still issues which need to be resolved in terms of the responsibility zoos have in breeding animals. They should the care for and protect those animals for the duration of their lives, whether that be on the premises it was born, or sending it to another home if necessary. Another major factor for zoos is the education. This includes providing a wealth of information, filming, and research opportunities, opportunities which may not be available in the wild habitats. I think it was an amazing experience for children and adults to see a giraffe autopsy, albeit after a questionable death. They asked questions, and got to learn a lot, so the death was not ignored or hidden as many zoo deaths/killings are.

Personally, part of my interest in animals was developed when my family took me to zoos and wildlife parks as a child, as well as watching documentaries. This led me to this point, where I have studied conservation and volunteer with conservation/environmental projects, and writing this blog. However, it still disheartens me to see wild animals cooped up in relatively small enclosures, especially when they are showing stereotypic behaviour such as pacing.

This incident, however, has also shown for me how the general public can have very narrow vision in terms of importance of world issues. The story of Marius the baby giraffe being killed is one of the most viral stories ever. I feel there is no perspective; yes this was a bad decision made by Copenhagen zoo, but if you’re going to be angry and offended by the killing of an animal, what about all the mass-produced animals, which are kept in awful conditions and sometimes slaughtered in horrible environments to feed the worlds greed for meat? Those stories don’t go viral. What about the rainforest which is cut down every single day? Those stories don’t go viral. Having said that, hopefully the cry of outrage will get zoo keepers to take future decisions on life and death of their animals more seriously. I wish this level of outrage, and publicity of it, could be targeted at issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline or fracking, for example.

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