When Marius became meat

Some say Marius had a nicer life than most of the hamburgers we eat. He wasn't the first giraffe to become tucker for big cats and his death was less cruel than would occur in the African wilds.

But the healthy 2-year-old's killing wasn't the direct result of nature, red in tooth and claw. And it certainly wasn't an event that had the international community linking arms for a rousing chorus of The Circle of Life.

It was administered at Copenhagen Zoo, because Marius' frankly undistinguished genes were already over-represented in the zoo's breeding programme.

In defiance of massive social media campaign the young bull giraffe was killed and then a crowd, including children who were there on a PGR basis, was invited to watch the subsequent dismemberment for scientific interest, before the meat was fed to the zoo's captive carnivores.

Copenhagen Zoo, you will be astonished to learn, is now in high odium and its officials are being excoriated in what might seem a case of clear-eyed science coming up against misty-eyed sentiment.

Perhaps it's not quite that simple. A bit of quite weird zoo politics has come into play as well.

Obviously the prospect of a small community of increasingly inbred giraffes is to be avoided. Castration was deemed to have too much effect on his quality of life. Contraceptives have until very recently required sedation - apparently quite a risky business when something with quite so much neck hits the ground, and there's a risk of renal failure as well,

Even isolating him from the females would mean he took up resources that could have gone to a useful breeding male.

It turns out the killing was in line with the guidelines of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, whose rules also confounded attempts from two potential saviour institutions wanting to take responsibility for the imperilled creature. Unhappily, one was deemed not to be able to meet inbreeding-protection standards and the other couldn't guarantee that Marius wouldn't ever be sold.

Selling, see, is a no-no. The philosophy, if you want to call it that, is that the zoos are not owners of the animals so may not sell them.

This gives rise to a kind of Kafka-esque situation. Copenhagen Zoo did not "own" Marius, so couldn't sell him or even give him away to a potential seller, but was at liberty to kill him. So, technically, he died free?

According to zoo director Bengt Holst, between 20 and 30 animals are put down in similar fashion every year. The firestorm of reproach this time stems in part from the fact that precious few of those critters would have been as adorable as Marius. In hindsight the we-have-nothing-to-be-ashamed-of bravura which led to the public being invited to witness the chop-up made things all the more problematically vivid in the public mind.

Said Holst: "If we're serious about science, we can't be led by emotion."

Yes, but take that thinking too far and you create a charter for vivisection and eugenics. If scientists are serious about public support for their programmes, they can't entirely discount emotion, either. Particularly when it's tied to the approach that people must take all reasonable steps to avoid unnecessary killing. Whether the zoo - and by extension plenty of others - satisfied on that basis is now the subject of pointed inquiry.

Call it emotion or call it morality, but zoos ignore it at their peril.

The Southland Times