By Suzy Freeman-Greene
Zoos should be caring for their voiceless creatures, not killing the unwanted.
Blood seeped into the face of the freshly killed giraffe, as a man in a white boiler suit incised its honeycombed fur. A dappled leg was dragged off to the lions. Children in parkas looked on.
If the footage of Copenhagen Zoo staff slicing up Marius the giraffe was shocking, so too was their honesty about the matter. ''I'm actually proud,'' said zoo spokesman Tobias Stenbaek Bro, ''because I think we have given children a huge understanding of the anatomy of a giraffe''.
Given the tendency of other zoos to anthropomorphise their mega-fauna, his words sounded positively callous. Melbourne Zoo's website describes giraffes as ''seemingly the supermodels of the savannah''.
Being eaten by lions is presumably a common fate for giraffes in the wild. But the killing of young Marius last week seemed to contravene a basic requirement of a zoo - that it care for the voiceless creatures in its custody.
Marius' death invites questions about the status of zoos. What exactly is their role?
According to Robert Young, a British professor of wildlife conservation, contraception and sterilisation is used in most zoos, but the Danes have a policy against it. Marius was classified as ''surplus offspring'' because his genes were overrepresented in the European giraffe breeding program. Zoos breed animals as a ''safety net'' for endangered species. Genetic diversity allows species to adapt to changes in their environment.
Copenhagen Zoo's scientific director, Bengt Holst, told Time: ''We were open about it because we know [euthanasia\ was the right thing to do. If we're serious about science, we can't be led by emotion.'' But emotion is what draws us to zoos. We visit them, mostly, to be awed or delighted by an encounter with ''the wild''. Look at the hordes clucking over meerkats, or tapping on glass at the tiger enclosure, seeking eye contact with a lethargic killer.
The bigger picture here is that modern zoos have reinvented themselves amid debate over the ethics of keeping captive wild animals. They're not entertainers; they have a higher mission. Zoos Victoria, for instance, is now a ''zoo-based conservation organisation'' working to breed and reintroduce 20 local endangered species. This is great. But Australia has 96 critically endangered species. To save them, we need to change our behaviour: containing urban sprawl, tackling climate change, creating more wildlife corridors. It will take concerted government action.
In his essay Zoos Revisited, philosopher Dale Jamieson decries the ''moral schizophrenia of a culture that drives a species to the edge of extinction and then romanticises the remnants''. His words resonated on a recent trip to the Melbourne Aquarium. We queued to ogle penguins, eat hot chips, buy merchandise. We were marvelling at these creatures. Yet we have elected governments that are winding back measures to tackle global warming, which could destroy penguin colonies.
Melbourne Zoo is a haven (for humans) and Werribee Open Range a wonderful, natural zoo setting. ''Success for us does not look like animals in a zoo, success is animals in the wild,'' Zoos Victoria chief Jenny Gray told The Age last year. She was talking, it seemed, about saving local endangered species and it's a fantastic aim. But where does it leave the city zoo's giraffes, looming above their dusty, perfunctory enclosure?
The Danes favour a ''breed and cull'' approach because they regard procreation as important for an animal's well-being and think it better reflects life (and death) in the wild. Contraception, they say, can have harmful side effects. But there's something awkward about zoos claiming the moral high ground on behalf of science or conservation when their own activities can be questionable. Marius' killing is an extreme example of the power relationships inherent in zoos, highlighting the everyday moral quandaries. Science and ecology are part of the zoo story, but so are less lofty narratives.