The Death of Marius: A Step By Step Analysis

By Christie Wilcox | February 14, 2014 11:35 am
Marius, post-mortem, pre-necropsy. Photo from the Associated Press

Marius the Giraffe (post-mortem, pre-necropsy). Photo by Peter Hove Olesen/The Associated Press

A lot of internet outrage has been directed at the Copenhagen Zoo in the past week after they euthanized a young giraffe  because his genes were too common. From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of misconceptions about what happened, and a lot of hyperbolic statements are being thrown around about the event. The different decisions made by the zoo are being mushed together to tell one nightmarish tale, with adjectives like  “barbaric” and “cabalistic” used to describe the so-called “entertainment.”

But did the zoo really just hack a baby giraffe to bits to amuse its (clearly deranged) visitors? Let’s start from the end and work our way back to the beginning of the story.

 

The Giraffe Meat Was Fed To The Lions

Many people are upset that the remains were fed to the lions. But let’s be clear on one thing: lions are carnivores. That means that every meal they eat requires the death of another animal. There are no alternatives (not that are healthy for the lions, anyway). They cannot thrive on a vegetarian diet. Period. If it wasn’t giraffe meat, it would have been cow, pig, or sheep meat. So, if a zoo has 250 or so pounds of healthy, fresh meat—from an animal that lions eat in the wild, no less—what else should they have done with it? Let it spoil, throw it away? Why not let the animal’s death be beneficial to other animals at the zoo? It’s important to note that Marius was more than just food for the lions. As a new food type with novel sights, smells and textures, he served as enrichment. Though many have accused the zoo of providing visitors with barbaric entertainment, in reality, the entertainment was for the lions, enhancing their quality of life in captivity. Any other use of the meat would have been wasteful and a disservice to both the giraffe that was sacrificed and the other animals at the zoo.

 

Marius Was Necropsied In Front Of Guests

Perhaps the most venom has been directed at the zoo’s choice to necropsy Marius in front of paying visitors. Denise Cummins accused the zoo of “butchering an animal for entertainment” in Psychology Today, calling the event “nothing more than a canned hunt-blood sport.” In particular, many, like Jane Velez-Mitchell from HLN, have zeroed in on how the necropsy was performed “in front of an audience of children.” “That sends a horrible message to kids that violence toward animals is OK,” she stated.

First off, the giraffe was not “butchered” in public. The necropsy was performed behind the scenes, so it was far from a spectacle. Guests were notified of the event, and invited to witness it if they wished—which many did, from the crowd portrayed in the photos that have been circling. No one of any age was forced to see the dead animal being dissected. As for those kids that watched? They were chaperoned by their parents. Whether a giraffe necropsy is appropriate for a child to see is that child’s parents’ choice, not the zoos’—or yours, frankly. The idea that the necropsy was particularly disturbing because children were allowed to view it unfairly villainizes the zoo staff, and honestly, it’s downright insulting to the parents and guardians of those children (and to the children themselves, in my opinion).

But perhaps more to the point, was the necropsy a “butchering” for entertainment? Absolutely not. The veterinary staff at the zoo took a painstaking three hours to dissect the animal, the entire time discussing anatomy with the onlookers and answering their questions about giraffes and other animals, the necropsy process, and veterinary science in general. That’s not butchery—that’s a biology lesson.

Most high school students in the United States are taught anatomy with the assistance of dissection. The animals used as teaching tools vary from worms or frogs to fetal pigs or even cats. My freshman year, my classmates and I cut into a fetal pig to learn about tissues, organs and organ systems. I distinctly remember fearing the dissection before it began (I didn’t think I could even go through with it). But I learned more about anatomy from that dissection than I ever could have from a book or a lecture. As an undergrad, I was fortunate to score an internship with the Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Mammal Pathology Lab in Saint Petersburg, Florida. One of my most vivid memories from that time is of a manatee necropsy. It was fascinating. While so many of their tissues are similar to ours—heart, lungs, muscles—the arrangement, size, and shape are just so… different. Seeing animals firsthand, alive and dead, inspires a deep and lasting appreciation for how incredibly complex and diverse the life on this planet really is in a way that videos and photos simply can’t rival.

There are alternatives, but according to most biology teachers, dissection is essential. The National Science Teachers Association in the US is clear on this point:

NSTA supports the decision of science teachers and their school or school district to integrate live animals and dissection in the K–12 classroom. Student interaction with organisms is one of the most effective methods of achieving many of the goals outlined in the National Science Education Standards (NSES)…

NSTA supports each teacher’s decision to use animal dissection activities that help students

1. develop skills of observation and comparison,

2. discover the shared and unique structures and processes of specific organisms, and

3. develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of life.

Upwards of 80% of US biology teachers use dissection in their classrooms, and they’re not alone—dissection is common in biology classrooms around the world. In a survey of Canadian biology teachers found that 87.5% either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Real animal dissection is important to the teaching of biology,” and more than half agreed that “there are no substitutes for real animal dissection.” When prospective biology teachers in South Africa were asked about dissection as a teaching tool, more than 90% agreed that “dissection is an effective way to study the anatomy of an animal”, and three-quarters disagreed “dissection is unnecessary in biology education because one can find all the information in a textbook”. This is in spite of the fact that more than half had negative reactions to their first dissections as students. As far as the effect of these dissections on the teachers, cutting into animals didn’t turn them into callous, animal-killing robots. Almost 2/3, in fact, said that dissecting animals for teaching/learning purposes increased their respect for life.

I’ve never seen the insides of a giraffe, but if I had been at the Copenhagen Zoo last Sunday, I would have been one of the visitors who chose to watch the necropsy. I would have done so not out of some twisted penchant for blood or butchery, but out of pure and simple curiosity. And isn’t that the goal of educators everywhere—to foster natural curiosity, to make others want to learn more?

As I said on twitter, I applaud the zoo for performing the necropsy in such a transparent way and seizing the opportunity to offer their guests a unique (and optional) educational experience. The Copanhagen Zoo isn’t the only institution in the world that culls animals on occasion, whatever the reason. When animals die or are euthanized at most zoos and aquariums, they’re disposed of behind closed doors. The fact that the zoo was completely open about what they were doing and used the opportunity as an educational experience for their guests is commendable.

And for god’s sake, the kids that were present weren’t innocents wantonly exposed to a traumatic experience or serial killers in training—they were students given a once-in-a-lifetime anatomy lesson. According to CNN, the kids asked good questions, and seemed to get a lot out of the experience. To construe a scientific necropsy as fracturing the children’s fragile minds or teaching kids to kill animals (or people!) is beyond ridiculous.

 

Marius Was Euthanized With A Bolt To The Head

Let’s dispel the rumors right now: Marius wasn’t killed with a shotgun, or a handgun, or any regular gun. The veterinary staff used a penetrative captive bolt, killing him instantly. Some have cried out about how “inhumane” this method was—and when opposed, not-so-subtly suggested that I receive a bolt to the head to see whether it is humane. Such dramatic responses are disturbingly common. The zoo has received several death threats. There is no ambiguity here—this is abhorrent and inexcusable. I don’t give a damn if you think the zoo was wrong; threatening the lives of any of their staff members is appalling (not to mention disturbingly hypocritical). Personally protest the zoo, create petitions to get key staff fired, fine—but talking of killing any person, however culpable for the decisions regarding Marius, is intolerable. Anyone who thinks that the murder of any human being is justified by anything that occurred at the zoo needs serious psychiatric evaluation. Full stop.

Anyhow, I stand by my statement on twitter that the vets used an appropriate and humane method to euthanize Marius. As someone who has had to justify methodologies for the death of vertebrates to an institutional committee on the ethical use and care for animals, I know an awful lot about what veterinary boards see as ethical and humane euthanasia. In general, the criteria are obvious: the quicker the better, to minimize suffering. Painless, if possible. Scientists conduct entire studies to determine if euthanasia methods are humane, and a bolt to the head is considered one of the most humane. Across diverse animal lineages, any method that quickly severs brain function is universally approved, even preferred, because it’s faster and less distressing to the animal. Would it really have been better for the staff to slit Marius’ throat and wait for him to bleed out? Or poison him so that his death took minutes instead of a less than a second? Whether or not you agree with the zoo’s choice to euthanize Marius, once his death was decided upon, a bolt to the head was one of the most humane ways for the staff to have done it.

 

The Staff Decided To Euthanize Marius

This is truly the heart of the issue, and one worthy of close examination. The zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, has vehemently defended the decision to euthanize Marius. Here are the facts:

  • Marius was healthy and could have lived much longer
  • Marius was 18 months old, the age that male giraffes go out on their own in the wild
  • Marius was a part of a captive breeding population under the EAZA’s European Endangered Species Programmes, with limited space and funding
  • Marius’ genetics are such that he could not contribute productively to that program, and his offspring would be detrimental to the overall population

What do these facts tell us?

From a conservation standpoint, keeping Marius intact as a breeding member of the population was not a good option. Captive breeding programs seek to maintain not only a certain number of animals, but also enough genetic diversity to ensure that the population is viable for the long-term. Genetic diversity is important because it ensures that the population can adapt to change like climate fluctuations or novel diseases. It’s fairly silly to put money and labor into a breeding program that doesn’t have enough genetic diversity to ensure the population is viable in the future.

It’s important to note that the ultimate goal of breeding programs is to preserve species, not individuals, and if resources are limited, the requirement of genetic diversity inherently means that these programs have to make decisions as to which animals are allowed to reproduce.

That said, there are options besides euthanasia that could have been implemented to prevent Marius from contributing to the gene pool, the most obvious of which would have been to remove the parts required for breeding. Giraffes, like horses, can be castrated (gelded). Without the equipment needed to produce and deliver sperm, Marius would have been effectively removed from the breeding population. Castration is a common method of controlling population—for example, animal shelters neuter stray dogs and cats all the time.

However, when it comes to giraffes, gelding isn’t a perfect solution. Yes, it allows the animal to live—but there are questions as to just what quality that life is. There are the risks of serious surgical complications, including chronic infection, but even successfully completed procedures have lasting effects. Gelding removes not only the reproductive parts, but also the parts that produce hormones that affect the entire animal. This is why gelded horses are calmer and better behaved. The decrease in these hormones certainly affects behavior, and it can lead to health problems down the line.

Marius could also have been relocated in such a way that he was kept separate from fertile females. There certainly were offers from other zoos, and Marius could have been housed elsewhere. But the Copenhagen Zoo, as a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, could not give him to a non-member institution. EAZA members are held to a certain standard of welfare quality that isn’t necessarily met by non-members. Furthermore, EAZA membership is contingent upon the animals staying in captivity and not being sold into another life, so if the Copenhagen Zoo had given Marius to a non-member zoo, he or his offspring could have become circus animals or hunting trophies. There were, of course, EAZA member zoos offering to take him—this is where the real tough decision-making occurred.

Marius could have been sent elsewhere and lived out his life. However, shipping large animals is far from cheap, and in general, the places that care for giraffes have limited money and space. Relocation aside, even if he wasn’t at the Copenhagen Zoo, Marius would have taken a valuable slot that could be allotted to another giraffe. When such slots are few and far between, how do you decide which animal gets them? Do some individuals matter more than others?

I don’t honestly have a great answer. I sympathize with those who see it as a tragedy that this young animal’s life ended. But I also see it from the zoo’s practical standpoint. Marius’ continued existence would have taken away precious resources from giraffes that have more to offer in terms of conserving the species as a whole. In this case, the Copenhagen Zoo decided that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the one. I don’t think it was an easy decision to make, nor a completely unassailable one. But it is one that has been defended by conservation organizations, veterinarians and biologists, and I defer to them.

Lesley Dickie, the Executive Director of the EAZA, stated unequivocally that she and the organization “strongly support Copenhagen Zoo, which has an exemplary record of animal welfare, education, research and conservation.” While the EAZA understands why so many were upset by Marius’ death, Dickie believes it was the right choice. “EAZA members do not euthanize animals lightly,” he stated. “Alternatives were explored, and none were found to be viable; in addition, EAZA’s position is supported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).”

“Conservation is not always simple,” she told CNN. “It’s not always clean”

 

Marius Was Born

If Marius simply had to die because of his genes, perhaps there’s a more important question that needs to be asked: why did the zoo allow his birth in the first place?

It’s a good question. The short answer is that the Copenhagen Zoo has a no-contraceptives policy (and animals like to copulate).

Such policies are certainly controversial. In the US, most zoos use contraception all the time to manage populations. Contraceptive practices are managed and monitored by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But the Copenhagen Zoo strongly believes that mating and raising offspring are vital to the overall mental and physical health of captive animals. Furthermore, they cite the inherent risks of contraception.

Contraception—particularly methods like castration—can require anesthesia, which can be dangerous and even deadly for the animal because, like people, anesthesia is inherently risky (and even more so for a large, unpredictable animal). For this reason, many zoos are skittish of such procedures. However, as veterinary science has improved over time, less invasive methods have been developed, including injections much like those used by women. There is a method for giraffes that uses a dart to deliver Depo-Provera, and in the US, many giraffes receive contraceptives in their feed.

Contraceptives aren’t always effective, though. There has been at least one case of a giraffe giving birth after receiving Depo-Provera, the second-most commonly used hormonal contraceptive in ungulates. In addition, there are safety and quality of life questions surrounding contraceptives. The use of birth control can lead to infections or even cancer, or in milder cases, serious behavioral issues and destructive behavior

Ultimately, though, the Copenhagen Zoo’s policy on contraception is philosophically based. The Copenhagen Zoo has a moral stance on the act of mating, and believes that to deny animals their natural breeding urges is fundamentally wrong. That the zoo has this viewpoint is certainly not news—a 2012 New York Times article includes quotes from Bengt Holst clearly expressing the zoo’s opinions. “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible,” said Holst. “We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” In the same article, he says that the zoo euthanizes 20-30 healthy exotic animals every year. 

“Some zoos professionals object to the use of contraception based on the belief that preventing animals from mating and raising young deprives those animals of a fundamental and enriching part of life,” explains Ingrid J. Porton in the book Wildlife Contraception. “These zoo professionals argue that it is wrong and even hypocritical to emphasize the the importance of developing enriched captive environments that facilitate performance of natural behaviors while at the same time advocating the prevention of natural reproductive behavior. This view holds that all social aspects of mating and rearing offspring are of overriding importance to the well-being of captive animals and to prevent this experience could be considered unethical.”

In the eyes of the Copenhagen Zoo, the humane death of surplus animals is an unfortunate but minor cost when compared to lowering the quality of life for all of their animals through contraceptives. So long as the animal’s life is good up until the moment of death, the zoo believes it is acting morally responsibly. In this moral system, how long or short  a life an animal has is of much lesser importance.

American zoos have a very different viewpoint. “By preventing the birth of animals beyond carrying capacity, more animals can be well cared for,” says Cheryl Asa, Director of Research Saint Louis Zoo and the AZA’s Wildlife Contraception Center. As she explained to the NYT, Americans are more willing to accept contraception than euthanasia.

 

So were they wrong?

My goal isn’t to convince you that the zoo’s choices were sacrosanct. Ultimately, whether or not you believe the zoo was wrong to kill Marius—or to let him be born in the first place—is a personal choice. Just don’t be drawn in by the hype and really think about the issues at hand before you decide. This wasn’t the senseless murder of a baby animal, and Marius’ body wasn’t gruesomely paraded around for the amusement of the zoo’s unhinged guests. It was a messy, complicated conservation decision—and I, for one, don’t envy the people like Holst who have to make these kind of decisions every day.

 

Some other GREAT posts on Marius & the Copenhagen Zoo:

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Conservation, Marius, Zoos
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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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