The killing, skinning and dismembering of a healthy two-year-old giraffe named Marius in front of child and adult spectators at the Copenhagen, Denmark zoo has haunted me for days. I am still trying to sort out my visceral feelings about this, and trying to understand and share the public outrage and concern on all sides of the issue.
Like hospitals, zoos deal with matters of life and death every day as they win some and lose some. Unlike slaughter houses and butcher shops whose goal is to kill, however, zoos have a fundamental commitment to fostering and preserving life. They are not chartered to offer biology classes that teach anatomy through dissection. So the recent event with Marius surprises and shocks to the core.
Now I will be the first to claim my disingenuousness, since someone had to kill a healthy animal for the burger I ate last week. I like to pat myself on the back for choosing as much as possible to eat only free range, organic meats and vegetables, but someone is still doing the dirty work for my table behind closed doors. But even this may not be the central reason I am feeling so uncomfortable and so outraged at the decision taken by the administration of the Danish zoo.
The fact that some parents applauded the zoo’s display does not make it right: parents in the United States also exposed their children to the public lynching of African slaves and later citizens; Inquisitors tortured and killed alleged infidels in gruesome public rituals, and it is likely that well-to-do citizens of Rome gave their children the opportunity to watch early Christians and other dissenters being fed to the lions for sport. In these instances the sport put on display were human beings, even though some were not accepted as such at the time.
Fast forward to the present. Many children and adults who visit zoos are enamored with all sorts of animals, and are rooting for both the large cats and their prey, which in the wild might include giraffes. Visitors typically come to be uplifted and enlightened, to experience a warm moment, not to watch a sweet young animal slaughtered, skinned, dismembered and fed to the large cats who are also captives of the same zoo. In the process of writing this piece I looked again at some of the images of the children and adults witnessing the scene: some were fascinated and appreciative, while others were clearly disturbed. In one image a young girl had turned her back to the scene, but still found herself watching in horror.
What a shock! I was not physically present, watching edited clips from more than a continent’s distance away, and yet I was horrified. Like me, some of those children and adults will remember and be marked by that moment for the rest of their lives.
The most telling issue for me centered around the zookeeper’s comment in one of the videos: “See, it’s just meat!” The missing component in the decision to do this deed was the way in which any and all aspects of human and other animal consciousness were ignored. How can a giraffe have consciousness? Who assumes that the big cats have no idea they are eating their cellmates, and that this meal for some reason does not taste like the others? What about the sibling giraffe forced to witness this horror, essentially alone? After all, it’s only meat. I have watched birds and rabbits and elephants gather and grieve the loss of one of their group, whether hit by a car or eaten by prey. I have seen animals stop and acknowledge that this is their moment to die as they face off their predator, perhaps in the service of the larger ecosystem.
Furthermore, there is clearly a pecking order regarding the value of a life. In an article in the newspaper India Today, Bengt Holst, the scientific director of the zoo was quoted as saying, “”I know the giraffe is a nice looking animal, but I don’t think there would have been such an outrage if it had been an antelope, and I don’t think anyone would have lifted an eyebrow if it was a pig,” said Holst.
In my worldview we are all connected: human, non-human, predator, prey. The event was shared at a cellular level by everyone who participated whether physically present, reading about it, or watching video clips. It was a different sort of execution story, one that reminded us of our distinctive human nature when compared to four-legged animals, and of our failure to recognize that we are indeed part of, not masters of nature. I will add that I feel the same wrenching feeling each time I learn or read about state sponsored executions of human beings through application of the death penalty or mob violence. Are human beings “just meat” too? We are being “culled” too, more often than not based upon fallacious eugenics theories about the relative value of certain human lives as compared to others.
That young giraffe was not “just meat.” While its awareness may not necessarily mirror our own (who knows for sure?), it was nevertheless a conscious being that in its two short years had perhaps come to trust its captors, and may have been more shocked than any that its regular humans would personally kill it based on possibly flawed genetic understandings. As for the other creatures remaining at the zoo and the brouhaha that ensued in this case, how could they trust again, and what will happen down the road when animals large and small begin to rebel in unusual ways?
When a cow is raised on a beef farm, I imagine that its awareness must be different from one raised on a dairy farm with a different life and production cycle. Likewise, being raised on a chicken farm for meat must carry a different vibration and expectation from being raised on an egg farm, which depends on the chicken’s staying alive. I believe – and I may be totally and anthropomorphically crazy – that all consciousness knows the context of its existence on many levels, whether expressed as a one-celled paramecium or a billion-celled mammal.
What that zoo did in the killing of Marius the giraffe was no different from triggering something like the earlier outbreak of mad cow disease. A few years ago it was discovered that vegetarian cows were being given cow by-products as feed: in essence they were being forced to become meat-eating cannibals in order to lower the costs and boost the profits of the companies that traded in beef products. Mad cow disease was a metaphorical, and perhaps literal rebellion that alerted the world to the plight of these animals. The PBS documentary Blackfish raised similar awareness regarding the plight of killer whales maintained in captivity for the entertainment of aquarium visitors.
Returning to the story of the giraffe, however, the large cats at the zoo were fed the dismembered giraffe. Where is the ethical breach in that, if any? As far as we know, they were not being fed the body parts of other cats, but of animals that are natural prey in the wild. The good intention was to avoid waste and to provide natural feed. And yet there seems to me to be something a little unseemly about that in this particular situation.
In my opinion, and I have no scientific proof to back up my claim, there is something about captivity that binds all these creatures together in this particular multi-species drama called a zoo. Just as warden and prisoner are bound together as one, as well as master and slave, zookeeper and zoo animals are inextricably connected, regardless of species.
It is possible that the giraffe event was an acting out of pathology, not a scientifically “neutral” biology class or a so-called “normal” zoo experience, if there is such a thing. This giraffe did not have an opportunity to run with other giraffes and attempt to escape from a hungry cat who helped maintain the strength of both herds. Nor did the cats have the opportunity to hunt their food and revel in their mastery. Their food was dragged to them from across the compound, and the giraffe was shot like fish in a barrel. This is not nature, and those acts were not natural.
This event certainly reminds me of my responsibility for the killing of animals that I eat,whether or not they die by my hand. At a deeper level, however, it also reminds me of the dilemma involved in eating literally anything if it is true that we live in an aware and elementally interconnected universe. I may as well have been present in the room for the last moments of that giraffe’s life, for just knowing about it adds to my local experience in some way. Frankly, I wish I had missed the story altogether, and yet I was drawn to click on it in my news feed, as I am often drawn to one story or the other. In so doing I, too, must take responsibility for the lives saved or taken, the rescues made or failed, the news that is good, bad, and all too often ugly: just as ugly as the killing of this young, gorgeous, vibrant giraffe.
Perhaps the giraffe staged a political protest in his own way, sacrificing his life for the edification of group consciousness. The face of that giraffe will haunt me all my days. Whatever it was, Marius the giraffe was never “just meat.” Not even close.
This week I am still eating meat and fish and vegetables. Will I become a “breatharian” next week, unable to eat anything at all? Hard to tell but right now, in this moment, that suddenly sounds like an option. Then again, is plain air any less conscious than fish or beef or giraffe or plant or fruit? Maybe, maybe not. What’s a person to do??? Perhaps becoming aware is a first step…
Written on 11 Feb 2014