A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Of Marius, Zoos and Prince William

marius-giraffe-021114Bengt Holst is bewildered. He can’t figure out why everyone is so upset about his zoo knocking off Marius the giraffe.

Holst is the science director at the Copenhagen Zoo, and it all makes perfect sense to him. He’s like the super-logical, totally insensitive husband who can’t understand why his “irrational” wife only gets madder when he tries to explain his latest dumb remark.

“A giraffe is not a pet,” he told reporters. “It’s not like a dog or cat that becomes part of the family. We do it to ensure a healthy population. It is a wild animal.”

As if that explains it.

Despite his long eyelashes and soft eyes, Marius was “surplus”. If he had been allowed to live, the zoo would have risked inbreeding. Holst has all his answers ready: why they couldn’t neuter Marius; why they wouldn’t send him to another zoo or wild animal park; why all kinds of things.

What the public doesn’t understand, of course, is that for the zoos, the animals themselves are not the priority. The priority for any zoo is the health and welfare of the zoo. Just check out some of these other comments from Holst and his colleagues:

“Giraffes today breed very well, and you have to choose and make sure the ones you keep are the ones with the best genes.” Holst.

“Zoo breeding programs have produced enough of some sub-species.” (Which is why we need to kill the surplus ones.) Joerg Jebram of the European endangered species program for zoos.

Moving Marius to a wildlife park that had offered to take him would have “taken up space for breeding herds. It does seem harsh, I know, but we have to manage it.” Dr. Lesley Dickie, exec. dir. of European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA).

The space at that wildlife park “should be used by a genetically more valuable giraffe.” Holst.

The EAZA, like its American cousin the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is a trade association. It acts on behalf of and for the benefit of its member zoos, and it fulfills a watchdog role only to the extent that mistreatment of animals may reflect poorly on the other member zoos.

When zoos talk about “conservation”, it’s primarily about the conservation of zoos. When zoos talk about “conservation”, it’s primarily about the conservation of zoos.

It should be no surprise that Holst can’t understand the public outrage. After all, the Copenhagen Zoo kills up to 30 animals every year, and there’s never been much complaint about that. It’s what all zoos do as part of “managing their populations.”

So Marius, like other surplus animals, was fed to the lions.

longleat-louisa-cubs-021114Ironically, and speaking of lions: Just across the English Channel at the Longleat Safari Park, an entire family of lions was also killed a couple of weeks ago. Louisa and her four cubs were put to death in order to “manage their populations,” too. (Where was the outrage at this?)

Hunters playing at conservation

Even more ironic, the very same day Marius was killed, Britain’s Prince William went on TV with his father, Charles, to launch their new campaign “Let’s Unite for Wildlife.” They’d invited delegates from 50 countries, including four African heads of state, to London to discuss the plight of wildlife

william-sandringhamThe irony is that two days earlier, just before the conference, William and brother Harry hopped a flight to Spain for a quick weekend killing spree at Spain’s most prestigious hunting ranch, a 34,000-acre estate with its own train station. The estate is owned by William’s godfather the Duke of Westminster, Britain’s third wealthiest man, and William is a regular there. On last year’s visit, his party bagged, in addition to boar and antelope, 740 partridge.

In his own way, William is quite passionate about some kinds of wildlife. In particular, he gets choked up over the plight rhinos in Africa. It’s all in the tradition of other royal hunters, like his grandfather Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who is both a hunter and President Emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund. Likewise, King Juan Carlos of Spain was President of WWF’s Spanish branch – at least until a photo of him with the elephant he’d just killed caused international outrage last year.

Just before the conference, William and brother Harry hopped a flight to Spain for a quick weekend killing spree.So, how do you put all this together … conserving giraffes and lions by killing them … crying over rhinos while bagging boar? Presiding over the world’s foremost wildlife charity while killing the animals for fun?

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. It’s how it all works. Conservation is not primarily about the animals themselves; it’s about ensuring the survival of the species. So wildlife conferences like the one this week in London have agendas like agreeing on quotas for how many of a given species can be “taken” without the species becoming endangered. And then the patrons (the King of Spain, the British royals, and other wealthy celebrities) can “support” conservation efforts by getting a license to kill. (Corey Knowlton’s $350,000 license to kill a rhino will help support Prince William’s rhino conservation efforts while each of them is killing animals on different continents.)

Queen Elizabeth (center) with Prince Philip (left) on a hunting expedition in India in the 1950s.

If you want to understand William’s logic, just listen to what he says in the video message he and his father delivered to the world as they opened their conference (the full video is here):

Prince William: “My father and I hope you share our belief that it is shocking that future generations may know a world without these magnificent animals and the habitats on which they depend. This year, I have become even more devoted to protecting the resources of the Earth for not only my own son but also for the other children of his generation, too, to enjoy. I want them to be able to experience the same Africa that I did as a child. It is, of course, even more important for each child growing up in countries where these animals live. It is nothing less than immoral that they are losing their birthrights to fuel the greed of international criminals.”

Prince Charles: “It is my profound belief that humanity is less than humanity without the rest of creation. The destruction of these endangered species will diminish us all.”

No, no and no again! It’s not about us and our children. These animals don’t exist for our benefit. They’re not “resources” to be protected so they can be “enjoyed”. They are not our birthright; they are the birthright of their own families. 

Certainly we don’t want to pour cold water on any effort to protect any animals anywhere. But what William and Charles are talking about, as are all the zoos and other conservationists, is making sure that these species survive so they can be “enjoyed” as the “birthright” of humans. As always, it’s all about us – and only about making sure we don’t kill so many that there are none left for our children to enjoy.

That’s the logic of the people who killed Marius, too. It was never about what’s best for this young giraffe – any more than it is for any of the animals at zoos, circuses and marine “parks”.

Anyone who thinks these animals exist for our benefit can never be part of the solution to the mass extinction that’s now underway. They are, instead, a major part of why this mass extinction is unfolding.