In Marius’ Honor

By Trisha Crowe

A moment of silence for Marius the giraffe, and then…..What?

Boycott the Copenhagen Zoo?

Boycott ALL zoos?

I say let’s rally around something we can agree upon….that the mistreatment or exploitation of any species is not ok. The difficult thing is that how each person defines these terms is a highly personal decision. It is based on the innumerable messages we get as we grow up about what is right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, and how we either feel or are taught about other living organisms.

As a self-professed animal lover I personally was stunned to see Marius’s story in the headlines. Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of “animals are just like humans”, vs. “animals are here only to serve us”, I think we can agree that most of us do not want to see a healthy two year old giraffe killed and then publicly skinned and fed to lions. In our cultural views the Copenhagen Zoo’s handling of this issue has been an abomination, no doubt. But now what?

Based on reaction I have seen online, many people are ready to reject zoos altogether. I can understand this sentiment because there was a period in my life when I decided that I did not want to go to zoos anymore. Instead of feeling happy, uplifted or educated it seemed like I always left zoos feeling sad for the confined animals (from this point I will use “animals” loosely to represent all zoo and aquaria species).  I thought the enclosures were mostly too small and too sparse, there weren’t enough enrichment opportunities for animals to play or exhibit  natural curiosities, and on top of all of that some animals didn’t even get to leave the confines of their “holding areas” (I saw these as concrete cages) very often.

Flash forward; it took me almost 10 years to realize that the decision I had made to stay away from zoos did not do one bit of good for any animal anywhere. I realized that zoos are not going away. In the United States, zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have higher attendance per year than all major sporting events combined.  And did I really want them to go away anyhow? No, what I wanted was for them to be better.  I decided that the right thing to do was not to ignore the problem, rather see what I could do to improve things. With this goal in mind I enrolled in a master’s program in landscape architecture. I did my thesis on zoo exhibit design with an eye on contributing to the design and construction of better enclosures and holding areas.

My revised attitude towards zoos has taken me a long time and has not always been easy; however since 2006 I have met with dozens of zoo and aquarium professionals who have given me a world of valuable time and a lot of insight. I have talked with keepers, horticulture staff, directors, COO’s, CFO’s, education staff, marketing staff, designers,   and development and membership staff.  While these people all have different educational backgrounds and varying views on animal “rights”, every single person I have met has had at least this in common – their love of wildlife and their desire to make a positive contribution to their organization and its occupants.

After having all of these conversations I realized that my past view of zoos was based on a very limited sample size and little real information. What challenges do zoos face? Why do they take the actions that they do? I really had no idea and unfortunately this made me mistakenly clump every negative act of every individual at every zoo into one category – bad.

What I have learned over the past ten years, however, is that zoo professionals are out there working hard to make positive changes. Within the past thirty years we have come a very long way. While in the 1970’s I had a lot of fun throwing marshmallows and peanuts to the elephants at my local zoo I am much happier to know that species diets have been well considered and are contributing to healthier animals. The 1980’s saw a widespread acceptance and execution of the use of more naturalistic enclosures. Enrichment opportunities – things like big blocks of ice with frozen treats inside or design elements which allow for an animal to exhibit their naturalistic behaviors – have grown into their own field of expertise. The psychological well-being of animals is now at the forefront of zoo keepers and administrator’s minds, so efforts have increased to address stress-based or “zootypic” behaviors such as animals pacing. But here’s the thing, change cannot happen overnight. And it cannot happen without passionate people letting their voices be heard.

I once felt helpless to do anything that would make any difference at all, but I eventually decided that my way to try and make a difference was to get my degree in landscape architecture and become a member of AZA. Now I am also trying to raise awareness that what zoos really need the most right now to continue their transformation into the kinds of institutions we want them to be is our support.

Regardless of your current impression of zoos they are a valuable resource and carry valuable messages to the public. They connect humans to wildlife in an up-close and personal way not otherwise possible. With increasingly dynamic education they foster participation in global environmental initiatives and help create a public concerned about the future of our planet, and wide-ranging conservation programs aim to preserve a vast variety of species in their natural areas. Zoos and aquariums are some of the only places left where a kid would rather look at what is in front of them than what is on their phone or computer screen.

So today I implore you, don’t dismiss all institutions. Become a member at an AZA-accredited zoo you have confidence in to show your support. Volunteer at your local zoo or aquarium. Write a letter when you are bothered by things you see. Get involved with a wildlife conservation initiative that you believe in. In the case of Marius the giraffe, write the Copenhagen Zoo an email voicing your concern.

Change cannot happen without us.

Trisha Crowe has been a team member in Pittsburgh, PA-area businesses focusing on design, planning and environmental issues for over 10 years. Trisha’s passion – and primary reason for completing her Master’s of Landscape Architecture in 2010 – is zoo exhibit design.

9 thoughts on “In Marius’ Honor

  1. Marius has ignited the world’s imagination & I can only hope his flame burns long & bright in the public spectrum. Born in captivity, deprived of a natural life on the savannah & betrayed by his keepers, literally shot in the back of the head while being fed a treat. Then dismembered in front of school children.

    This happened under broad public protest & petition where about 22,000 individuals from around the world expressed genuine concern for this two year old male giraffe whose genetic were deemed undesirable. As well, there were public & private offers to take Marius, but the zoo claimed it could not repatriate Marius because the receiving party (at least the private one) could not guarantee he would never be rehomed or sold after that.

    Marius is only one of an estimated 7,500 zoo animals just in Europe alone, facing this fate. He was a great beauty, a public darling & was fed to the lions, apex predators, in an artificial scenario. I’ve read that lions don’t actually eat giraffes as wild predators, but I’m not able to assert that with certainty.

    In nature, we expect predators & prey to interact in the circle of life. That circle is interrupted when animals become captives. Zoos serve many diverse purposes. Prey animals are deprived of the protection of the herd & the vast distances in which they can accelerate & turn. Predators are deprived of the act of hunting & honing their skills.

    We accept the compromises of zoo habitats forced on the animals in order to enjoy the benefits zoos provide to stakeholders- research interests, the public (who by the way fund these programs unless the zoo is private), educational interests & quite frankly, biodiversity itself as humans have rather handsomely depleted the planet of viable, healthy wildscapes where animals can enjoy real animal lives free of poachers & other human hazards.

    Prey & predator interests must be addressed & balanced in captivity. Carnivore & herbivore alike must eat.

    However, it is a disastrous abuse of the public interest to breed giraffes only to feed them to the lions after charging admission to see them cavort about as babies. No, they are not pets. But they are not farm animals, either. Humanity’s grotesque tolerance of the seriously evil practices of modern, industrial factory farming are only one indication of how twisted our relationship to nature has become. Probably only a fraction of the other 7500 animals on death row plus an unknown number around the rest of the world have viable rehoming options as alternatives to meeting a similar fate, practiced quietly like euthanasia goes on at animal shelters around us on a daily basis. As are billions of male chicks are thrown into shredders, discarded in favor of females who then enter a cycle of terrible unconscionable abuse. Yes, I will grant an exception to those farmers who raise animals humanely.

    My point is, the predator in this story isn’t a lion. It’s us.

    Rather, it is Copenhagen Zoo Director Bengt Holst (who should be forced to resign). A man who has made a living off the backs of animals his whole life, yet had zero recognition that the public interest IS the overwhelming interest when an animal, deliberately bred like Marius was (by the way, they’re killing Marius’s brother giraffe as well) offered special consideration from concerned parties & offered a home. This man was actually confused as to why there would be any public uproar at all about one silly little giraffe whose genes weren’t useful. Yet he was fed & exhibited for two years, then dismembered in front of horrified children as a “learning opportunity.”

    I don’t think the world had quite the takeaway that Mr. Holst supposed it would.

    And really, I think Marius resonated so loudly not only because of his compelling beauty, but because the image of giraffes as exotic zoo animals goes into our brainstems as infants, on sets of blocks & in books & stories. Just as the marketing for our meat & dairy shows happy cartoon drawings of cows frisking, chickens strutting & pigs smiling, the reality is rather something else. Something we would prefer not to think about.

    In the town I’m from, a single elephant was kept on a concrete floor for over 25 years in a small cramped exhibit. When, after many years she was finally relocated to a zoo in Washington, DC she would not step out of the trailer onto the grass because she was unfamiliar with the feel of grass.

    We owe the animals in our care better dialogue, better rules. If zoos are claiming “circle of life” on Marius, they should curtail their breeding programs accordingly. It was easier to simply eliminate him.

    Marius deserved better. And so does the public. I feel that it is highly unethical to breed Marius, exhibit him (& sell tickets) based on having baby giraffes then kill him under public protest when other options existed. However, the mask is now off.

    Zoos are important. They will sadly be even more important in the future as climate change wipes out even more viable habitats. It is critical that zoos be heavily discouraged from trafficking in exhibiting baby animals, then slaughtering those animals. If animals cannot be expected to live out the natural terms of their lives, maybe zoos aren’t the answer & expanded wildlife refuge areas are preferable.

    In closing, thank you for a thoughtful essay & for weighing in as a thoughtful professional with a lifelong concern for animals.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to respond Holly. There are so many valid points being discussed around this event and you address many of them. I, like you, hope that this event remains relevant to the public. I am not certain that will happen given our culture of 24 hour, 7 days a week (did I mention 800 channel?!) news cycle….but that is a topic for another day!

  3. A good essay that shares what I think is a very communal perspective. The ideal living space for animals is in their natural habitats, roaming free and living the circle of life that is predator and prey. There is nothing natural about an animal being born in captivity and relying on humans to help maintain its existence.

    However, zoos have a tremendous opportunity to provide a window to the animal world that humans may not otherwise experience. Children who visit a zoo can be inspired to at the very least ensure that animals receive the respect they deserve.

    But zoos also have an obligation to the animals that inhabit their facilities. Zoos are obliged to treat that animal with the respect it deserves.

    The story of Marius is a sad one. The silver lining- albeit it a very slim one- is that people are talking about it. Let’s hope the dialogue continues.

  4. Other than Wild Safari recently (bad idea – not a bad place, just the same bad feelings for me), i haven’t set foot in a zoo in a decade. I now have a child but i am still unsure i want to expose her to this. I would rather wild is left wild and she understand that THAT is where wild animals belong. I will take her to sanctuaries instead, where i can explain that these animals are only there for the reasons they are – not because they have been kept in captivity their whole lives simply for our enjoyment.

  5. Trisha, thank you for getting to the very root of this important issue. It is up to US….and we have the responsibility to our animals and our children to create the kind of lovely animal/human environment that you obviously envision. I am grateful for animal-loving visionaries like you. thank you.

    • Virtual zoos only push us further from Nature, making animals into “concepts” instead of breathing, smelly, vivid presences we can care about. Articles such as the one in the above link focus on zoos as “prisons” and do not address the situation of wildlife around the world and how to conserve it. In short, they take it on faith that zoos are incarceration and ignore the mission of zoos. Zoos exist for purpose. Until that is addressed more effectively, then zoos are a vital piece of the conservation discussion. The efforts put towards eliminating zoos would be better directed towards eliminating the threats to wildlife in the wild. Solve that human-made problem and a new concept of zoos will sprout naturally.

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