What Marius represents


(Photo attribution: to be determined!)

(Cross-posted at The Moral Mindfield.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning. In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable. So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats. That, of course, is equally unacceptable. But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. First, they are finite spaces with finite resources for maintaining captive species populations of relatively constant size and genetic diversity; the only effective ways to achieve this are (1) birth control, (2) euthanasia, or (3) reintroduction of “surplus” animals to protected wild spaces (the latter being the most ideal, but – for numerous reasons – least likely option). Second, the zoos’ philosophy of captive management is strictly utilitarian; individual charismatic animals might lure in the paying public, but for the purposes of captive management, their value is in their genetic uniqueness, and only as it relates to the rest of the captive population. In the words of a spokesperson from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), “the giraffe Marius, unfortunately, cannot add anything further to the breeding program that does not already exist.” (I, for one, am glad my value has not been assessed by the same measure.) And in a CNN editorial defending the zoo’s actions, the Executive Director of the EAZA, Lesley Dickie writes “While we understand that some members of the public are upset by the euthanization of the giraffe at Copenhagen zoo, the protection of the species as a whole must be our priority” (italics mine).

The event also calls attention to a philosophical difference between European and US zoos concerning avoidance of captive overpopulation and inbreeding. Zoos in the US favor birth control, while European zoos more often euthanize – after letting animals reproduce and parent young. In a New York Times article two years ago, Copenhagen Zoo’s director of conservation said, “We’d rather they have as natural behavior as possible… We have already taken away their predatory and antipredatory behaviors. If we take away their parenting behavior, they have not much left.” It is true that manipulating hormones alters natural behavior and whatever remains of autonomy in captivity. Of course, so does euthanasia (or, as some zoo personnel refer to it, “management-euthanasia” – or as game park managers call it, “culling“) – in a decidedly more permanent way – after animals have been allowed a short but comparatively more “natural” life.

If these events and considerations bother some of us, perhaps we need to be thinking harder about the role of zoos in 21st century conservation and education, and the ethics of keeping animals in these settings. Attendance at US zoological parks and aquariums is higher than attendance for all four major league sports combined. Zoos have – you’ll pardon the pun? – a captive audience for education and outreach, and that is the often-cited rationale for their continued existence. Whether they accomplish education and attitude change in an empirically verifiable way remains open to question.

But zoos might also have a role in preserving the last of certain declining species. For example, without the breeding and reintroduction programs developed by the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos, the California Condor would be extinct. Do these trade-offs justify the unpleasant realities of captive species management? Would public interest financially sustain zoos that chose to function only as centers for the preservation and restoration of seriously endangered species?

In her CNN editorial defending the Copenhagen Zoo’s actions, Lesley Dickie points out that only five giraffes have been euthanized in EAZA zoos since 1828. She then puts that number in perspective for those protestors who might be expressing their outrage at the killing of a zoo giraffe even as they dine on beef or chicken: “Compare this to the 60 billion+ healthy, young animals killed each year worldwide for human consumption.” (For additional perspective, it’s worth noting that the “bolt gun” that was used to euthanize Marius is the same kind of device used on cattle in slaughterhouses.) Hinting at hypocrisy is a bit of a diversion (who knows? maybe all of the protestors are vegetarians), but now that she’s mentioned it: Why do those “livestock” animal deaths not raise the same degree of indignation in the public? Why is killing Marius to feed lions any different?

It’s not different. It simply points to the larger problem: the death of Marius is just one more example of how humans instrumentalize the value of animal lives.


Therapeutic links

We interrupt the seemingly relentless onslaught of depressing ecological news to bring you three happy links.

1) The Laysan Albatross nest cam.


(My “print screen” button is getting a lot of action.)

2) Truly happy cows.

3) Gorillas playing in leaves.  (The fun begins about 20 seconds in.)

Quick! Another good matching gift opportunity!

ImageI’m quite helpless when it comes to distinguishing the age or sex of a brown pelican, but that fine indeterminate pelican-being over there to the right, sporting the bright blue “K-15” leg band, was hanging out on the pier in Pacifica last winter when I wandered past with my camera.  The bright blue leg band means “K-15” was once a patient of  International Bird Rescue (and yes, I let them know where he/she was spotted!).  IBR is kept far too busy caring for seabirds that have been incapacitated by oil spills or leaks, sickened by algal blooms, injured by fishing gear, or malnourished by food shortages.  Sadly, they’re likely to have their hands full of starving seabirds again this year, given the crash in the west coast sardine population.  

Today, your donation to IBR’s rescue, rehabilitation, and research efforts will be doubled by an anonymous donor.  So, please,  go give!

(You can also help them when you make Amazon purchases through this link.)


Manatee hell

I can’t stop watching this video (hat tip Treehugger) – a timelapse produced by conservation photographers Cristina Mittermeier and Neil Ever Osborne.  How much more clearly can the typically solitary manatees say “go away?!”  And how much more intrusive and insensitive can humans be?  (Right… silly question.)  Does the Marine Mammal Protection Act ring a bell, people?  The “stampede” of manatees toward the end of the video was apparently triggered by a loud noise and occurs several times a day, according to coverage on io9.

Other links I want to share before they get old:

  • The answer to the question many of us have asked at one time or another (if you geek out on animal behavior studies and documentaries): yes, satellite tags, cameras, and other tracking devices might alter the “natural” behavior being monitored.
  • The same might go for bird song playback studies.  This is something that has long been debated by birdwatchers, some of whom who wonder – in addition – if playbacks and even “pishing” are unethical.  Pishing involves standing in bird habitat and stage-whispering the word “pish” several times.  The sound is thought to acoustically resemble “the alarm call of a small group of birds mobbing a predator,” and bird watchers (including this one) will occasionally resort to it to draw out a bird for a better view.  But in essence, we’re luring the birds out on a false pretense, and possibly distracting them from more important activities – like feeding, nesting, and avoiding predators.
  • Oil exploration in Virunga National Park, home to 200 of the remaining 700 or so mountain gorillas in the world.  World Wildlife Fund is trying to stop it.

On having your octopus and eating it, too

Octopus vulgaris; photo by Albert Kok, used under Creative Commons license.

Octopus vulgaris; photo by Albert Kok, used under Creative Commons license.

Mayer’s real offense may have been forcing a community to realize that just because they’ve embraced local fare doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ready to see, in gory detail, it slaughtered or hunted or punched out and dragged from the bay. [Marnie Hanel, The Octopus that Almost Ate Seattle]

Today’s special: octopus with a side of cognitive dissonance.  Read what happens when a young man legally hunts an octopus in full view of a public that apparently would rather not know how a local delicacy makes it to the menu.  Marnie Hanel’s feature in the NYT Magazine section is kind of a page-turner, and reminds me of another case of dietary disconnect I wrote about awhile back.  That post linked to a NYT story in which a chicken “producer” observed sagely, “Most of the time, people don’t want to think about how the animal was killed.”

Several years ago I co-taught an environmental ethics class at one of the member seminaries of the Graduate Theological Union.  The regular instructor for the course picked a different focal issue each year, and that year we chose “biodiversity and the moral status of animals.”  We were hoping to explore how attitudes toward animals influence attitudes about the value of biodiversity in general.

As the registration deadline drew near, we were dismayed to have just a handful of students enrolled, and a friend of mine offered to talk up the course among her seminary classmates.  After failing to persuade any new enrollees, she reported back to me that one of the comments she heard most often was, “I don’t want to spend a semester feeling bad about what I eat.”

Savor that for a moment.  The unspoken content of that sentence looks something like this: “I acknowledge that animals have (some degree of) moral status, but I also like eating many of them.  I have so far not had to admit the eventual incompatibility of these cognitions, and I’m afraid your class will make me do that.”  Where to begin?  Oh, hey… I know where!

As long as I’ve got you here…

  • I’ve been meaning to blog this since I read it last summer.

    “Cosmetics manufacturers use these micro beads, or micro exfoliates, as abrasives in facial and body scrubs. They are too tiny for treatment plants to filter, so they wash down the drain and into the Great Lakes. The biggest worry: fish such as yellow perch or turtles and seagulls think of them as dinner. If fish or birds eat the inert beads, the material can deprive them of nutrients from real food or get lodged in their stomachs or intestines, blocking digestive systems.”

    Please make sure you purchase exfoliating scrubs made with pumice or corn meal or apricot husks or some other biodegradable material that won’t end up accumulating in the stomach or intestines of birds and fish!

  • After I saw this photo feature in Outdoor Photographer magazine, I ordered Krista Schlyer’s book, Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall.

    Since prehistoric times, people have always migrated from one place to another to find what they need to survive. In this respect, humans aren’t much different than wildlife. And, while a wall ultimately doesn’t stop people from crossing a border, it does stop wildlife from finding what they need to survive.

    I will post a review of the book in the not-too-distant future, and if I can track down Ms. Schlyer online, perhaps a virtual interview, as well.

  • A moose “die-off” – likely due to climate change.  (Which reminds me, read it and weep.  Then do something.)
  • (Administrivia: I’m not loving the way this template displays text.  I might experiment with a few other looks in the coming weeks.)

Stranger than fiction

Blue-footed booby/Photo credit "kilobug," used under Creative Commons license

Blue-footed booby/Photo credit “kilobug,” used under Creative Commons license

I have been trying to finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior since I bought it last January.  The problem is not with the book – which I love; the problem is that I allot about 12 minutes/week for pleasure-reading, and there are a lot of titles vying for that time slot.

But Flight Behavior – which tells the story of a freakishly misplaced monarch butterfly migration – is the first thing that came to mind this week when contributors to the emailed daily birding digest I receive began reporting blue-footed booby sightings on the San Francisco coast.  That’s incredibly cool, but also incredibly weird.  These are Central and South American coastal birds.  A story in the LA Times speculates that they are heading north in search of food.  And of course, that’s getting harder to find.

While we’re on the topic of ocean health:

  • Read this Seattle Times feature, and watch the corresponding video, on the acidification of the Pacific Ocean.
  • It’s been 2.5 years since the terrible earthquake and tsunami that struck the coast of Japan and damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  And in that time, the plant has been leaking 300 tons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean every day.
  • Watch the trailer for “Midway: a Message from the Gyre,” and then let’s all donate to the production fund, to get this movie finished and into circulation, where it needs to be.

Testing, testing…

Update: 9/22/2013. Well, that was a slow start.  Let’s try again, shall we?

New blog (though I’ve been sitting on the address for nearly a year) for me.  All eco-/bio-/animal and environmental ethics-related.  I’ll keep the other stuff corralled on Left at the Altar, though the occasional cross-post can be expected.  Let’s see if I can actually juggle two blogs at once.