By Ian Parker
The New Yorker
In 2014, not long after Marius, the giraffe, was shot in Copenhagen, a British zoo professional had a conversation with Bengt Holst, the Copenhagen Zoo’s scientific director and the public face of the zoo’s euthanization and dissection polices. As the Briton recently recalled, he began by asking Holst, “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Zoo directors in the United States and Europe have a recurring obligation, largely unknown to people who run art galleries and amusement parks, to explain to the public that their institutions deserve to exist, and aren’t sad, and will still exist in thirty years. The oddity, and arguable unkindness, of displaying animals that are prevented from doing much of what they do in natural settings—breeding, hunting, walking from here to there—has to be discussed and defended, even on days when public attention isn’t drawn to the issue, as it was by the death of Marius, or by the death, in May, 2016, of Harambe, a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. Harambe was shot and killed after it picked up a three-year-old boy who had climbed inside its enclosure. The child recovered from his injuries. (Harambe has had a strange afterlife, as a shorthand joke about Internet sensations—a meme about memes.)
The modern defense of zoos tends to refer to four achievements: education, conservation, scientific research, and the societal benefit of getting people out of the house. Much of this is often packed into a single claim, which may be true even if it is unsupported by good evidence: zoos are said to cause people to value wild animals more than they otherwise would, thereby improving the survival prospects of threatened species.
A modern zoo hopes to tell a story of refuge and empathy. So a giraffe’s dismemberment, observed by unsmiling children, suggested a counternarrative, and one that carried a particular risk of public-relations contagion. Giraffes are easy to like—in part for seeming so unassuming about their height advantage—and the international zoo industry couldn’t dismiss the Copenhagen Zoo as a renegade operation. Following Marius’s death, Holst, a sober-looking white-haired man in his early sixties, appeared frequently on television, talking steadily about education, conservation, and scientific research.
Picture: Daderot (Daderot) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons