What Giraffes Tell Us About Zoos, Endangered Species, And Human (Mis)Perception Of Animal Intelligence

Who you calling stupid?

So being a hit in zoos didn’t translate into scientific interest and understanding of giraffes in the wild:

Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said Julian Fennessy, a giraffe researcher and the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “You hear all about elephants, Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees, Dian Fossey and her mountain gorillas, but there’s been a massive paucity of information about giraffes.”

Now all that is changing fast, as a growing cadre of researchers seek to understand the spectacular biology and surprisingly complex behavior of what Dr. Fennessy calls a “gentle giant and the world’s most graceful animal.” Scientists have lately discovered that giraffes are not the social dullards or indifferent parents they were reputed to be, but instead have much in common with another charismatic mega-herbivore, the famously gregarious elephant.

Well, just because scientists have been ignoring giraffes, doesn’t mean the giraffe-loving zoo public hasn’t been concerned about giraffes in the wild, right? Zoos say they give people a passion for animals that helps protect them in the wild. Apparently not. According to the story: “The species is not listed as endangered, but researchers point with alarm to evidence that in the past 15 years, the giraffe population has plummeted some 40 percent, to less than 80,000 from 140,000.”

Which raises an important question, I think: how does a species which has seen a 40% population crash in 15 years NOT get listed as endangered?

This story is also one more datapoint in Zimmermann’s Axiom Of Animal Intelligence (which states that research into just about any animal never shows it is dumber and less sentient than we thought). To wit:

Female giraffes, for example, have been found to form close friendships with one another that can last for years, while mother giraffes have displayed signs of persistent grief after losing their calves to lions.

“Giraffes have been underestimated, even thought of as a bit stupid,” said Zoe Muller, a wildlife biologist at the University of Warwick in England. But through advances in satellite and aerial tracking technology, improved hormonal tests and DNA fingerprinting methods to extract maximum data from giraffe scat, saliva and hair, and a more statistically rigorous approach to analyzing giraffe interactions, she said, “we’ve been able to map out their social structure and relationships in a much more sophisticated way; there’s a lot more going on than we appreciated.”

So one story, three important insights. 1) Being a zoo star doesn’t appear to do much for you in the wild; 2) The process by which species are labeled and treated as “endangered” needs a re-examination; and 3) Yet another species labeled “stupid” by the human species turns out to be not so stupid.

Marius The Giraffe Is Every Zoo Animal

“Uh-oh. It’s starting to get crowded in here again.” (Source: Wikimedia; Daderot)

The world has been understandably shocked by the Copenhagen Zoo’s casual execution of its surplus giraffe, Marius (feeding his corpse to the lions showed an odd combination of pragmatism and obliviousness to the zeitgeist). So naturally, the Copenhagen Zoo and its Director have become the target of intense animal welfare criticism.

I am not a fan of zoos, and have the utopian wish that we would simply work on conserving both the natural habitats and the animals in them, instead of incarcerating animals for “research and education” and making a profit while we are at it. But Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute had a very interesting take, which she has given me permission to share:

Zoos have been doing this all around the world, including at AZA-accredited facilities, for decades. Breeding programs, particularly for non-endangered species, often result in “surplus” animals, because zoo visitors like seeing baby animals in the springtime, so the zoos oblige. When animals are not culled, they are sold to road-side zoos, sent to “canned hunt” facilities, or, in the best case scenario (also the least commonly occurring) sent to sanctuaries. AZA facilities are the least likely to sell to road-side zoos or canned hunts, but they have been caught doing so at times. Non-AZA facilities unload their surplus animals this way routinely.

Killing surplus animals (especially with a bolt gun to the head) is the most humane option, actually, and in all fairness the most commonly used. What made Marius so shocking to you all is that it was done in broad daylight, before an audience, as a “learning experience.” Well, I think it was more of a learning experience for the zoo than the public watching! Big mistake to air this common practice quite so brutally. Usually these euthanasias are done behind the scenes. The bodies are usually sent to landfills or rendering plants (or, in some infamous cases, buried in the backyard) – they are NOT usually fed to the carnivores in the same zoo.

So while the Copenhagen Zoo may have been the least sensitive practitioner of this “management” method, please do not direct your ire at the zoo or its director. They were in fact the honest ones. ALL zoos – ALL ZOOS – do this to one extent or other. Think about it – how else can they manage a “collection” in a finite amount of space when they have babies every year? We see the problem even with orcas, who are among the least prolific of captive species. San Diego now has 10 orcas. Four orcas were sent to Loro Parque (and calves used to be sent to Ohio). Think about all those antelopes and giraffes and water buffalo and exotic rodents and birds and on and on and on. Where do you think all those animals go?

SeaWorld is a circus and easy to dislike, but every single well-designed, modern zoo out there is hiding a darker underbelly. If you think the cost is worth the benefit to kids who get to see tigers and lions and bears up close, that’s one thing, but don’t be blind to the cost.

What gets me is the hypocrisy of zoos. I actually think people should be GRATEFUL to the Copenhagen Zoo for outing this practice so bluntly. Zoos claim they are as much about individual animal welfare as about conservation, but often they are about neither.

Animal protection groups focused on zoo animal welfare, which are well aware of these practices,  have been promoting “cradle to grave” care for decades. If a zoo cannot commit to cradle to grave care for every animal born at its facility, then it should not allow breeding. Whether that’s through chemical means, gelding, or separation of the sexes, they should not allow babies to be born to which they cannot commit a lifetime of care. The reaction of people online and on this list leads me to believe that most people, even those working against captive orcas at SeaWorld, think that what happened to Marius is a horrible, brutal one-off or that only the Copenhagen Zoo is guilty of it. That is so far from the truth as to be laughable.

Usually euthanasia is done as it is in shelters, with chemicals. The meat is not usable then and, as I said, is sent to landfills or rendering plants. Marius was shot (arguably more humane, actually, if more shocking) because they wanted to feed him to the lions as part of the “educational” part of the event and they didn’t want to spoil the meat. As I also said on FB, Marius didn’t give a shit how he died – it’s the people who are horrified at the betrayal of trust inherent in feeding him a piece of bread and then shooting him when he bent down, but putting him down with a shot of phenobarbital would have been just as horrible – it just would have been quieter.

The irony is that other zoos no doubt registered the avalanche of attention and criticism that buried the Copenhagen Zoo and will only go to even greater lengths to keep zoo euthanasia hidden from the zoo-loving public.