Butchered Giraffe Leads to Elephant Rats: Commentary

On an otherwise unremarkable day in February, a young giraffe named Marius was shot in the head by one of his caretakers at the Copenhagen Zoo. As visitors watched, he was dismembered and fed to lions.

Do look at the video and absorb what is happening: A healthy animal of strange beauty is publicly executed because his genes were worthless.

Marius’s genes were too common for breeding purposes, explained a spokesman for the zoo. The giraffe’s slaughter would serve as a learning opportunity about genetic diversity for visitors. All were welcome!

I am not making this up. Neither have I confused the countries. This happened in modern Denmark, not Nazi Germany.

Marius was on my mind as I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” In each of her 13 absorbing chapters, we meet up with a species already gone or emblematic of the cataclysmic changes appearing everywhere you look, starting in your backyard.

Panama’s golden frogs used to carpet slippery paths; now the few survivors live in a little frog motel and rustic conservation center with caring humans. Kolbert’s visit to El Valle is her first stop on the way to a very different world. We’re living through an extended funeral of our own making.

Even the most amusing encounter is often tinged with melancholy. It’s hard to forget that angry, solitary Hawaiian crow whose handlers want him to improve the gene pool. He has the right stuff, but he won’t ejaculate even with a little human help. Nope.

Murdered Cousins

Meanwhile Suci, one of the last Sumatran rhinos, is getting an ultrasound at the Cincinnati Zoo. Used to being around people, Suci, who weighs 1,507 pounds, keeps eating apples as a friendly veterinarian sticks a wand up her rectum.

Has she ovulated? No. Glum faces all around. As Kolbert slowly pets her scruffy flank, Suci looks at her with very black eyes. “I could have sworn I saw a flicker of interspecies recognition.”

Elsewhere, the horns of Suci’s murdered cousins are being ground into party drugs.

The Next Extinction

The humans who go to great lengths to save stretches of wilderness and endangered animals are but a handful compared to millions who are casually or intentionally hurrying us along toward the “sixth extinction.” The last time, an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs, whose bones we love to visit.

Who inherits in the next cycle? Who will miss us? To find out, Kolbert visits with an expert on graptolites -- unassuming marine organisms nearly wiped out in the Ordovician period. He thinks the future belongs to rats, some as big as elephants, others smaller and so sharp and nimble they begin making tiny tools and fashioning fur coats.

Our ecological landscape is already cooked, altered forever, which is why a giraffe, the tallest mammal on the planet, ended up in little Denmark.

Zoos butcher surplus animals with some regularity as they run out of room, but generally don’t turn their executions into coarse family entertainment.

God’s Creature

So what do you think the kids took away from the show? That it’s fine to slaughter one of God’s most imaginatively designed creatures in the name of science?

Hearing about Marius’s impending death sentence, thousands of people protested (and seem to have thwarted another Danish zoo from slaughtering another giraffe). Many wondered why he couldn’t be rehoused (there were offers) or neutered.

A zoo human (an anthropomorphizing male?) thought losing his equipment might depress the beast.

More than eating his favorite breakfast of rye bread for the last time? Clearly he was not posed the local question:

“To be, or not to be?” What sayest thou Marius?

And also, aren’t Danes depressed anyway? So add a mopey giraffe.

An imaginative zookeeper could have turned Marius into the poster child for endangered species.

I think of the excitement provoked by Zarafa, the first giraffe seen in Europe since Renaissance times. In 1826, she slowly disembarked at Marseilles with her devoted trainer and high-stepped to Paris for an audience with Charles X.

Zarafa’s Servants

The viceroy of Egypt had sent her as a political diversion and she behaved marvelously, increasingly confident as she walked and walked, her muscles and pelt gaining in definition and beauty. The three servant cows in her entourage provided nourishment for the 900-kilometer journey.

Astonished admirers pushed up their hair “a la girafe” and painted her portrait. She lived until 1845 in the Jardin des Plantes and was stuffed for posterity. In later years, Zarafa inspired a splendid biography by Michael Allin, a respectful Wikipedia page, and a show at the Morgan Library in New York.

What a missed opportunity for the Copenhagen Zoo, which is not that far from Noma, the fabled much-starred restaurant, whose wait list extends into eternity.

Think of what a fundraising gala dinner of “balls Marius” with a sprinkling of local moss could have done for preserving Marius and conserving a few more patches of his African home.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg news. Any opinions are her own.)

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