The Balancing Act | Must rules be followed at all costs?

I never met Marius. He probably wasn’t even born when I last visited his home. But that doesn’t change how I feel about what happened to him. I’m not any less horrified, upset and disappointed than those of you who did have an opportunity to see him at Copenhagen Zoo during the past two years.

Two years. Yes, that is the sum total of his entire life – a life that was sacrificed at the altar of the ‘rules and regulations must be followed at all costs’ philosophy.

As many of you know, Marius was a healthy two-year-old giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo who was put down on Sunday February 9. He was not seriously injured, nor was he suffering from any life-threatening illness.

Marius was just part of an international breeding programme that prohibits inbreeding. As it turned out, his genes were over-represented at the zoo, which meant that he could not be allowed to grow up and breed. That’s rule number one for you.

According to rule number two, the zoo could only transfer him to an institution that was part of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). 

What is incomprehensible to many who protested and tried to save Marius is why rule number one was given precedence over rule number two. Copenhagen Zoo received offers from zoos in the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom to take Marius.

But they were all turned down because the authorities at Copenhagen Zoo decided – on behalf of the other zoos – that any space should be reserved for a genetically more important giraffe.

The zoo decided to take refuge behind the rules of the international breeding programme and decided, for everybody, that Marius was surplus and had to go.

And there is the third rule that says that according to the guidelines of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria – of which Copenhagen Zoo is a member – zoos do not own the animals.

They merely govern them so they cannot sell the animals. So that automatically took care of the offer from an individual to buy Marius. And so a baby giraffe lost its life because rules are apparently more important than lives.

That’s how I view this entire episode. It was a stubborn refusal to consider the alternatives made by an unyielding frame of mind that doesn’t believe in making any exceptions even if the exception could have saved a life.

And the most disturbing part is that this baby giraffe is not the first or the last animal to be put down. As part of Copenhagen Zoo’s breeding programme, about 25-30 animals are put down every year to maintain the animal population. Perhaps it is time to review this breeding programme?

The whole procedure – Marius being killed with a bolt gun, the subsequent autopsy and his meat being fed to the lions – was done publicly as a scientific display of the anatomy of a giraffe.

So the next time you visit Copenhagen Zoo and you spot an adorable elephant cub that gets you all excited, remember it’s just Exhibit A. Or that pony your child just happily fed – that was Exhibit B from the horse family.

Among the other justifications made by Bengt Holst, Copenhagen Zoo’s scientific director, was that several people – adults and children – watched the entire event.

His sense of vindication stems from their fascination with wanting to know more about the anatomy of a giraffe – how giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their long necks as humans do in their short ones or for instance how big a giraffe’s heart is.

Too bad your rule book is bigger than your heart Mr Holst.