The same week that William went animal-killing for fun, there was news that Copenhagen Zoo killed a giraffe for conservation. This raises its own interesting questions about animal welfare, and here I strongly contest the zoo’s reasons for killing the giraffe, even though various officials in various places have put forward their well-considered rationale for the action.
Their major reason for doing it was because allowing the giraffe to live and eventually breed would have resulted in offspring with poor genes – probably not poor to the extent that they would have caused abnormalities, but certainly poor for the long-term preservation of the species as a whole, which depends on a diverse genepool. Their decision was not fast and stubborn, but planned and careful – Copenhagen Zoo is part of an international breeding program, so alternative placements and measures had been considered, but none were judged to be viable given the combination of breeding quality and the finite resources of the zoos involved. Although other zoos outside the program had offered to take the giraffe, it was felt that they would still fail to fulfil the high standards of the program’s conservation mission.
As I am no zoo-keeping expert, I defer to their qualified opinions on the inadequacy of other alternatives like contraception or release into the wild, and, all else being equal, I ought to conclude that their decision was logical and even admirable given so much public pressure. However, while there are no doubt many things wrong with the public attitude that I will come to, I have to disagree with their primary motivations for animal care.
Fundamentally, these institutions have set themselves an imperative to preserve species at the occasional cost of individual animals. In this case, this single giraffe was killed for the good of the future population of giraffes, and this heavily utilitarian principle forms a large part of the narrative of 21st century animal conservation. To go against it is to piss into the wind, but I believe in precisely the opposite: we should preserve and treat in the best way possible all the individual animals in our care, even if this use of our resources may diminish the longevity of the species as a whole.
My reason for inverting these priorities comes down to opposing a certain kind of essentialism in animal conservation that I find both philosophically misleading and biologically inaccurate. The problem with essentialism is that it is part of the general human obsession to categorise, classify and box things in boxes that either don’t exist, or don’t exist quite as rigidly as we imagine. With animals, it’s obvious that there are classes and kinds and species, and it would be wrong to suggest that because the evolutionary process is continuous that there are therefore no lines to be drawn between animal types (on the contrary, the field of speciation studies how this is possible). However, we also have to acknowledge that all extant animals are transitional forms between other species because change is fundamental to evolution, and if we want to impose some kind of unaltering equilibrium on today’s particular biosphere, we have the impossible task of subverting nature itself.
OK, but change and extinction are two different beasts – we can’t feel comfortable with our destruction of various species simply because species come and go anyway. But here we also have to consider the role of mass extinction as an equally critical feature of evolution. In fact, if you want to guarantee a boom of biological diversity, one of the things you can do is murder as many animals as you have the fire-power for. This sounds facetious, but it’s exactly what the Chicxulub meteor that destroyed all non-avian dinosaurs did. It obliterated a vast number of extant species and, in their place, other animals flourished – including the mammals that would eventually give rise to humans. Today, we are the next meteor. We are the cause of the single largest mass extinction since that event 66 million years ago, and the face of conservation is repentant – we are trying to undo the enormous damage already done.
I am not suggesting for a moment that any of these facts means that we can actually do whatever we want to other animals and feel happy about it. Instead, I’m trying to dig to the heart of why we want to conserve certain animals when it is unavoidable that, long before the earth becomes uninhabitable, almost all of life as we know it will have disappeared entirely. There is nothing special about the species we see around us today and nor should we flatter ourselves with the thought that it is even within human capability to utterly ruin all life on earth. The planet will replace what we destroy with other wondrous beings just as it will replace us when we have destroyed ourselves. We therefore have to ignore any aesthetic preferences we have for the particular networks of animals that we all memorised in school which didn’t exist millions of years ago and won’t exist some time in the future, and should instead consider that animal conservation ought to be centred on the moral imperative to maximise the well-being of living animals that are capable of suffering. Sometimes this will coincide with attempts to preserve species, sometimes it will not – always, it must take precedence.
Take an analogy: people often fantasise about our eventual self-caused annihilation, but some find solace in the likelihood that there will be some small number of humans out of today’s billions that manage to survive whatever global catastrophe awaits us, so we can at least be reassured that our species will persist. With this suggestion, our own individual preservation, and even the preservation of our loved ones, gives way to a simple desire to see our kind live on. We ought to think of this as a bizarre irrelevance. We shouldn’t care if our species persists, we should care about the real and tangible suffering of its current existants, not some imaginary future look-a-likes who happen to have closer genomes than other species. Given the choice, without hesitation, we should prefer maximal well-being now and extinction soon after over terrible suffering now with the ‘silver lining’ of never-ending progeny. Our moral duty is to the well-being of current consciousnesses, not to the ongoing presence of arbitrary genetic vessels.
With this in mind, we should take the same approach with animals. Our duty is not to the preservation of species, our duty is to the welfare of actually-extant creatures. This motivation still requires some nuance and it is not immediately obvious that Marius should have lived. This is a priority rather than an absolute and it needs to be balanced with other factors. For example, the moment that we consider well-being and consciousness, we have to grapple with the difficult question of animal suffering when we have no access to animal experience. Recently, there have been moves towards recognising dolphins as non-human persons, and various experiments have demonstrated the intellectual and emotional ability of elephants and apes amongst other animals. Along with these abilities come various capacities for suffering, but they exist on a spectrum where no easy boundaries can be determined. We can say that we would help a suffering rhino but not a vulnerable bacterium, so where does a giraffe fit in? I don’t know much about the cognitive abilities of giraffes, but if they are basically ants with six-foot necks, then killing them humanely ought not to draw any attention. It doesn’t matter about their size, shape or softness, what matters is their well-being and if they are near incapable of having any, there is little to worry about. Presumably, a giraffe is capable of a little more than an ant – this is a question for zoo-keepers.
Furthermore, there are cases when the preservation of species may actually be a conduit for the betterment of individual welfare. This is particularly relevant to keystone species like jaguars, beavers, sea otters, and other not-quite-so-fluffy and adorable animals that have a disproportionately large impact on the ecosystems that they are part of. If these were to become endangered or extinct, there would be a severe knock-on effect throughout the rest of their food webs. Therefore, in order to prioritise the well-being of every individual animal that depends on the species, the species itself must be protected, but it is important to not confuse which is our priority – the species should not be protected merely for the sake of having it around as yet another kind of animal for humans to look at, enjoy and tell stories about. Of course, all animals are in some way dependent on other animals, but this again poses circumstantial considerations for conservationists – for a giraffe, it is unlikely that euthanasia could be justified in this way.
In most cases, it is likely that current conservation efforts would not be radically altered by the outlook I propose, particularly regarding work out in the wild. Whether or not you’re saving polar bears and their environment because you want to show your children what a live one looks like or because you’re concerned about their lived experience, your actions against the damage of climate change nevertheless have the same effect of supporting their current welfare. Marius presents a more unique circumstance because he was held in captivity, which comes with all kinds of assumptions and expectations of its own (not least of which is the inevitability of an exaggerated public sympathy for an invented personality when you choose to give the animal a human name). In this case, the welfare of the individual did not coincide with the management of species preservation and, provided the strength of my earlier arguments (some of which I accept may be refuted by professional zoologists, such as giraffe intelligence), the individual should have been prioritised.
None of this means that it is easy to pick a side in this debate because much of the general outrage has been fuelled by needlessly grim and sterilising ideas about the public autopsy as though, first, that we are incapable of controlling what we see and, second, that we should live as much as possible in a way that allows us to avoid the realities of a harsh physical existence. When so many of us help power a system that breeds, feeds and eats billions of domesticated animals every year, there is no sense in being indignant at a display of giraffe anatomy. Furthermore, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of actually prioritising animals to care for, our basic position ought to be maximising the well-being of all animals that are capable of suffering and, with that in mind, we all ought to focus far more on human poverty than we do on incidents like these, which, although somewhat disagreeable, are not especially outrageous in comparison. The zoo was the sole party in charge of the giraffe’s life and they at least carried out a bad decision (if bad) in a humane way. We are all complicit in the continued suffering of our human comrades.