Sunday, March 9, 2014

Of giraffes and cats

So recently all of us who love animals had a major blow. A giraffe nicknamed Marius was killed simply because there was not a place for him. Many people, myself included, were heart broken. Some people were so offended by this that the zoo received many death threats. I, however, look at this from a whole different point of view.

No sane person wants to kill animals. We all wish there was home for each and every one of them. Unfortunately we are simply not able to. We can't save every giraffe, nor every kitty.

Let's go on a little detour for a minute or two. Let's say you want to save cats. You decide to run a shelter. You can either be an open admission shelter and take every animal that comes to you, or a closed admission shelter (often called 'no-kill') and choose ahead of time that you will only take animals when you have room to house and money to take care of. Remember, there will be a steady stream of homeless and unwanted animals and there is a far smaller amount of people who are looking to adopt. What do you do?

If you are lucky, you have a network of shelters and people you trust. You can send animals you can not save yourself to other shelters where demand is higher. But there aren't a lot of shelters out there who have a demand higher than their intake. So you try to find no kill shelters to take them. Unfortunately no matter how well you check out these shelters, sometimes you end up doing business with places that are little more than hoarders at best.

Now remember resources in rescue are limited. They will always be limited. At this point we can not even save all of the humans. We, as a country (USA), are cutting programs left and right that are currently supporting a good number of people so the governments aren't able to save them. People are only able or willing to give so much. Land costs money, buildings to house them cost, people to care for them, food to feed them, tests to make sure they are healthy, vaccines, deworming, electricity to see, heat to be warm, phones to reach people, internet to network them, computers to keep track of things, medical care to fix those that are fixable and keep them healthy, insurance to protect against things you can't think of, cages, beds, litter, toys, paper, postage, cars for transporting animals to the vet, gas and insurance for those cars, etc.. and yet people have a very very hard time paying adoption fees. When you tell a person that a cat at your shelter is $100 to adopt, despite often investing several hundred dollars in their care, the public often balk at price and claim they can go down the street and get one for free..

So, lets get back to you running a shelter. What do you do? Did you choose to only help those you can afford to take in and be a 'closed admission' shelter. Many shelters choose to keep their doors open and take in every animal that comes to their door knowing if they are turned away they will most likely be abandoned on the side of the road, left behind at a house with out food, or killed inhumanely. We are not so far away from the days of sacks in the river that we should have forgotten that. There are still stories now of people who do inhumane things to remove the pets from their lives. A few years ago a local to me cat was saved from a garbage incinerator... the owner threw it away while it was in a carrier, and the carrier was on the conveyor belt on it's way to be incinerated.

In order for those doors of your shelter to remain open, you need to have room to house them and staff to care for them. Generally the only way to ensure that is to euthanize those that are there who have not been adopted. You can try to find others who might have room to take them, but as I mentioned above, how can you be sure they will abide by the same values that you do. If you do decide to let rescues take some of your cats off your hands, how long will it be until they are full up too and how much does it cost to transport them there? You can drop your adoption fees and give the cats away, but how will you continue to fund your shelter when people start expecting the cats to be free? You can try satellite adoptions, or adoptathons, or other gimmicks to get people in to adopt, but that takes time and money and manpower. Don't get me wrong, it can be done. I volunteer for an open admission shelter with 'no-kill' adoption rates, but it took them years and a lot of resources to get there. Simply telling people to not kill is about as inane as telling poor people not to be poor and worse it is actually harmful because remember shelter workers do not want to kill an animals. They started working at a shelter to save animals, and when fanatics stand on the sidelines and use inflammatory language and using faulty math to 'prove' a point, it is harmful to those who are on the front lines. Telling people to not support open admission shelters simply ensures that more animals will die. Education, not rhetoric, will be the only thing that saves lives. If you do not like how many animals are killed, do not stand on the sidelines and decree them evil and uncaring, get in there and help.

So knowing that you have more animals than you can care for, you choose to euthanize to make room for the next ones that are coming in who will need to be housed for the amount of time required by law. This is very hard on everyone. To save the staff the burden of having to decide who and where and when to kill, which is very hard on the human psyche, policies are put in place that calls for animals to be put down after a certain amount of time, or the ones that have been there the longest, no matter how cute or deserving they are to live. Although I cannot tell you how much I hate that term because really, which cat is not deserving to live?

A Cat and A Giraffe by Tashi Cards
used with permission

When you run a zoo, you need to make those same decisions but on a whole different level. You are intending on housing these animals for their entire life. Part of the charter of a zoo is often to help the species with out ever having to take in another one from the wild and hopefully make it possible to repopulate endangered species.

So do zoos still have a place in this day and age? Originally 3000 years ago exotic animals were kept by the wealthy and the rulers as status symbols. As time went on people realized they could make money by showing off animals. Often these animals were not kept well, and we still have these types of attractions in those road side attractions that are dotted across the land. As time went on people realized the need to treat the animals with respect, to learn from them and to help conserve them. You can talk to someone about a lion or a lemur but until you are able to show it to them they will not fully understand nor make that connection deep with in their soul. I've loved polar bears for years, seen them on TV, watched people get up close to them on specials on Churchill but when I was less than a foot away from one in a zoo I got goose bumps.

Zoo animals have far greater need for enrichment. This is a life long placement and their territories are limited. So you need to make these decisions for their greater good on a much grander scale. You need to provide for their mental as well as physical health. You need to provide for future generations to keep the zoo running and interesting to the public so they continue to fund you.

The EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, made these decisions in what they believed was the best interest of the animals in their care. Like the above example with your hypothetical shelter, they made these decisions prior to the need of any one specific animal and in the best interest of the species of animals in their care. They wanted to ensure the health and well being of their animals, they want to ensure that the facilities were well attended to be able to keep the facilities running, and they also want to make sure they have reasons for the public to show up and want to support the zoo.

Marius was not owned by the zoo he was held in, but by the EAZA. The EAZA has decided that animals they own - for the safety and long term health of these animals can only be kept in EAZA zoos. If they are part of the association, then they know the animals will be safe. Are other zoos safe places? I'm sure many of them are, but how many of them aren't? I do not know. The EAZA decided they didn't want to waste their time and resources trying to determine if other zoos are or not or will be in the future. I am guessing they felt that their time and resources are better spent on maintaining what they do have. Animals sold to non associated zoos can not be tracked and there is no guarantee they won't end up in a road side attraction or in a small pen alone and living a life that most would consider cruel, or worse.

Many wonder why Marius was even allowed to be born. First off, the EAZA has decided that artificial means of birth control will dramatically alter the animals in their care to a point where they have decided that is unacceptable. While the neutering of companion animals is a good thing as it allows the animals to live in a home environment, it is not a good idea for animals in a group setting. It changes their dynamics. Hormones are very important to wild animals, it dictates a lot of their behaviors. Well what about a vasectomy? It would keep the hormones in tact, but it would alter the animal's ability to sire off spring - which is something the zoo is very much in need of.

Why? They were just going to kill this one, so why were they in need of it? Well there is that crass matter of money. Baby animals do attract a lot of visitors and a lot of visitors generates a lot of money. But it also generates a lot of supporters. People who are willing to continue to fund the zoo long after the babies are grown up and no longer 'cute'.

Babies are also social enrichment for herd animals like the giraffes. Having a younger in the fold gives the parents a chance to parent, and the herd a chance to baby sit and bring a whole new dynamic to the heard. It allows giraffe to be a giraffe.

Why not keep Marius. Well it is expensive and I have already established that money / resources are limited. Why not send Marius to another zoo? When you do not have control over the zoo you are sending an animal to, you can never really be sure what kind of life that animal will have. Do not forget that transporting a giraffe is a very expensive proposition, and not with out it's risks, including death. People often decree that any life is better than an immediate death, but I am pretty sure they are not seeing the big picture of all of the inhumane things out there. What about another EAZA zoo? There was one that offered to take Marius, but his brother was there and they were once again faced with basically the same situation.

So why did they kill Marius in the way they chose? I do not know, I'm not them, but I know what they told the world, and I can speculate a little. They wanted to do it out in the public so people could learn. Yes, they allowed children to view it. Every single child there because their parents thought it was appropriate for them. News articles had a field day using inflammatory language to make this as horrific as possible. They didn't just walk into the enclosure and kill Marius with no warning. They also ensured that his last few minutes on this earth were happy ones. They then necropsied to share giraffe anatomy with the public. Some people had a real problem with this. I say there is no other way to really experience something with out being there. It is why we travel, why we go to concerts... why we go to zoos when there are photos in books or on the internet. One of the most awe inspiring moments of my life was when I was a mere six inches away from a swimming polar bear.. I also applaud their decision to not let his body go to waste and instead use it to enrich the lives of the lions, tigers and leopards. (I highly recommend the reading of this article)

I would also like to speculate what better way to force this world to have this conversation! I sure do hope that people start looking beyond the rhetoric of "STOP THE KILLING" and actually start looking into the logistics of it, and what it actually takes to provide for every animal.. Seeing the big picture is the only way to begin to fix it. While I have my doubts that we will ever be a 'no kill' nation, know that the kill rate of companion animals is 10% of what it used to be in the 70s and are still improving. They will only continue to improve if we do something, not just say we want things done.


  1. Bravo loved your post *APPLAUDS*

  2. Paws up ! Some heartbreaking events happens because it's the only pragmatic way to get other things better, or at least not worse. The story of Marius had been an emotional buzz for several weeks in which we refused to take part for the reason you wrote above. Thank you for remembering the amazing work that is done for animals in zoo, the love for animals that feel the zoo workers, the knowledge they have of animal behavior and of the consequences of any human intervention in it, and the strength they need to have to take sometimes hard decisions. Purrs

  3. So many humans don't want to face these harsh realties - but facing them is the only way that things can be changed. I think the shelter you foster for has done some amazing work... and it would do well as an example for other open admission shelters to aspire to. I tend to focus on the near end of things - the kitties before they are taken to a shelter. I want to get those numbers down as much as possible. That is the surest way to bring the euthanization numbers down - educate about TNR and spay and neuter so there are less cats to be taken to a) an open admission shelter, b) a hoarding situation posing as a no-kill shelter or c) an actual no-kill rescue or fostering group that manages to have room.

    The zoos? I have no answers there. I did hear that the children actually were quite interested in what happened to Marius' body after he was killed... maybe they are more aware than grown-ups are. I tend to believe that, since as a cat I understand the circle of life in a way my human apparently does not. She grocery shops, she never has killed something and eaten it on her own.

  4. From the head peep: Really well thought-out post. I haven't posted on this one because I have family connections at an AZA-accredited facility, and I know that there's always a lot more to the story than the media bothers to explore. It sounds like EAZA parks operate on a different model than most in the US. In the states, parks own most of their own animals (with the exception of some rescues, which are actually owned by the government; for example, rescued manatees you see at Disney World or other facilities are actually owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service). From the articles I've read, it sounds like the EAZA may have ownership stake in the animals in the zoos, which is a different model. That probably has an impact on how husbandry is handled, so we can't apply our standards to how European zoos do theirs.

    I personally don't like the idea of zoos allowing animals to breed if they know that the offspring are unwanted. Using the offspring as an attendance booster (baby animals always make good advertising) and then not using the resources you gained from that attendance boost to find a home for the life of the animal is one of those decisions that doesn't sit well with me, but again, I'm sure there's a lot more to the story than we are likely to ever hear.

    The saddest part of the whole story is how it's going to be used as a push to eradicate zoos as a whole. They do serve valuable purposes, both as part of the Species Survival Plan and educating people about animals. Humans are wired not to value what they don't understand, and they have to see it to understand it. I always tell the story of a visit I made back in 2000 to the New York Natural History Museum. I was looking at a diorama of taxidermied zebras, and a woman behind me said, "They're so big! I always thought they were the size of dogs!" She had a much greater appreciation for zebras just be having seen a taxidermied one. Suddenly, she could see that it took more resources than she imagined before. I have no idea how she got to adulthood thinking that zebras were the size of dogs, but without the opportunity to see animals in zoos, we're limiting that valuable connection that helps people understand the needs of animals and the desire to make sure their needs are met. That's what I believe the value is of a properly-managed zoological park. Education.

    Education is key to helping move toward a no-kill nation, too. So you're right... there's a lot in common between the two.

  5. Anonymous11:05 AM

    I too, give you a huge applaud for this post. I hate to think of animals being killed, but agree that a humane death is often better than a horrific life. And I agree that a properly managed park that's geared toward education is a wonderful thing to have.

  6. well done.....there is no easy answer but agreed that people need to see both sides. we get aggravated by those that get angry with open admissions shelter for euthanizing for space but don't do anything to fix the problem. don't like it - then get involved but don't stand around and criticize everyone else.

  7. Great post….so well said! It's taken so long to get to a point where humans can have civil conversations about animals. I volunteer with open, limited and no-kill shelters and they all want the same thing…to save as many animals as possible. I have also gone into shelters that became overwhelmed by taking on too many animals for what they could handle and animals that were very ill and aggressive to start with. I'm so in tune now working with "open-minded" and progressive shelters that are really getting into creating long term sustainable ways to bring the numbers down and also short term innovative ways to help. Reading your post it makes me hopeful that so many people are seeing a change an a different mindset…it will ultimately save more animals!

  8. Very well written. I must admit I cringed at the thought of Marius being killed openly and then his body being prepared to be the lions, tigers and leopards meal. But I'm grateful Marius didn't suffer a long, lingering death.

  9. I thought your posting was excellent. Those of us who love animals, the domestic animals we come into contact with all want for them to be as beloved as the members of our own family. But, this is not a perfect world, so things do not work out like that. I can only comment on what I see from the view I see from, those who do work in the or with the shelters know the truth. We all applaud the forever homes, but we don't celebrate the ones who go without a family or a place to live. They keep coming and as much as we know the benefits of spay/neuter it is obvious the general public does not, otherwise why does this continue to happen. As to the story of Marius, the media always gets things incorrect. We never hold them accountable. Everyone should question the things that they read. By doing one's own research facts can be unearth and a better understanding can be had. As much as I wish we had a media interested in telling us the truth about any number of things, I know we don't. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They were very interesting.

  10. Such a well thought-out post. Thank you for presenting the really difficult issues that people need to be aware of. Certainly things are changing, but there is much work still to do, right?

  11. All our pets are rescues or "returns"...I know just how hard it is to turn down a homeless pet, knowing what their fate most likely is.

    I truly question the ethics of allowing zoo animals to breed if the offspring aren't already planned and provided for.

    1. one might also look at this as an heir and a spare kind of way.. if something had happened to the brother, it would have been good that Marius was born... as for allowing him to be born, I already addressed many reasons for not interfering with the natural cycle of life above.. it would have been harmful to his parents to do so, births are mental and physical and social enrichment for the herd, and it supports the zoo in general by increasing attendance.

      animals are killed every single day.. many to feed those lions that Marius was fed to. Someone else lived because of Marius..

  12. Wonderful post--there is always more to a story than we know, and zoos, if we see them as biological storage, have a mission that companion animal shelters don't, and that is to preserve the species they house. Those species are wild animals and living in a contained setting disrupts their biological cycles. No one who is caring for them wants to kill animals, but there are times when that is the only option.

  13. Definitely a well-thought post. It's still hard to think, though, that the giraffe HAD to die. There had to be room somewhere in the world for one more giraffe since there are few enough of them left in the world. Certainly they could have done some zoo checks to see if they'd be appropriate for him to live in. I don't mind the feeding of him to the lions - at least he was used for something that would have happened in the wild, but I do think the zoos ought to have handled things a bit differently.

  14. This was an excellent and thoughtful post. Too many people stay in the shallows and refuse to wade into the deep end. And perspective is also important. The world has changed. It *is* changing. It will continue to change because - in part - of the very wonderful circle of advocates we call friends in the blogging world. {{{purrs and hugs}}}


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