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Marius the giraffe: Don't put sentimentality before good sense

Tempting as it must have been to win some positive PR, the Copenhagen zoo took the tougher, more responsible course

What an odd and contrary example the country of Denmark offers the rests of us. The Danes are consistently top of the charts in every global happiness survey, and yet are responsible for such scouringly gloomy drama as The Killing, whose producer explained, “It's very sad, it's miserable, it's always raining and Sarah Lund never smiles - but this is Denmark.”

On TV, this weekend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall told viewers that the Danes had much to teach the rest of the world about how to live together happily. Hours later, a Radio 4 reading of Michael Booth's new book The Nearly Perfect People was scathing about what he called “a frosty, solemn bunch”.

Then there is the story of Marius, the tragic giraffe of Copenhagen.

The press has been predictably outraged by the culling of the giraffe by the local zoo but, as is usual in matters of animal welfare, it has put sentimentality before good sense. In fact, reading of Copenhagen Zoo's grown-up and tough-minded solution to a tricky situation, I find myself inclining to the Fearnley-Whittingstall view of the Danish people.

It was Marius's genetic make-up which was the problem. The gene-pool of giraffes in the European zoo-breeding programme is becoming unhealthily small, causing potential and irreversible health problems.

The solution of a strategic cull may seem harsh - and it bears out the arguments of those of us who think there are far too many zoos and wild animals kept in captivity -  but it is necessary. Tempting as it must have been to win some positive PR by, say, giving Marius to the American billionaire who wanted to keep him in his garden, the zoo took the tougher, more responsible course.

What happened next deserves particular praise. After the giraffe was put down, a group of schoolchildren were invited to watch its body being dissected and then fed to the lions.

That's nature, kids - or at least, it is nature when humans are involved. Rather than kowtowing to the press and following the easy, misleading path of sentimentality, the zoo provided children with a useful lesson about life and death, health and sickness. Photographs of the event show the four and five-year olds looking on with commendable curiosity.


If it had all happened in Britain, the media would be awash with rage and anguish. A publicity-hungry Liberal-Democrat would be bleating away on the Today programme, Joanna Lumley would possibly become involved at some point.

Whenever one of these fluffy animal stories hits the headlines - remember Knut, the German polar bear? - the British, who like to think they understand animals, take the stupid, gloopy line. This weekend six lions were reported to have been destroyed at Longleat. Inevitably, media coverage has been suitably outraged and tearful.

Buried deep in the reports was the truth. The lion population at Longleat had become too large. A male adult lion had been seriously injured; others were displaying “excessively violent behaviour”.

As it happens, my family has a better knowledge of this kind of behaviour than most - my Great Uncle Terence was killed by lions - but the fact that animals in the care of humans need to be managed should be obvious to anyone.

Away from these tear-drenched non-stories, there is more probably genuine cruelty to animals in Britain than ever before. Horses, dogs and cats are being abandoned in huge numbers. Farming methods, particularly for poultry, put profit and cheap food before welfare.

Pets are treated like inanimate toys. On reality shows, celebrities are required to eat live creatures for the amusement of a mass audience.

These are not small matters. Our attitude to animals informs so many aspects of our lives - the food we eat, the way we treat tackle the floods, the planning decisions we make rural areas, maybe even how we behave towards one another.

Sad as it was, there was good sense and compassion in this latest Danish killing.

Read more:

If you're really saddened by the death of Marius the giraffe, stop visiting zoos


The serious novelist I could see in Les Dawson

The actress Charlotte Dawson faces a tough challenge. She is planning to complete a romantic novel, part-written under a pseudonym by her grandfather Les Dawson. There can have been few people who were quite as desperate to be a serious writer as Dawson was. When I was a publisher, he once sat in my office, a courteous and serious-minded man, discussing his literary plans. I wanted funny books; he longed to write fiction.

Although some of his novels were published, they were a lesson in how different speaking and writing can be. Imagine Les on stage, reading in his mock-serious tones an extract from An Echo of Shadows by Maria Brett-Cooper: “His eyes held her. They were cold pebbles and although he smiled, there was a chill, a malice about his demeanour that frightened her...” It is funny but maybe not obviously romantic. Good luck, Charlotte.