We always start the class by reviewing the week's news -- that is, the animals in the news. There is always something, from arguments over the Endangered Species Act, to crazy cat-hoarding women (and research shows, that it IS usually women who hoard animals*), to the Westminster Dog Show to Punxsatawny Phil to the non-olympic event of dog-catching in Sochi. I find myself combing the news for these kinds of stories; the students are more likely to "bump" into them. So it was somewhat surprising (but maybe not), that many came to class this last week all primed to talk about Marius the Giraffe.
In case you've been in an "animal-free bubble" for the last week, on Sunday, February 9th, workers at the Copenhagen Zoo shot a healthy 2-yr-old giraffe named Marius, butchered it and fed pieces to the lions -- all in full view of the public. Outrage ensued. Zoo officials argued (basically) that Marius was not beneficial to the giraffe gene pool, and that he was taking up, therefore, (financial) resources that could be better directed elsewhere. Opponents claimed that there hadn't been enough done to find Marius a new home, or that some other solution had not been sought vigorously enough.
The class was pretty much aligned with those who opposed Marius' execution. But we had just come away, the previous week, discussing the pros and cons of zoos/aquariums, and we were launching, this week, into a discussion of animals in research. So the Marius-story was a great hinge-pin. If one of a zoo's purposes is to do research, then wasn't the elimination (and use of body parts for research) of Marius in keeping with that purpose? If another of the purposes is to maintain a healthy population, wasn't Marius' death aiding that purpose? On the other hand, is it really beneficial to animals to keep them caged (regardless of the splendiforousness of the cage)? And, gosh, "They shouldn't have done all that messy work in front of the public -- especially the children!" "But, why not, that's sort of what happens in the wild. Should we shield the public from the law of the jungle?"
According to an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, the zoo's scientific director "expressed puzzlement that no one complains when the zoo culls goats, antelopes or wild boar. But those animals are commonly harvested for the table, which giraffes are not." In our class, too, we often run into the divide between what are known as "charismatic megafauna" (i.e., cute big animals -- like a giraffe, chosen, of course, as the mascot for Toys R Us) and others, for whom the "yuck factor" is great (like rats). So we are always confronted by the strange, often irrational, choices we make about what/who we value and what/who we do not.
When the students were asked, in their first paper, to write about how they (as individuals) draw the line between humans and non-human animals, they always have either chosen scientific distinctions (like brain capacity, or evolutionary order) or philosophical categories (such as moral agency). It is situations like Marius' that throw into sharp relief how simple categorization doesn't work; neither science nor philosophy can explain this dilemma adequately. Nor, truth be told, can religion. But my experience is that any religion, at its best, demands that we confront our preconceived notions and easy answers, and recognize the complexity of it all. And then, perhaps, with greater humility, we can respond with greater compassion . . . not only to our animal neighbors, but our human ones as well.
* Herzog, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals (HarperCollins, 2010), 138-41.