Marius the giraffe and media sensationalism
(from undergraduate dissertation)
A carefully and professionally made decision. An entirely humane euthanasia. An educational opportunity for people of all ages. An economical and efficient use of animal meat. If you are able to take those four sentences and cause widespread controversy, then you may just have a future in the media.
The practice of euthanising surplus animals in zoos is common (Glatston, 1998; Lacy, 1991). The zoo’s decision to euthanise over other options was fully explained (Holst, 2014; Young, 2014). The controversy over Marius the giraffe served to make clear two things: firstly, that the general public is extremely naïve about the way in which zoos function; and secondly, that media sensationalism is incredibly effective (Vista, 2015).
This is the opening line of a scientific paper that used the Marius case study: “On February 9, 2014, a giraffe named Marius was put to death by the Copenhagen Zoo” (Zimmerman, Chen, Hardt, & Vatrapu, 2014). Compare this to the opening sentence of an article on The Guardian’s website: “In the chilly dawn of Sunday morning a healthy young giraffe in a Danish zoo was given its favourite meal of rye bread by a keeper – and then shot in the head by a vet” (Eriksen & Kennedy, 2014). It provides less information by describing the zoo as simply being in Denmark, and excluding the date. It provides irrelevant information in the form of favourite food, and uses two extra ‘characters’ (the keeper and the vet) to turn the giraffe into essentially a protagonist. Other article-openers were slightly less grandiose: “This is the shocking moment a giraffe was butchered in front of a crowd of schoolchildren before being fed to lions” (The Mirror, n.d.); “This is the horrific moment schoolchildren crowded around to watch as the body of a perfectly healthy giraffe was chopped up before being fed to lions” (Tozer, 2014 (in The Daily Mail Online)). The writers are telling you that you are shocked and horrified. They are making it clear that this is not something subjective, this is objectively shocking and horrific – a tactic within sensationalistic journalism wherein readers are given opinions to hold, not information to use.
These quotes from The Mirror and The Daily Mail also touch on two of the other issues that appeared throughout the media coverage: the children present, and the use of the giraffe’s remains. The role of education in zoos has been the subject of much research and writing (see for example: Patrick, Matthews, Ayers, & Tunnicliffe, 2007; Rabb, 1968; Whitehead, 1995). In spite of the consensus that zoos should educate, particularly children, the media coverage of Marius the giraffe used the fact that children were present at the necropsy in its sensationalism. The viewing of the necropsy was entirely optional, yet the media suggested innocent family outings had been ruined as they stumbled across a dead giraffe being “butchered” (The Mirror, n.d.). Bizarrely, the act of feeding the meat from the giraffe to the lions at Copenhagen Zoo was condemned by much of the media coverage. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that watching a necropsy, including an educational commentary by the vets performing it, and observing lions feed on meat that has the hide of a giraffe rather than a cow, are among the most educational opportunities a zoo can offer.
A petition, titled “Save Marius from the bolt gun NOW [caps in original]” (Evans, n.d.) had the aim of reaching 28,000 signatures in order to prevent the euthanasia. It did not reach its goal, but exactly what was supposed to happen when it reached or exceeded the 28,000 mark is unclear. There is no record of the staff at Copenhagen Zoo making the claim that their decision would be reversed if 28,000 people disagreed with it. The media, however, threw the petition into the mix and seemed to suggest that it did indeed hold the authority that it had given itself. The phrase ‘despite an online petition’ or variations of it appeared in coverage by The Mirror, The Guardian, National Geographic and Time, implying that it was audacious of the zoo staff to not heed the petition. The BBC and The Daily Mail both described it as thousands of people “appealing for a change of heart” (BBC, 2014; Tozer, 2014). The fact that those against the euthanasia were not using logic, or a scientific approach, and had no training or education in the relevant field was not hidden or denied. It was out in the open – a change of heart, not mind. This suggests the media know full well the audience they are reaching and how best to stir up controversy, and what does need hiding and what does not. If these articles were subject to peer-review and destined for scientific journals, insinuating that the petition should have been heeded by the zoo staff would likely be challenged.
The media sensationalism around Marius the giraffe took a very ordinary situation and caused unwarranted controversy. There are possible positives: those who were less taken in by the sensationalistic coverage and sought out the zoos explanations will be less naïve concerning how zoos are run. The conversation over whether zoos should be phased out or kept and transformed may have been reinvigorated, at least temporarily. Follow-up articles continuing the discussion post-hysteria suggest that this was this case (see for example: Morell, 2014; Rincon, 2014).
BBC. (2014). ‘Surplus’ giraffe put down at Copenhagen zoo. Retrieved 10 November, 2014, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26098935
Eriksen, L., & Kennedy, M. (2014). Marius the giraffe killed at Copenhagen zoo despite worldwide protests. Retrieved 10 November, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/09/marius-giraffe-killed-copenhagen-zoo-protests
Evans, M. (n.d.). Save Marius the giraffe from the bolt gun now. Retrieved 14 November, 2014, from http://www.thepetitionsite.com/528/607/193/save-marius-the-giraffe-from-the-bolt-gun-now/
Glatston, A. R. (1998). The control of zoo populations with special reference to primates. Animal Welfare, 7(3), 269-281.
Holst, B. (2014). Why does Copenhagen Zoo euthanize a giraffe? Retrieved 11 November, 2014, from http://zoo.dk/BesogZoo/Nyhedsarkiv/2014/Februar/Why%20Copenhagen%20Zoo%20euthanized%20a%20giraffe.aspx
Lacy, R. C. (1991). Zoos and the surplus problem: an alternative solution. Zoo biology, 10(4), 293-297.
Morell, V. (2014). Opinion: killing of Marius the giraffe exposes myths about zoos. Retrieved 15 November, 2014, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140212-giraffe-death-denmark-copenhagen-zoo-breeding-europe/
Patrick, P. G., Matthews, C. E., Ayers, D. F., & Tunnicliffe, S. D. (2007). Conservation and education: prominent themes in zoo mission statements. The Journal of Environmental Education, 38(3), 53-60.
Rabb, G. B. (1968). Education and zoos. The American Biology Teacher, 30(4), 291-296.
Rincon, P. (2014). Why did Copenhagen Zoo kill its giraffe? Retrieved 15 November, 2014, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26118748
The Mirror. (n.d.). Shocking footage shows giraffe Marius butchered – would you let your kids watch this horror show? Retrieved 10 November, 2014, from http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/video-marius-giraffe-butchered-front-3131162
Tozer, J. (2014). Danish zookeepers kill healthy baby giraffe with a bolt gun because he was ‘surplus to requirements’ – then feed him to the lions. Retrieved 10 November, 2014, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2555079/Danish-zoo-kills-young-giraffe-deemed-surplus-feeds-lions.html
Vista, A. (2015). Mass media, the ‘sensational message’, and metamorphic truths. Telematics and Informatics, 32(2), 416-423.
Whitehead, M. (1995). Saying it with genes, species and habitats: biodiversity education and the role of zoos. Biodiversity & Conservation, 4(6), 664-670.
Young, R. J. (2014). Death of Marius the giraffe reveals cultural differences in animal conservation. Retrieved 11 November, 2014, from http://theconversation.com/death-of-marius-the-giraffe-reveals-cultural-differences-in-animal-conservation-23052
Zimmerman, C., Chen, Y., Hardt, D., & Vatrapu, R. (2014). Marius, the giraffe: a comparative informatics case study of linguistic features of the social media discourse. In Proceedings of the 5th ACM international conference on Collaboration across boundaries: culture, distance & technology (pp. 131-140). ACM.