Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Story of Marius the Giraffe by Linda Fetterly Root

Marius the Giraffe, R.I.P
When I was a child in Cleveland and a student at Euclid Park Elementary School, I won a book.  I am still winning books. But this week I am putting aside my most recent prize, The Red Priest's  Annina by Sarah Bruce Kelley for one that is haunting me more than anything any fiction author such as myself could ever write.  It is  a book I won in second grade--It was a contest sponsored by the Cleveland Public Library in connection with our on-site school library and our art program.  How the contest worked was each student entered a drawing in which they were given a book and assigned to do a drawing of its cover. I was lucky, because I was tasked to create an artwork from the children's version of Frank Buck's spellbinding book 'Bring'Em Back Alive, a book called Jungle Animals. On several occasions over recent years  I have searched the web for it and found it nowhere.Not only did it have a magnificent black jungle cat  on the cover but wonderful plates.  I specifically recall the composite of the various Birds of Paradise and the Mandrake with its colorful rear end, but most of all, I remembered drawings of the savanna animals in their habitats and of course, the glorious panther. I won the contest and the prize was a copy of the book.  My God, how I wish I had it in my hand. My Dad had my artwork framed and kept it until I went away to college.   But, My God, how I wish he'd kept it!  But it was not just the beauty of the book that I remember.  It was it's message: that animals should not be a hunter's prize. Buck had indeed been a great white hunter in the classic sense, but he later chose to trap instead of kill and deliver his prizes to zoos, where they would be preserved and hopefully thrive.

 And until two days ago, like Pollyanna, I believed that was the mission of a zoo.  But a little guy named Marius changed all that for me.  He was 17 months old and his favorite thing was rye bread. And they murdered him because he had the wrong genetics for their breeding program.  And who is the leader of this band of thugs? Not one of the grinning group of people who go to Africa to kill things from their Range Rovers --not the poachers who want an ivory tusk or an elephant foot for some sycophant's footstool.  Not at all. The zoo manager arranged it, announced it in advance, and justifies it still by calling it culling.  And he is really a nice guy at heart because he arranged for Marius to have a slice of rye bread before an employee shot a bolt into his brain.  Not because Marius was ill and suffering.  Not because he was violent or uncontrollable. But because he did not fit the genetic profile needed in the zoo's breeding program.

And the officials at the Copenhagen zoo excused dissecting him and feeding his body parts to lions while a large group of children watched because of the  educational value of demonstrating to the children what they explain is the natural fate of giraffes living in the wild.  But Marius was not living in the wild. He was never  given the opportunity to drink from that pond in the savanna pictured in Frank Buck's lovely book. And that upsets me.

His survival would not have been an economic burden to the zoo. Two other  zoos had offered to take him, genetics be damned.  A private donor offered hundred of thousands of dollars to save him.  So they killed him to prove a point. And thus, this is not about zoo management at all. Look at the facts.  If they did not want him at the Copenhagen Zoo, there were other places willing to take him.  So,in essence, this is all about power. They murdered Marius because they could.  I find it especially alarming today to read accounts of other zoo keepers defending the killing of Marius but not the manner in which it was accomplished. The defense is that culling of zoo animals is a good thing. What the group in Copenhagen committed was not a needless slaughter of a trusting animal who was their ward, but a colossal P.R. failure.  Have we become so callous that we can accept that?

And yes,I found the book on Ebay.  It was published in 1945, part of the same printing a the book I won.  And I bought it, another purchase of something without a use--like Marius.  But a thing of beauty none the less, and with a message, none the less.

Said Buck in the book's foreword:

 "I have traveled and lived in the jingle countries of the world for more than thirty years. My purpose in this sort of life was to bring back alive specimens of animals, birds and reptiles which inhabit these strange far-off lands so that American boys, girls and adults as well, might see and study them in our fine zoological gardens. In this book I have gathered together information that I have learned at firsthand about many interesting creatures of the jingle and veldt. It is my hope that you, in reading this book and looking at the pictures, will become better acquainted with these exotic species which, however strange to us here in America, are still a definite and breathing part of the world in which we live."

But only if we become proper custodians, Mister Buck!.