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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Killing of giraffe in zoo may bring change

BENGT HOLST, the scientific director of the Copenhagen Zoo, was on CNN on Monday, explaining in cold clinical terms why it was necessary to kill a healthy young giraffe at the zoo — and then to feed it to the lions.

His answer boiled down to this. It was inconvenient to keep the creature, and besides, his killing let the zoo give a group of children an unsentimental glimpse of the real world.

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Ah, the real world, a place where tame and unsuspecting giraffes are offered rye bread and then, when they bend to eat, are shot in the head, skinned, carved up, and fed to lions in nearby cages. What a learning opportunity!

Why, perhaps Holst could host his own reality show, “Law of the Copenhagen Jungle,” or “The Real Animals of the Copenhagen Zoo,” in which various unwanted herbivores could be forced into the enclosure of hungry predators for the edification of spectators everywhere.

Still, I was glad to see Holst on CNN. Why? Because it was useful for people to hear the pseudo-scientific rationalizations he pressed into service. And because it’s instructive for people like Holst to understand the extent of public outrage. That’s the way things start to change.

The killing of Marius the giraffe may bring change.

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I was encouraged by the similar reaction we saw last June when the Massachusetts Environmental Police shot a young black bear that had climbed a tree in Newton, a killing that occurred for the same basic reason: It would have been inconvenient — time-consuming, even — to deal with the bear another way.

A gratifying outrage also greeted Sochi’s attempt to round up and extinguish stray dogs because they might provide a counter narrative to President Vladimir Putin’s sparkling new Russia.

Those reactions, that anger, the revulsion, are heartening. After all, it’s been people dismayed by callousness or cruelty who have helped change society’s sensibilities.

And they have changed. In 1827, 10,000 or more bought tickets and lined the shores of Niagara Falls to watch a schooner “with a cargo of ferocious animals” — actually, a buffalo, two small bears, two foxes, a dog, and some geese — make a promised plunge over the Horseshoe Falls. (Several of the larger animals escaped to shore above the falls.) Back then, that was apparently considered captivating entertainment.

In the American West, bear-vs.-bull and bull-vs.-buffalo fights persisted into the early 20th century. Dog-fighting, which remained a popular activity much further into the century, is now a felony across the United States.

In 2008, Louisiana became the final state to ban cockfighting. The new farm bill, meanwhile, makes it a crime to bring a child to such an event, a bipartisan federal attempt to crackdown on underground cockfights.

Vegetarianism, which once seemed like an oddball affectation, is now a respected philosophical choice, one restaurants must accommodate for fear of losing business.

Whole Foods Market now provides customers with a rating system that sets basic standards — no cages, no crowding — for all animals sold in its meat department and includes four other tiers signifying successively better levels of treatment.

Further, notes Bernie Unti, senior policy adviser at the Humane Society of the United States, “Young people are showing tremendous interest in all animal issues. We think that bodes very well for the future.”

And yet there remains an uncomfortable tension between what Americans know and think on a personal level about animals and what we allow in terms of public policy. Millions who have pets can attest that animals are affectionate, intelligent, playful, discerning, expressive beings with distinct individual personalities.

Still, relatively little headway has been made in changing the cruel, sometimes savage, practices of factory farms.

Part of the problem is an information gap. Paul McCartney is probably optimistic in thinking that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. But if more people knew what occurs on factory farms, the animal welfare movement would likely see its ranks swell.

Part of it, though, is overcoming a reluctance to speak up, for fear others will consider those issues trivial or eccentric.

And that’s one more reason why I’m encouraged by the outrage over the killing of Marius the giraffe: It’s important that people who care about animal welfare issues realize how many others share that concern.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.

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