Denmark makes headlines for all the wrong reasons

Yes Bern, we love our welfare state. No, dissecting a zoo animal is not the big deal everyone thinks it is.

Two stories plunged Denmark into the international media spotlight this week.

First, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sang the praises of his new favourite brand of democratic socialism in the US Democratic Party primaries. Even opponent Hillary Clinton shared the Danish love, but reminded US citizens of a cold, hard geographical truth:

“I love Denmark, but we’re not Denmark: we’re the United States of America,” she said.

While Denmark may be used to the global love affair with its welfare model, it is equally used to cold, hard international criticism of its zoos.  Last year, Copenhagen Zoo sparked international uproar when Marius the Giraffe was shot and subsequently dissected in front of children.

Marius was a surplus animal who threatened the breeding diversity of his fellow giraffes. Unable to find him a suitable new home, zoo chief Bengt Holst explained that slaughtering the giraffe was the only option at the zoo, which then turned Marius’ postmortem into an educational opportunity for children.

On Wednesday, Odense Zoo took the same approach and dissected a lion for schoolchildren during the autumn break. The nine-month-old lion – who wasn’t named – was one of three surplus animals put down last year and kept frozen especially for the event.

Predictably, Bern’s flattery was drowned out by the outrage over the lion’s death and dissection. But it was an odd sort of meta-attention – with the media focusing on the media’s focus on the event.

At home,  Politiken newspaper produced a non-plussed three-sentence article titled ‘And then the lion was ripped open’ ahead of the anticipated media storm.

“The skin was ripped off, intestines pulled out, and head skinned… it drew many spectators…judging by the crowd, it didn’t smell very good,” reported the newspaper, basically asking “so, what?”

Satirical magazine Rokokoposten,dk also responded with the sarcastic headline “International Uproar: Families dissect animals at the dinner table,”  poking fun at the underlying hypocrisy embedded in the international criticism.

Meanwhile the audience, of which many were children, treated the dissection with interest and relatively little trauma. “It’s fun to see but also a bit disgusting,” said one girl to DR.

International media, on the other hand, transformed the event into a ‘scandal’. “Zoo’s Public Dissection of Lion Makes Denmark Again a Target of Outrage” wrote the New York Times. News Corp Australia went with the headline: “Danish zoo slammed for performing live lion dissection as part of education event for kids”.

Speaking to Australia’s ABC, Wendy Higgins from the Humane Society International in Europe said the dissection made “a macabre spectacle out of a much deeper tragedy”, arguing that zoos over-bred thousands of animals every year.

The scandal simply demonstrates that we are troubled by death in some circumstances, and not in others. Animal deaths which fail to spark international outrage include the nine million piglets which die every year in Denmark before they are four weeks old, according to the University of Aarhus. Or the 30,000 male Jersey cows killed every year because they cannot produce milk.

Amidst the Marius drama of 2014, Holst explained why euthanizing surplus animals was the only option for Copenhagen Zoo. Unlike farm animals, Danish zoo inhabitants (who belong to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) are allowed to have families. But given that the populations are so small, the groups risk inbreeding if the children are not circulated to other zoos before they reach breeding age.

The only other options are castration or contraception. Neither are permitted in EAZA zoos. The former removes the animals their right to start a family, while the latter can be ineffective and even dangerous to the animal. When other EAZA zoos cannot accept the surplus animal, the only remaining option is euthanisation before it begins to breed.

In Denmark, live dissections are not an uncommon way to educate the public about animals. “It’s important to show that animals actually die in zoos and that we can learn something from it,” head zoologist of Aalborg Zoo, Jens Sigsgard, told DR. “”I think it’s sad if we aren’t allowed to show what animals are made of and how their bodies function.”

The international ‘outrage’ highlights the differences between Danish and international approaches to learning about biology and the natural world.

“Even though I know that children of all ages regularly visit abattoirs and watch animal dissections here in Denmark, it just doesn’t sit well with me,” wrote British journalist and Copenhagen resident Alex Forrest in the Huffington Post. “Does that make me, a meat-eater, a hypocrite? Probably.”

But maybe the problem is really the preemptive media moralizing, and where it chooses to direct its headlines. In a society thriving on meat consumption, children shouldn’t be censored from the reality of animal deaths. Where the zoo simply made the most of a unique educational opportunity for children, the media patronised the school-age audience instead. What’s more, can the international media circuit really consider one lion newsworthy, when Danish industrial production kills millions of animals a day simply for their meat? M


By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

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