Communications Blunder: Marius the Giraffe Killed at Copenhagen Zoo and Fed to the Lions


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There is no creature more vicious, inhuman and cold-blooded than a Danish zookeeper!

That’s what many are saying in light of the murder of the healthy 18 month old giraffe named Marius who was killed by the Copenhagen Zoo, in the name of culling to improve the zoo’s bloodstock. Despite international outcry, a worldwide petition and offers to buy the giraffe, Marius was one of an eight stock herd, who was earmarked for culling because there were too many giraffes with similar genes in Europe’s zoo breeding program.

I have to put my cards on the table by saying that I find it repulsive and am totally against the senseless killing of healthy exotic animals when other options are available.

Usually I discuss how crisis management has gone wrong. But in this case, there was no strategy at all and no attempt by the Copenhagen Zoo to develop a strategy to protect it’s image, and zoos in general.

In any controversial situation, I like to play it safe by making every attempt possible to avoid all controversy so that one doesn’t have to deal with a crisis and negative publicity. In other words the best surprise is no surprise, and that the best type of damage control, is not having to do any damage control!

But needless to say, the damage was already done by the Copenhagen Zoo in initiating this barbaric deed.

The first golden rule of managing a crisis is: Have a plan! What we saw was that failing to have a plan, quickly became planning to fail, as the zoo’s image or brand has now been damaged for years to come.

Going hand-in-hand with this first rule is: Action may hurt, but inaction in this case is debilitating! With the decision to euthanize, the Copenhagen Zoo acted irresponsibly by not developing a communications or crisis management strategy. If there was a strategy, I and countless others from around the globe could not see one.

The third rule is: Do your research! Find out as much as you can! Notwithstanding, from both communications and public relations perspectives there is so much more that the Copenhagen Zoo and its scientific director, Bengt Holst could have done to put forward a more humane and caring image, instead of coming across as a bunch of blood-thirsty and uncaring savages.

In saying this, there are so many opportunities that may have been available to avoid the type of negative publicity that has befallen on the Copenhagen Zoo. Other parties were willing and able to take the unwanted animal, possibly even allowing the Copenhagen Zoo to make a profit.

Instead, according to zoo officials, as the Copenhagen Zoo is a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), and members do not own the animals, but only govern them, and therefore cannot sell them to anyone outside the organization that doesn’t follow the same set of rules.

In looking at the EAZA website, I was able to glean the following concerning the euthanasia of Marius:

EAZA is obligated to ensure that the animal would continue to live under the high standards of welfare that are exemplified by zoos such as Copenhagen and would only very rarely consider transferring the animal to a zoo that is not subject to our code of practice. We stress that the vast majority of animals euthanised in zoos are put down as a result of ill health, and extremely rarely for reasons of conservation management. Giraffes within EAZA zoos are managed via an EEP or endangered species programme and any moves to other facilities are made after consultation with the coordinator and species committee.

Clearly, the animal could have been transferred to another zoo. But this option was turned down by an offer from the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Britain, which is also a member of EAZA, because Marius’ older brother lives there and the park’s space could be better used by a “genetically more valuable giraffe.” In actuality, the Yorkshire Wildlife Park made a last-minute offer to house Marius in a new giraffe house with room for an extra male. Is this the same type of argument that would have been used in Nazi Germany?

The next rule from a crisis communications standpoint is to: Take swift, firm and sincere action! In this case, it would have been prudent for officials to show, empathy, understanding, and sensitivity to the loss of this noble animal. Let’s face it; Marius wasn’t a common sewer rat, but a majestic animal. Instead, the giraffe was shot in the head in public view, execution style.

This leads me to the fifth rule: Know your audience and make a serious attempt to bond with them in some fashion! Instead Holst showed his disdain for public opinion and the public by admitting that he found it hard to understand the fuss over Marius’s death, and saying “I don’t think anyone would have lifted an eyebrow if it was a pig,”. This is not bonding with his audience, but belittling them, and only exemplified his “holier than thou attitude” and added “fuel to the fire”.

His behaviour leads to the next rule: If you’ve dug yourself into a hole, stop digging! By making stupid and insulting comments, the Copenhagen Zoo continued to dig, and may have created a grave out of the hole that it had already dug. A perfect illustration of this is the fact that Marius was then dissected into pieces and fed to the lions, while children watched.

Just picture the children watching the gory and traumatic spectacle of a giraffe being cut up, and then fed to the lions. As an adult, I would be repulsed. I am reminded by the stories of the public spectacles made by the Romans feeding the Christians to the lions.

The key point is that the controversy of the culling of Marius could have been avoided altogether. By going through with this barbaric deed, the uncaring, callous and arrogant attitude of the Copenhagen Zoo will surely create many controversies which will have repercussions on all zoos, in general. Already, debate is now being stirred-up by animal advocates about many issues.

The Copenhagen Zoo’s actions can only lead to more arguments about the role that zoos play in conservation, and specifically the ethical question of their mandate and focus on ensuring the viability of species, whereas they cannot ensure the welfare of a specific animal. What about their mission to conserve and educate? Is it being compromised by profit and space? Why do they continue to breed animals when they cannot or are unwilling to care for them?

From a communications and crisis management perspectives, these are issues that will increasingly become matters for debate within the realm of public opinion all caused by the negligent, uncaring and arrogant attitude of the Copenhagen Zoo.

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