The only two groups that didn’t seem outraged by the death of Marius the giraffe were the children who watched him being dissected and the lions that got to eat him after.
Marius, as you probably know, was an 18-month-old giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo who was euthanized despite international pleas to save his life, an uproar that outstripped the protests that occasionally precede a death-row prisoner’s execution by injection.
The giraffe was cuter than any death-row prisoner, of course. Those giant, trusting doe eyes! There’s a reason they sell so many stuffed giraffes in zoo gift shops, rather than, say, herring, which no one laments as they’re fed by the bucketful to hungry captive seals. The details of Marius’s end were poignant: He was considered surplus to breeding stock and would threaten the gene pool if he did procreate, and so by the rigid rules of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria he had to go. Marius was led to his death with the Judas kiss of his favourite snack, a piece of rye bread, then finished off with a bolt gun to the head. I haven’t been able to determine whether he got to eat the condemned giraffe’s last meal.
The greatest outrage was saved for the zoo’s decision to cut Marius into chunks in front of a crowd that included children. “Marius the giraffe butchered in front of children and fed to lions at Copenhagen Zoo” read the headline in the U.K. Mirror. People expressed horror that the poor children who witnessed the autopsy would be scarred forever.
I fear that none of them actually looked at the photos and video of Marius’s dissection: The kids in the crowd look fascinated. They aren’t grimacing or turning away in squeamishness. Children on their father’s shoulders crane their necks to see the action. They are, for the first and probably only time, privy to the enthralling sight of the inside of a giraffe.
Those pictures illustrate something that parents realize instinctively: Most children are hearty, macabre little beasts. They are as fascinated with the end of life as their parents are with the middle of it. Give them a dead fish on a riverbank, as I did with my kids last fall, and they will crouch over it and poke it with a stick as if the prodding will reveal the mysteries of creation. They are tiny, insatiably curious scientists until we chastise it out of them.
The Copenhagen Zoo argued that the autopsy had an educational purpose: “People are fascinated by it, both adults and children, and they would like to hear stories they don’t normally have access to. I think that’s good,” Bengt Holst, the scientific director, said. “It helps increase the knowledge about animals but also the knowledge about life and death.”
Northern Europeans have a more pragmatic, less flappable view of childhood than the one that’s evolved in North America. Hedvig, a Danish mother of young children living in Canada, told me she couldn’t understand the uproar over Marius. But then she also has a family tradition of baking birthday cakes in the shape of tiny people – and having her children stab them with a knife. She tried to introduce this custom to Canada, she said, without much success. “We think children really are quite robust,” she said.
I reached Naomi, who raised her two young sons in Germany, to ask her about whether children are too coddled here. She told me she was nonplussed by the fuss, while in the background her boys watched a tape of their favourite show, the original Swedish version of Pippi Longstocking, complete with nudity and parental death. Naomi is pretty sure it would be banned in Canada.
Marius was eventually fed to the lions, which seemed to infuriate people who labour under the misapprehension that lions exist on quinoa salad and kale smoothies. At the very least, Marius’s sacrifice was an illustration of the food chain for kids who think that sausages are born, fully formed, in the meat counter of the supermarket. (And if you think that’s a stretch, consider this survey of British schoolchildren from earlier this year: Almost a third thought cheese came from plants and almost one in five believed that fish fingers were made from chicken.)
We live in fear of giving children nightmares, but they’ve already explored the darkest corners of their imagination on their own. Witness the continuing popularity of Roald Dahl, who knew that there is nothing funnier than a murderous grandmother, or the explosion of dystopian fiction for teens, where the world is grimmer and more brutal than in any adult novel. My eight-year-old’s favourite book is called Strange Deaths, a compendium of bizarre fatalities. If she’s ever in a spelling bee, she’ll take the pie with “defenestrate.”
Perhaps children can quite happily think about death because it’s so improbable, whereas parents see the shadow around the corner. Poor Marius will haunt our nightmares, not theirs.