Anyone wondering how to entertain children over half-term may be interested to hear about what passes as a fun day out in Denmark. At midday, Odense zoo dissected a lion as an educational event during the country’s autumn school holiday. And while the rest of the world is up in arms, most Danes don’t see what all the fuss is about.
Peter Sandøe, professor of bioethics at the University of Copenhagen and former chairman of the Danish Ethical Council for Animals tells me that public animal dissections aren’t intended to be provocative, but educational. And they’re certainly not uncommon in Denmark, carried out on all kinds of animals: seals, whales, giraffes.
“Dissections are an old Danish tradition going back 400 years,” says Sandøe, “and taking a trip to see something like this is a typical thing to do with school-aged children in the holidays – it can open their eyes to the world of science.”
A straw poll of Danish friends confirms this view. One tells me about a school trip to see a wolf getting dissected. Another tells me that his nine-year-old niece is such a fan, she asked to see a snake slit open for her birthday. Animal autopsies are so popular in Denmark that institutions often have to hold two-a-day in school holidays to meet demand.
There isn’t much sentimentality when it comes to animals in Denmark – as demonstrated in the case of Marius, the 18-month old giraffe from Copenhagen zoo. Though healthy, Marius was considered unsuitable for breeding because his genes were too common, so it was decided by the authorities to put him down. This provoked an international outcry and a petition calling on the zoo to rethink its decision. Bengt Holst, Copenhagen zoo’s scientific director, told CNN that his job was to preserve species, not individual animals, and on the 9 February 2014, the giraffe was given a last meal of some quintessentially Danish rye bread before being shot in the head with a bolt gun. After this, zoo staff conducted a public autopsy, enthusiastically attended by crowds of Danish children and their parents. Marius was dissected and fed to lions – again, in front of an audience.
If we are going to tuck in to a juicy steak or a pork chop, shouldn’t we reconcile ourselves to where it comes from The world’s press was perplexed at what they saw as macabre callousness. One letter to the Guardian noted that “the public execution of Marius and his equally public consumption by lions” made Danish Noir “easier to understand, psychologically”. Holst tried to explain by saying that zoos have an obligation, “not to make nature into a Disney World” and to show instead, “the real thing”. But the rest of the world didn’t quite “get” it.