Even Giraffes Die

Warning – this article may contain sentimentality.

Last week here in the UK and around Europe there was a bit of a stir when the Copenhagen Zoo announced that it was going to kill an 18 month-old giraffe called Marius. The giraffe was surplus to requirements, and although other zoos offered to take Marius in (among them, the Yorkshire Wildlife Park, whose head of hoofed animals is Danish, and an individual who offered to buy Marius for 50,000 euros) the zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, explained that there was such a small gene pool among giraffes in European zoos that the risk of inbreeding in Copenhagen or elsewhere was too great. Giving Marius contraceptives was ruled out because of unwanted side-effects and was ‘poor animal welfare’. Giraffes are part of a conservation programme and the move was supported by the monitoring body, the European Association for Zoos, as good management. Unlike Holst I’d say that killing has even more unwanted side-effects than contraception (for Marius, to say nothing of the public’s view of the Copenhagen zoo), but I don’t think the authorities were looking at it from a giraffe’s point of view. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they don’t think there is such a thing as a giraffe’s point of view.

Naturally, there was a petition with 27,000 signatures and demonstrations outside the zoo. But Mr Holst the scientist, was adamant and brought all his scientific understanding of the world to bear on the discussion, although not until the deed was done and Marius had been dispatched. He had never considered cancelling the killing in spite of the outcry. Perhaps, even, the outcry strengthened his resolve. Nor did he consider that another sort of understanding than the strictly scientific also had a place in human decision-making.

“We have been very steadfast because we know we’ve made this decision on a factual and proper basis. We can’t all of a sudden change to something we know is worse because of some emotional events happening around us. It’s important that we try to explain why we do it and then hope people understand it. If we are serious about our breeding activities, including participation in breeding programmes, then we have to follow what we know is right. And this is right.”

His choice of words was exemplary of a particular way of thinking, and one that I would wish did not have all the say in an enterprise that has the power of life and death over sentient beings. Science was held up as the arbiter of what is right, and emotionality used to describe the opposite of right. Science stands firm against an onslaught of unthinking emotion. To make the death of Marius even more scientific, he was dissected in front of an audience in an operation that took three hours, while the paying public looked on, including children. But so they should, because, Holst explained, ‘It helps increase the knowledge about animals but also the knowledge about life and death.’ Not only does Holst’s science know what is right for conservation, it knows what is right for people to learn and how they should learn it. The educational opportunity was expanded by filming it and putting it on uTube. When it was over, the remains of Marius were given to the lions, who were also filmed tucking into a great slab of spotted giraffe flesh. Butchers should be very grateful to Bendt Holst for suggesting an educational sideline.

On the other side of the argument – the non-science side, as Holst would say, emotionalists used words like ‘ethical’ and suggested that Marius – having been bred by the zoo – was an moral obligation upon them. He deserved to live because he was alive. Holst was having none of this. It wouldn’t be right to let Marius live and take up the space that could be used for a ‘genetically more valuable’ giraffe.

It sounds so simple, I could hand my life over to Bendt. Here, you sort it out, you know what’s right, you’re the scientist, I’m exhausted by the effort of trying to understand what’s right and what’s wrong. I’m sure I won’t manage my life as well or logically as Bendt the Undoubting would. Of course, that’s a silly thing to say, because I’m a human and Marius was a giraffe. I think that sentence needs ‘just’. Marius was just an animal. I’m sure that Holst wouldn’t dream of speaking about humans in that way. Surplus to requirements. Scientific conservation principles controlling the life and death of individuals whose genes might not be diverse enough. And I doubt very much, had a killing of a human taken place for genetic reasons, that Bendt would have authorised the public dissection of the body on the grounds that it would increase our knowledge of life and death.

For one thing, he wouldn’t dare. But that just goes to show that there is an absolute distinction between us, the managers, the rulers of the natural world, and the coarse beasts who are under our control. Yet even among those who accept this disctinction, I think there are many who would say that we had a moral duty to respect the lives of others, including the animals. It is a very extreme position to dismiss a captive animal’s claim to life on the basis of space and scientific interest. It may be what the word ‘inhumane’ was invented for.

But even Holst has his soppy moments. It’s true that he insisted that Marius was killed by being shot in the head by the zoo vet, rather than given a lethal injection, the usual humane way of euthanasing sick animals, because they planned to feed Marius’s remains to the lions. All very scientific and logical – why waste perfectly good meat, even if you’d said good morning to it the previous day. But here’s the thing: in his last moments, before he was shot, Marius was given a last meal of his favourite treat – rye bread. Perhaps this was just a sentimental to

The Island of lost words

For the third time this month I’ve locked myself out of my online banking  facility. Each time I have run over the limit of making three mistakes in my password. A very polite note explained that I would not be able to use the account until I phoned the bank, who would sort it out for me.

It so happens that in the past few months my memory has taken a beating from the chemotherapy and radiotherapy I’ve been receiving. But even without those side effects, it isn’t uncommon for people to forget names, words, phrases, numbers. It’s a perfectly ordinary aspect of growing older. I am almost 68. Yesterday we had some friends round to lunch and every one of us – even those younger by half than me – had to pause over people and titles, while the others tried to help narrow the options down. I remembered a game we used to play, in which one person thought of a person or an object and the other had to guess what they were thinking of by asking questions to which only the answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’ were allowed. The game was preparation for now.

To overcome our various degrees of distress or embarrassment we laughed gently at the forgotten word and assured each other that we did it all the time. ‘It’s just the effect of ageing’ someone said as if the sentence was a ramp. It happened several times at yesterday’s lunch. This laughter is like a blanket – soft, very fine wool, gossamer – that falls over the silent moment of forgetting, and the speaker can proceed either to offer clues to themselves and others (you know, she married so and so, that man who used to live in Scotland and then was killed in a car crash in New York – him.) Or to delete what has now become an unnecessary detail (‘oh, one of those reality show people. It doesn’t matter. Anyway…’) and the story can continue. Inside, our hearts are breaking at the enormity of the lost word. We are kind to each other, even the younger ones, because we know, we all know, what this forgetting because we’re not as young as we used to be, really means.

I don’t speak much French, but I know enough to translate la petite mort as ‘orgasm’. It’s a shame that it can’t be used to depict each of these forgetting moments. Little deaths. Tip of the tongue. Oh, I nearly had it. Each one a petite mort. All the lost words: like the lost boys in Peter Pan, locked out of their homes, left behind in a store, who become Peter Pan’s guards of honour, who live together in Never Land. Elizabeth Taylor, last Friday morning, the blue velvet dress, lees, Honda Civic, William James; some of them are recalled by you or another around the table. But the ones that never reach beyond your own boundaries surely become another lost boy. Forgotten, accumulated, denied importance, laughed out of the conversation. More lost boys to lead their own lives.

But that’s an evasion too. Elizabeth, the Honda civic, William James, the lees you notice as you finish a bottle of wine, once lost and even if remembered as you are taking off your make-up after everyone’s gone, fall like Tetris tiles, and, practice makes perfect, more accurately in place each time, to make a wall. Fall like leaves so that as you wake each morning and look at the birch tree outside the window, it looks increasingly depleted until one morning, after a particularly stormy autumn night, you wake and you keep your eyes shut for as long as possible, because you know, things being what they are, the world being as it is, that when you open them, you will see entirely naked branches. Well, of course, it’s pretty much winter. What did you expect?

So I had a thought about writing a book for the elderly, the old. Those who have lost their words more comprehensively than the friends around our lunch table, but haven’t lost themselves entirely. A book about where all the words go, where after a time they find the others and collaborate to make sentences. Not grammatical sentences, because there are always some words that stick in the mind. Mostly, nouns, verbs, and adjectives disappear, at least at first. The names, the actions, the descriptions that make meaning of what we see and think. That allow us to express the world to others. So the book would be quite short to begin with and grow as more and more words found their way from the tip of the tongue to Never Land. Words put out to grass, like fine old working horses. Perhaps the elderly reader would come upon a word that is familiar and point to it. Perhaps it would be a day of hearing only the sounds the reader makes with the words that mean no more than a falling Tetris brick or a single leaf drifting down from a birch tree. After all, the very young have no words and books are written for them. If the very young can soak up the sound of a word that has no meaning for it, why not the old.

There is a problem of course. We write books for the very young with the intention that they should learn about the names, actions and descriptions of the world they suddenly have found themselves in. The book of lost words is more like a clearing away. Like hoovering up dead leaves, or building walls that have nothing behind them. The child’s book is the book of becoming. The book for the elderly is the book of going. It had better be the most beautiful book ever made.

.Staying free – so far,

The smell of freedom is so strong that it’s like on of those classic perfumes. It liners with a real sense of how it was. The nurse stood with with her back to the drugs trolley as if  I were going to run away with them all, ‘I won’t let you go.’ You mean you’d section me?’ Yes, she said far too firms. You can’t section me, I;ve don’t nothing wrong but say that I want to go home. Not since 1968 have I been threatened with the lock up. `i got quite scared just with the threat of incarceration.. ‘You can’t section me, you need two doctors agreeing I am a danger to myself or other people. U;m neither. I want to go home, where I have a house, a husband and  work to be done.. No-one has played that hand on me for decades, but the shiver of fear ran down my spine nonetheless.. Being locked up with no one on your side is very frightening. But keep your cool, get your ducks in a row and show them you know as much as they do about the process of locking someone up, with the appropriate calmness, and it’ll get you out of all sorts of nonsense, It took a nurse twenty minutes ti out a line from a vein  in my arm to my heart so that a support team of nurses can come and infuse you with antibiotics and you remain your own woman. Try it,it. Freedom, up to a point, still works,

When Paranoia Makes a lot of sense

Sometimes you feel that you’ve won a deadly battle against the forces. I mean The Flrces. may it leave you alone.  In Hospital s week ago or so with pneumonia The longer you stay the longer you become part of the system. meals at a certain time, pills all at the same time, lights out at the sane time. Everything to the convenience of the staff. Somehow like wooden dolls whose clothes you change every day.

Hospital is like that. All for the e=people running it, not mjuch for the benefit of the pstrient. I needed four injections a day of antibiotics a day, and it turned ut txt these could be given at home through a pic line ulender my skin to my heart by traded nurses. /saving time a hospital bed and the nurses expertise needed by others, Ffnally after having looked into t,discovered that this was a possibility. `i had the line inserted, gave my bed to someone who, `i hope needed it more and got the hell away frommthe institution. `happiness all around apart from the nurse who threatened to have me sectioned so they  could give mr say treat me any way they wanted, or thought best. meaning the cod practice whatever daft art they fancied on my body

I was polite but firm (after explaining to her that I wasm’t s cucumbet. “it worked like a spell. Say cucumber at the in a steady, sane tone of voice, snd they couldn’t wait to get rid of me. We parted company in the best of humours and I am having the treatment I needed without taking uo twice the space. Simple if you keep your calm.