Life and Death in Northern Europe

Dying for the greater good.

[](/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/02/mar.jpg)A couple of recent news stories shed a disturbing light on the contemporary northern European mind – or, at least, on one alarmingly common variation on it.

Earlier this month, the Copenhagen Zoo announced plans to “euthanize” a healthy two-year-old giraffe named Marius. The reason: he was superfluous – a “surplus” giraffe – because “his genes were well represented among the captive giraffe population in European zoos.” Animal lovers around the world reacted with outrage, and several zoos, including one in Yorkshire, said they would be delighted to give Marius a home. A billionaire offered half a million euros for Marius, whom he planned to keep in his garden in Beverly Hills. But the offers were rebuffed. On February 9, while eating rye bread, “a favorite snack,” Marius was tranquilized, killed with a shotgun, autopsied, and fed to lions – all in front of zoogoers, including both adults and children.

The man behind this act of extermination was Bengt Holst, the Copenhagen Zoo’s scientific director. In reply to the protests, he stood firm, dismissing the international outcry as “totally out of proportion.” Declared Holst: “A giraffe is not a pet; it’s not like a dog or cat that becomes part of the family.” (Why give it a name, then?) He insisted that the “euthanasia” of Marius was necessary “to ensure a healthy population.” Why couldn’t he just have sent Marius to another zoo? Because, Holst insisted, the likely genetic similarity between Marius and other giraffes on the premises would have raised the possibility of inbreeding. As for Yorkshire, “Marius’ older brother lives there and the park’s space could be better used by a ‘genetically more valuable giraffe.‘”

But if they were worried about inbreeding, why not just give Marius contraceptives? Nope: that might have caused renal problems or other side effects. Why not neuter him, then? No, said Holst, “if we just sterilize him, he will take up space” that (again) could be better given to “genetically more valuable giraffes.” Besides, neutering Marius would have lowered his quality of life. “Our most important objective,” said Holst, “is to ensure that the animals have the best life they can for as long as they live, whether that’s 20 years or two years. Breeding and parenting are especially important behaviors for a giraffe’s well-being. We didn’t want to interfere with that.” But what about the billionaire in Beverly Hills? Why not let Marius live with him? Again, no: giraffes, said Holst, are “social animals,” and it’s not fair to them to keep them in isolation. “As long as they are with us,” Holst told a reporter, “we want them to have a good life, with as much natural behavior as possible.” As for the decision to turn Marius’s death, autopsy, and consumption by lions into a spectacle for small children, Holst said it was a good idea “because zoos have an obligation ‘not to make nature into a Disney World.‘”

Holst received public backup from Leslie Dickie, executive director of the Amsterdam-based European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, who, noting that much of the outcry over the killing of Marius had come from America, attributed these reactions to “ a misunderstanding about what is ‘normal in Danish culture’” and complained that people who were getting worked up about Marius’s fate had “perhaps lost sight of the bigger picture.” Dickie made the point that “the Copenhagen Zoo wouldn’t send Marius to an institution with ‘lesser standards of welfare’” and that putting Marius into a situation where he wouldn’t be able to breed “would violate the EAZA’s standard of ‘providing a behavioral repertoire as natural as possible’ for animals in captivity.”

Well, well. The first thing that needs to be emphasized here is that Holst and Dickie are not isolated oddballs. Holst’s actions were dictated by an ideology that is widespread, especially in northern Europe, and that does not just apply to zoo animals. What we are dealing with here, to put it briefly, is people who are certain that they are noble and good. They believe in the cycle of life. They believe in quality of life. They just don’t happen to believe in the individual life. In fact, they view the individual life as getting in the way of things they value more – breeding programs, the ecosystem, and so on. They regard people who focus on the individual life as childlike sentimentalists who don’t grasp that every individual life is only part of a larger design, a “bigger picture,” and should be extinguished the moment it becomes burdensome or inconvenient. I don’t think it’s misguided to suggest that there exists a certain continuity between this way of thinking and that which made possible the horrors of the Final Solution. It is a barbaric way of thinking – and yet in the cultural-elite circles in northern Europe it is considered enlightened and humane. It’s “scientific.” It’s unsentimental. It’s free of American – of Disney-ish – sappiness.

To be sure, Holst would probably protest that he does care about the individual life. After all, he killed Marius partly because he didn’t want him to live a less than ideal life. Better to die than experience renal problems or other side effects. Better to die than endure “lesser standards of welfare.” Better to die, you see, than not experience parenthood. Better to die than be without the company of other giraffes. This is the PETA mentality: in the minds of such people, there are any number of good reasons to snuff out a life. For some of us, this looks very much like a love of death. Holst doesn’t want to “interfere” with giraffe “behaviors,” but he has no problem “interfering” with life itself.  Indeed, the fact that he didn’t hesitate to kill Marius in the face of international opposition suggests that he considers himself something of a crusader for his ideology of death (and the fact that another Danish zoo was, until this weekend, reportedly considering the possibility of executing its own baby giraffe, also named Marius, confirms that Holst is, indeed, far from alone). Meanwhile, the condemnation of Holst’s actions by American and Canadian zoo officials – including Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo and of Late Show with David Letterman fame, who said he would have paid for Marius with his own money – underscored the gulf between North American and European zookeeping philosophies. 

Reading Holst’s comments, I am reminded of a vet we had years ago here in Norway. My partner made the mistake of asking her about the possibility of having our (indoor) cats declawed. Thoroughly appalled by the question, she favored us with a livid harangue about how savage it was to do such a thing to cats – it was a slap in the face of nature and would cause a major diminishment in their quality of life. Then, a couple of years later, when one of our cats needed to have some teeth pulled, the same vet casually asked if we’d prefer to save the money and have him put to sleep instead. (To these people, there is no logical inconsistency here: exterminating an animal is fine; it’s reducing their quality of life that is an unforgivable offense.) Still later, when the same cat was suffering from a life-threatening disorder, the vet – another one this time – declared that it was his job to be the “voice of the animal,” because the animal “doesn’t have a voice of its own,” and proceeded to inform us that the “voice of the animal” decreed that “the animal” should be put to death. No, our cat was not in pain. But as far as the vet was concerned, the time had come; death was the only item on the menu, and to say no to it, to try to fight it off, indeed to do anything other than hasten it, invite it in, was unseemly, presumptuous, selfish, sentimental; it was to tilt at windmills, to fail to bow to the way of all flesh, to place what we wanted as human beings ahead of what nature was demanding of us.

This philosophy made no sense to me. How could this readiness to throw in the towel, to discard a life, could be called, in any sense, the “voice of the animal”? Don’t most people who are suffering with some deadly disease want to live as long as they possibly can – even if it involves a degree of pain or discomfort? Can a vet be so sure that cats are any different? In any case, isn’t being a doctor supposed to be about being on the side of life? No, not anymore. Now, increasingly, especially in places like Denmark and Norway, the doctor isn’t a soldier in the army of life but a servant of the circle of life whose job it is, when he or she thinks the time has come, to usher Death into the room, take his coat and hat, work by his side, and follow his orders. 

Which brings us to another recent news story from northern Europe. As it happens, there are three jurisdictions in the world that permit euthanasia (as opposed to physician-assisted suicide), and, perhaps not coincidentally, they’re the three Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. (A fourth may soon join them: Quebec’s assembly will vote on a euthanasia bill modeled on the Benelux laws by the end of this month.) In Luxembourg, euthanasia is available only to those over eighteen; in the Netherlands, it can be performed on persons as young as twelve. Last week the Belgian Senate voted overwhelmingly to join the Netherlands in permitting the euthanasia of children. “We are talking about children that are really at the end of their life. It’s not that they have months or years to go. Their life will end anyway,” said a leading Brussels pediatrician who supported the move. Yes, their life will end anyway. Why fight? Yes, some Belgian pediatricians opposed the measure, as did Brussels’s archbishop, who warned of “a risk of very serious consequences in the long term for society and the meaning we give to life, death and the freedom of human beings.” Well, you can say that again. Manifestly, these euthanasia advocates are motivated by the same attitude toward life and death that propels Bengt Holst.

Two years ago, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten profiled 62-year-old Arne Sveen, who had cancer and had refused medical treatment because he felt it was wrong to “spend enormous sums prolonging fatally ill people’s lives by a few months.” Aftenposten gave every indication of celebrating his decision: Sveen, one gathered, was a model citizen whom everyone else in Norway would do well to emulate. The article quoted a doctor who had evidently moved beyond old-fashioned medical ethics. “What is death, really?” she said. “A natural end to life or an evil that should be fought?” She plainly believed it to be the former. “Is it worth expending energy, effort, and money,” she asked, “on treatment that will never cure, [but that will] just put off death for a brief period?” In Norway, the article informed us, the death panels – for, yes, that’s what they are – will generally approve treatments costing up to somewhere in the range of $65,000 to $115,000 if they’re expected to give patients another “good” year. Of course, health-care officials would prefer that everyone started thinking like Arne Sveen: live a healthy, robust life while you can, but once you threaten to become a burden on society, be prepared to check out. The message is clear: fighting for your life isn’t heroic – it’s indecent and selfish. Norway has more important things to do with your tax money (such as enrich African dictators and terrorist-linked Muslim groups) than to prolong your life.

All of which leads me to a letter that arrived the other day in our household. It concerned my partner’s grandmother, whom neither of us ever knew; she died in 1966 and is buried in a cemetery in a small village near the northernmost tip of Norway. The letter was from the local parish council of the Church of Norway that is responsible for that cemetery. It announced, in the taut, formal – indeed, dehumanized – prose that is typical of business correspondence in northern Europe, that unless we deposited 500 kroner (slightly under $100) into the parish council’s bank account by February 15, the tombstone and plantings would be removed. Delicately omitted from the letter was the fact that the remains themselves would also be removed, or perhaps buried deeper in the ground in a small container, so as to free up the grave for re-use. This, as you may or may not know, is standard practice throughout much of Western Europe – and while it’s not a new practice but an old one (dating back to medieval times), it says something about attitudes toward life and death in this supposedly super-civilized corner of the world, I think, that it remains the norm.

Yes, I understand the issue of lack of space, but there’s nowhere on earth where this is less of a problem than at the northernmost tip of Norway, so this isn’t about that. What it’s about, it seems to me, is what the Danish slaughter of Marius the giraffe, the Belgian eagerness to institute childhood euthanasia, and the Norwegian enthusiasm for cancer patients who refuse to burden the system are also about: namely, a well-nigh fetishistic preoccupation with the quality of life and the cycle of life that coexists, perversely, with a chillingly insufficient sense of the value – the preciousness – of the individual life (and, as a corollary, of the sacredness of the remains of the dead). Whatever name you want to give to this unsettling mentality, there is unquestionably more and more of it going around, with northern Europe quite clearly in the vanguard – although, as is the case with so much else that afflicts Europe these days, America is hardly immune to its ravages.

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