One moment, you're "Swiss of the Year," the next thing you know you're Swiss steak
Who doesn't love baby animals?
Apparently not the Swiss, who chose Farasi, a teensy-tiny baby hippo born on November 6, 2008 at the Basel Zoo, as "Swiss of the Year" for 2008. Farasi (the name means horse in Swahili) managed to beat out tennis ace Roger Federer.
But Federer likely has more staying power.
As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, poor Farasi is more likely to end up on somebody's plate this year - and the plate won't be of the souvenir variety. (Note: access to the WSJ article may require a subscription.)
It seems that, while Farsi's safe as long as he's - by hippo standards - a babe in arms, once he has grown to man's estate, he'll have to go. The Basel Zoo isn't big enough to support two adult male hippos.
And in Europe, a homeless hippo is a dead hippo.
Unlike American zoos, zoos in Europe apparently don't believe in birth control. Instead, they practice a "birds do it, bees do it" approach that nets them too many zoo babies. When zookeepers can't find a place for their bonus babies, they put them down, using the carcasses for research or food.
In the U.S., says Steve Feldman of the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Farasi wouldn't have been born unless a home had been lined up for him. "We never put down a healthy animal." European zoos say sex, pregnancy and parenting are fundamental needs. "A chimpanzee spends 24 hours a day with its young for four years," says Robert Zingg, chief curator of Zurich Zoo, which works closely with Basel Zoo. "How do you replace that?" European zoos even sometimes euthanize surplus chimps, he says.
(Gosh! How'd you like to be a more or less sentient four year old chimp about to be euthanized? So long, Mom. It's been a swell four years!)
So little Farasi may well get "thrown to the lions."
Amid the joy of Farasi's birth, zoo spokeswoman Tanja Dietrich said he'd be put up for adoption. Or else? Zoo policy, she said, is to "put down excess animals and feed them to carnivores."
One does have to admire the matter-of-fact, no BS truth-telling here - can you imagine a US zoo giving the press this little morsel. No wonder we practice animal birth control here - it's far more palatable than euthanasia. Still, it's hard not to lament the possible fate of Farasi.
The Basel Zoo's policy has jolted the Swiss, captured the headlines of their tabloid newspapers, and prompted a soft-hearted Zurich resident, Andrea Dindo, to start up a "save Farasi club". Her Facebook group has 15,000 members.
Ms. Dindo is doing more than just friending. Her group has written to a number of zoos looking for a new home for Farasi. So far, they've had no luck.
One reason that the Dindo and so many other Swiss are so up in virtual arms over this is that they are a genuinely animal-loving nation.
Last September, Switzerland passed an animal bill of rights that says that pet guinea pigs, for instance, should be kept in pairs to avoid loneliness. Swiss have to mercifully knock out their goldfish before flushing them down the toilet.
(I wonder who polices those regulations? "Ma'am, we're here to make sure that you still have both the guinea pigs you bought last month. You say that you know have 12 guinea pigs? That's interesting, the report from the pet shop says that they sold you two males.")
Back to the Save Farasi campaign:
Zoo professionals cock an eyebrow at the activists. "Animals die in nature," says Gerald Dick, director of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Bern. If they die in captivity, "it would be crazy to throw away the meat."
Farasi has the rest of the year to enjoy himself, but his time is ticking away. By the age of one, he will be seen as a threat to his father. And with good reason.
In nature, the young sexually mount their mothers if they can.
But finding a home for a hippo is hard, especially for a male, since you can only have one per zoo. And they live pretty long, too - into their 50's - so there's not a lot of turnover. If you're the lucky male, you're more or less a pig in clover. If you're not the lucky one, you're more or less bacon.
The Swiss national circus has offered to take Farasi, but the zoo wants him in a real (zoo) home, not wearing a tutu and dancing on his hind legs, or whatever circus hippos do. (I may be thinking of the hippos in Fantasia here.)
The Basel Zoo will keep looking for a home for Farasi, but alas,
..says Ms. Dietrich: "Euthanasia is the final option after all else has failed."
As the woman with the rabbit hutch in Michael Moore's Roger & Me had it, it all comes down to "Pets or Meat."