Professor J. V. Pickstone: A personal recollection

I first met John in April 1996 when I went to Manchester for an interview. He seemed to have modelled himself as an eccentric professor, and throughout the time I knew him I never quite worked out how much this was really just him, and how much he was playing with the persona out of impishness.

John saw something in me, and offered me a place on CHSTM’s MA in the History and Social Anthropology Of Science, Technology and Medicine, a unique and, it would be fair to say, brain-stretching course. I was assured funding for the course and with his backing, was fortunate enough to get Wellcome Trust funding for a PhD too. Thus John did, one way or another, change the course of my life. I was far from alone in this.

Although I think there’s a general rule that memorials should be universally glowing, it would be fair to say that my relationship with John could be a bit tetchy, and I think he would rather I was honest about that. He had a habit, in supervisions, of scratching his chest. Some of his shirts had a button missing where he would delve inside for an itch. Rumour had it that one of his overseas students told him off for this. “Oh”, said John, “is it not acceptable in Japan?” “It’s not acceptable anywhere” she snapped back. Then there was the time he asked me the difference between sex and gender. I didn’t really know where to start with that one and it’s only now that I realise how much he must have trusted my judgement to ask that question of me.

I think now, those habits are a sign of how much at ease with himself John was. He had a slightly odd gait and on investigation someone, perhaps a physiotherapist, recommended orthopaedic shoes. So John bought orthopaedic trainers and went bounding round the corridors of the old Maths Tower in Manchester, joyously realising that people were staring at his almost luminously-clad feet. I grew accustomed to 3-minute corridor supervisions, which were frankly terrifying. It’s amazing how much information someone can fling at you in 2 sentences as they pass you in the hallway. And then there was his habit of giving you half a name and a fraction of a title, with a very approximate date, and leaving you to find the book or article in question. This was prior to google and I attribute many of my more terrier-like research abilities to JVP’s supervision methods. For some reason I couldn’t stand the thought of turning up at my next supervision without having tracked down the piece in question and having read it thoroughly, no matter that John would have moved on to something else by then.

John cared very much about his subject and about Manchester. That he has gone so relatively young and so suddenly leaves the world a little diminished. His PhD was supervised by Alan Sterling Parkes and I was always proud of the fact that this made the physiologist F.H.A. Marshall my academic great-grandfather. But there are many of us now with an uneasy sense that we are academic orphans. I remain unconvinced about the afterlife, but if there is one, John, I hope you are having a wonderful time, indeed I have no doubt that you are.

Marius, slaughter, or just normal herd control?

A young, healthy male animal has been humanely killed by a zoo. This has caused something of an outcry, with other animal parks offering him a home to try to save him and some people (OK, they were on the internet) saying it has ruined Denmark’s reputation as a humane society. But has it?

Putting down healthy, male animals is by and large what our food industry relies on. Of course many of those objecting will be animal rights activists and vegans and I can understand their fears. But I suspect many will have no particular qualms about drinking milk, or indeed munching a burger. So presumably then the fuss isn’t about killing an animal, but about the species.

So how rare was Marius? He would appear to have been a reticulated giraffe, but apparently all the sub species are endangered and have unstable populations so which sub species he was is presumably a moot point. So yes, one could argue that the zoo should not be killing a healthy animal from an endangered species. In which case we could cut out all the stuff about his doe-eyed cuteness. It shouldn’t matter if he’s cute or not, since a human’s idea of cuteness shouldn’t really affect decisions about species preservation (though obviously it does, yes Panda, I’m looking at you).

So given that Marius was rare, would breeding from him have been a good thing? Copenhagen Zoo is part of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. Under their rules, Marius could not become a breeding male, since his genes are already well presented in the population. This does make me wonder why he was bred in the first place, but then I’m no expert on giraffe genetics.

How about keeping him and not breeding from him? Well that means keeping a non-breeding animal in a space that could be taken up by a breeding animal. It might please the sentimentalists, but it wouldn’t help the giraffe population. Apparently castration would not have been without its complications and I cannot imagine that a frustrated bull giraffe is an animal many zoos would want to have around.

I don’t think for a moment that it was a decision that was taken lightly by the zoo. When you’re dealing with animals of that size, with limited space and with the best interests of an entire population at heart, sometimes you have to make a tough decision that won’t make you popular. I have no problem with people objecting to the decision to kill Marius. But I do think they need to think through their objections. Whether he was cute or not is irrelevant. The real issue is whether or not breeding from him would have helped the giraffe population. Millions of animals are killed every day in far worse circumstances. I’m more worried about them, and the suffering of animals who are kept alive in poor circumstances, than I am about an animal who was killed as quickly and as cleanly as was possible.