If we believe that the oppression of people and other sentient beings, is wrong, can we justify having zoos?
Early zoos were set up primarily to entertain, and this remains an important function of zoos today. As a child I rode on an elephant at a zoo and enjoyed watching animals perform circus-style tricks. I remember staring in fascination at caged animals, especially enjoying seeing the cute or funny ones. I didn’t question the morality of this then. Likewise, in Victorian times, people saw nothing wrong in paying to gawp at the inmates of mental institutions.
Attitudes change. Although amusement is still an important function of zoos to keep them financially viable, few people would argue now that entertaining the public is in itself a good reason for having zoos. Many zoo directors and administrators agree. They cite education, research and conservation as more laudable aims.
But do zoos educate people about animals? Surely any educational benefits in visiting zoos could be obtained by other means which don’t involve the confinement and exploitation of animals, such as films, talks, debates, and so on?
What about the benefits of research? Zoos do useful behavioural research, some might say. An obvious problem here is that environment affects behaviour. There is no evidence that behavioural research done in zoos provides more useful data than research carried out in natural habitats by organisations such as the Born Free Foundation.
Studies on anatomy and pathology are the most common form of zoo research, often with the aim of gaining knowledge about human ailments. Several problems exist with this. Many animals are difficult to work with or breed, so numbers of animals for study are limited. The strict rules about what experiments may be carried out on animals in zoos probably means more could be allowed and learnt from humans undergoing clinical trials. In any case, animal reactions to tests are often not applicable to humans.
Conservation is often given as a reason to justify having zoos. Zoos, it is said, save endangered species from extinction. Research by Born Free in 2000-2001 indicated that 95 % of all species or sub-species in zoos were not categorised as endangered. Furthermore, breeding programmes, even in the best of zoos, are beset with high mortality rates and other problems. The lack of genetic diversity means that the surviving captive animals of endangered species have different traits from wild animals. What, then, is actually being preserved?
If, because of our exploitation of the environment, some endangered species can now survive only in zoos, perhaps it’s worth considering whether it might be better to allow such species to become extinct. Importantly, shouldn’t we be giving urgent attention to how we human animals can stop damaging the environment in ways that threaten species survival and animal welfare?
Are zoos really committed to conservation if they continue to remove more animals from the wild than they return? As Daniel Turner, a chartered biologist with a background in conservation, says: ‘Can the reintroduction into the wild of a handful of captive-bred species justify the lifelong incarceration of millions of wild animals in thousands of zoos?’
It would be easier, though missing the point, to argue a case for closing only those zoos where animals are confined in cages and kept in appalling conditions, leading to distressing behaviours seen only among captive animals. The Zoo Check Programme of the Born Free Foundation regularly receives hundreds of photos of animals suffering in zoos here in England and around the world. How can anyone doubt that this is wrong?
But we need to go further than that and question the notion that animals are here for the benefit of humans. Is it okay to take animals from the wild, providing we give them adequate enclosures and enough food? Is it okay to keep slaves, providing we keep them well-fed, warm and comfortable? The whole concept of keeping wild animals in zoos is flawed.
Of course it would be impractical to abolish zoos all at once, but they could be gradually phased out by a policy of non-breeding and non-replacement.
As Dale Jamieson says:
Zoos teach us a false sense of our place in the natural order. The means of confinement mark a difference between humans and animals. They are there at our pleasure, to be used for our purposes. Morality and perhaps our very survival require that we learn to live as one species among many rather than as one species over many. To do this, we must forget what we learn at zoos. Because what zoos teach us is false and dangerous, both humans and animals will be better off when they are abolished.
So, to return to my opening question. What’s wrong with zoos? Can we really, in all honesty, say there are good reasons for keeping wild animals in captivity? Absolutely not.
‘Against Zoos’ by Dale Jamieson. In Peter Singer (ed) ‘In Defence of Animals’)