animals in captivity: an essay on the morality of zoos

animals in captivity: an essay on the morality of zoos

When reading or engaging in discussions about animal welfare, human-wildlife conflict, or zoonotic disease, things can become emotionally-charged very quickly.
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To ask the question “Are zoos immoral?” implies several things: To name a few, it assumes that all zoos are the same, that all zoo staff are of the same caliber, and that all zoos obtain and treat their animals in the same way. These are all faulty assumptions.

Table of Contents

Differing Intents and Compositions of Zoos
“Amusement” as Justification to Hold Animals in Captivity
“Education” as a Defense of Zoological Exhibits
Scientific Research May Need to Keep Some Animals in Captivity

Differing Intents and Compositions of Zoos

There are a number of ways in which zoos are composed, and a multitude of intents which drive different zoological exhibitions (also called zoological gardens) throughout the country.

For example, there is San Diego Zoo, in San Diego, CA, which is known worldwide for the heavy involvement in conservation (not exclusively by captive breeding programs, but in the field as well). This zoo is also well-known for their backing of scientific research which supports these field conservation efforts.

Another example would be Santa Barbara Zoo, in Santa Barbara, CA, whose exhibitions are composed only by animals who have been rescued from injuries rendering them incapable of surviving in the wild. These animals cannot be safely released once rehabilitated due to their upbringing, so they are much safer in a zoo or sanctuary.

These animals live the rest of their lives at the zoo, on exhibition for educational and outreach purposes. During their stay, they receive health care and protection for their injuries or deleterious mutations (disadvantageous mutations) that would endanger them in the wild. Such injuries and mutations include albinism in predatory species or misshapen beak in any birds.

Then, there are sanctuaries such as Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL, which takes in big cats from another form of illegal zoos. These illegal zoological exhibitions are known as “roadside zoos.” They are created when people either bypass the state exotic animal licensing process, or use their state’s lack of stringent laws to obtain endangered or dangerous animals for private possession.

These cats are typically confiscated by law enforcement, and due to past living conditions, are unable to be released back into the wild, leading them to seek another home in which they can live out the remainder of their lives in captivity.

Sanctuaries such as Big Cat Rescue behave like zoos, in the sense that they host viewing of their animals either for educational purposes, or for funding, as these institutions are non-profit.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

SeaWorld, a very infamous organization, with locations in San Diego, CA, San Antonio, TX and Orlando, FL, has been widely criticized for its approach to placing animals in captivity (capturing wild marine mammals). Their locations are notorious for the unbelievable neglect the animals are subject to, resulting in untreated injuries and dangerous behavior, often ending in the loss of life of a staff or animal.

Now that these distinctions have been defined, there is more to consider in defense of, and against, the morality of zoos. Jamieson (2013) outlines the four most used arguments in defense of zoos to be: amusement, education, scientific research and species preservation.

“Amusement” as Justification to Hold Animals in Captivity

Amusement alone is not a valid defense in and of itself. To keep wild animals in captivity for the amusement of humanity alone is an extremely anthropocentric set of ethics to uphold, one that denies not only the moral considerability of animals, but also denies their level of sentience.

This ideology rejects the concept that non-human animals could have any “interest” in the evolutionary good that is allotted to them through a natural habitat.

When considered in combination with education, however, amusement gains a new importance. This is because, as Jamieson points out, in order to educate someone on a topic, they have to be interested in that topic.

If the primary goal of a zoo is to educate the public, then the zoo is responsible for getting the zoo visitors excited about, and interested in, topics such as animal welfare, conservation, habitat degradation, etc. to achieve that goal.

Amusement is a vital factor from a business perspective as well. Not all zoo-like establishments are non-profit, but most zoos have to pay their staff, and all of them have to feed their animals and pay for maintenance of the property. Entertaining guests to establish regular visitation rates partially justifies the argument of amusement as a defense of keeping animals in captivity.

“Education” as a Defense of Zoological Exhibits

Secondly, education: Jamieson recalls that in 1898, the New York Zoological Society stated that the goal of its zoological exhibitions would be to take…

…measures to inform the public of the great decrease in animal life, to stimulate sentiment in favor of better protection, and to cooperate with other scientific bodies… [in] efforts calculated to secure the perpetual preservation of our higher vertebrates.”

qtd. in Jamieson (2011), p. 135

Despite this admirable goal, there is very little existing scientific evidence showing that this aspiration has come to fruition. Jamieson claims that very few zoos have made substantial effort at developing an effective education program.

Where this is not the case, he claims that the issue lies not in a lack of effort, but in an “apathetic and unappreciative public,” and even that studies conducted by Stephen Kellert found that zoo guests leave even less educated about wildlife than they were before (Jamieson, 2011).

Photo by Donna Lay on Unsplash

Yet, Jamieson (2013) poses an interesting question: what, exactly, are zoos attempting to educate the public on? Are zoo staff trying to teach the public about the ecology of a given species? How to change guests’ lifestyle to mitigate their impact on climate change? Jamieson (2013) asks further, “To what degree does education require keeping wild animals in captivity?”

Bertram (2004) asserts that the mission statement of “most” British zoos, at least, is to “[contribute] to conservation, education and research, while providing a good day out for visitors.”

Specifically in rebuttal to the misconception that zoos “give the wrong messages” and, because of this, are not actually educational, Bertram claims that education in zoos serves to “broaden the mind” of guests.

Many claim that zoo habitats are misleading, in that they show the animal outside of its natural context. Bertram argues that, although no enclosure can fully convey the animal’s entire natural habitat, increasing efforts in zoos to the enclosures belonging to animals in captivity by adding such elements as small water bodies and compatible flora serve to provide guests with “at least some” information about the animal’s ecology and associated conservation issues.


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Bertram does not deny that culling is a part of zoo management, yet he argues that curators “go to enormous lengths” to avoid culling animals in captivity: primarily by searching for suitable homes for surplus animals.

When this search is unsuccessful, Bertram defends the practice by comparing this to humane societies/shelters and veterinary clinics euthanizing unwanted pets or livestock owners culling their herds. It is an action only taken after a great deal of deliberation, and no different from what is happening naturally in the wild.

To Bertram’s arguments, Jamieson would ask,

“[If] it is really true that we are inevitably moving towards a world in which [animals] can survive only in zoos, then we must ask whether it is really better for them to live in artificial environments of our design than not to be born at all?

Scientific Research May Need to Keep Some Animals in Captivity

Lastly, concerning scientific research, Jamieson (2013) believes that very few zoos support substantive scientific research. For those that do, he says, that research focuses primarily on behavioral studies and anatomy and pathology.

Regarding behavioral research, some have argued that captive animals are more interesting study subjects because animals behave differently in captivity than in the wild.

Some even claim that, since these animals are free of natural ecological interactions such as competition for resources or predation pressures, they are available to express the “full range of their genetic possibilities.” Is it a viable scientific rationale, to maintain zoo animal populations to study how animals behave in zoos?

Anatomy and pathology studies typically focus on improving zoo conditions for the animals’ quality of life, to use animal models for human health care studies and to learn more about wild animals in general. Again, Jamieson asks, is it worth it, to maintain zoos so that scientists can conduct research on the conditions of zoos?

On the other hand, if the animals are there as test subjects, as models for research in human ailments, then is the zoo really for the well-being and conservation of the animals? Lastly, couldn’t the research to learn more about the animal for its own sake be conducted in the field, in the animal’s natural habitat?

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

Bertram (2004) defends scientific research in zoos, acknowledging that the artificial nature of the zoo environment renders results “inapplicable” to wild animals, there is still useful knowledge taken from this research.

For example, field practices used by wildlife managers, including “immobilization, identifying, veterinary, pregnancy testing, etc.” are all techniques which have been developed using zoo animals. Bertram asserts that field-based conservation science has been greatly improved with reference to scientific research which has been conducted using animals in captivity.

It is difficult to answer such a direct question as “Are zoos immoral?” as we have seen there is a great variety in the quality, intentions and structure of zoos throughout the world. Most zoos set out to save their animals, support scientific research and educate the public. A handful are involved in efforts to reintroduce a select few of their animals into the wild.

The morality and success of a given zoo depends on its methods of acquisition of species, goals, support and effectiveness of conservation and/or scientific research, treatment of its animals and so much more.

Unfortunately, it is not a clean-cut, yes-or-no question. Yet, it is one that will need to be given more attention as the human population expands into natural habitat, and we are faced with the problem of how (and where) to preserve the species being displaced.


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