The Ethics Of… Zoos

The Ethics Of… Zoos

You’re in a zoo, having a great family day out and learning about all the animals. You wonder over to the giraffe exhibit and notice that there is a big event going on in the enclosure. Eager to see what’s happening you approach – just in time to see staff execute a completely healthy 18 month-old giraffe with a bolt gun to the side of the head.

Stunned, you stand there as zoo staff gather around the body and start to drag it… towards you. They then lay it out on a plastic sheet in front of the ground, cut its body open and dissect it in front of the crowd, which includes many children. Once this dismemberment is completed to their satisfaction, the remains are fed to the lions in full view of the public.

Sounds like something from a dystopian horror film, right? Or a zoo located in a developing nation that still struggles with human rights, let alone treating animals well. It might surprise you then to learn that this exact scene happened in February 2014 in Copenhagen Zoo, Denmark.

What the hell.

Back in the previous decade I decided it was time to do something useful with 20 years worth of existential crisis and decided to study ethics. As you can imagine, the group of people who signed up to a post-grad course in Professional Ethics was pretty interesting; there were a few of us young people who couldn’t turn our brains off, but mostly the class was made up of middle-aged, very well established professionals at the top of their game, seeking to make sure their life’s work was going in the right direction. One of these was the CEO of Melbourne Zoo.

Given that animal rights are right up there with abortion and criticising other cultures when it comes to controversy topics that really haven’t been resolved yet, there were many good debates had about whether zoos are right or wrong.

There is no doubt that zoos have progressed a looooong way since the days that they were just tiny cages exotic animals (and occasionally humans – that is not an exaggeration by the way) were put in to be gawked at and baited until they died. Most zoos today are better thought of as conservation centres; actively contributing towards the preservation of threatened and endangered species through breeding, research and education – the last item being far more important than you’d think. Sure it’s not likely that your average zoo visitor is going to encounter an endangered species in the wild, much less shoot one, but efforts to end ivory poaching, stop the clearing of Orangutan habitat for palm oil production (which you’ve almost certainly eaten today at some point), and promoting alternatives to poorly managed tourism, all depend heavily on the average person like you and me knowing that these things are a problem, and caring about the damage caused.

But as any gay person can tell you, ‘things improving’ does not automatically translate to ‘things being in any way acceptable’. While the improvements in (most) zoos are exceptional and to be celebrated, the fact remains that they still essentially involve the imprisonment of wild animals for our entertainment. Yes they’re animals and by any reasonable measure don’t have the same understanding that human have about their surroundings – but as philosopher Peter Singer points out, this actually makes the ethics of the situation worse; at least humans have the ability to understand why they are imprisoned, whereas animals will be all the more distressed because they don’t.

Yes the enclosures in modern zoos have improved out of sight when compared to the steel bars and concrete floors of the 1900s, but you can expand the grounds, improve the treatment, simulate the outside world down to the minutest detail and it will still do nothing to change the reality: a prison is still a prison. And no matter the scientific and educational benefits zoos now offer, the fact remains that the primary purpose of these prisons is still entertainment; as thousands upon thousands of gawking tourists every year attest to. In the information age where we can access Wikipedia at any time, anywhere, the educational benefits of importing lions, tigers and giraffes to Australia of all places are rather questionable, no? And I struggle to think of any scientific work with these creatures that wouldn’t be better conducted in a more native habitat; like Africa, just to throw out a random example.

The question must be asked; how can any civilised society accept an institution which imprisons living, feeling creatures primarily for our entertainment?

So how do we resolve this? Surprisingly, the Copenhagen Zoo’s incredibly graphic slaughter of a baby giraffe may be helpful here.

As always in ethics, context is king, and the context of this story is illuminating;

Far from the senseless slaughter that it initially appears, the giraffe was killed for a very good reason: to prevent inbreeding among the population, ensuring that the zoo’s population would be able to contribute to the international breeding program they are part of – a program designed to ensure the survival of wild giraffe.

But why the gory sideshow? Because the zoo decided that they would not waste a rare opportunity for the public to learn about the biology of giraffes. A rather messy education, but as the director of research and conservation at Copenhagen Zoo rather bluntly put it, zoos have an obligation “not to make nature into a Disney World,” but rather show those interested in “the real thing”. “Conservation is not always clean”.

This line pretty much sums up the ethics of zoos in general. While the idea of collecting and containing wild animals for the public’s interest is questionable at best, the reality is that zoos exist in a messy world where simple, clean answers do not exist. As with so many things out there that turn out stomachs, sometimes the benefits they achieve outweigh the costs they incur.

As the costs of zoos shrink as their inmate’s condition improves, and the benefits they yield help sustain and advocate for the conservation of wild animals and ecosystems world-wide, it is fair to say that you can enjoy next trip to the zoo with a clean conscience.

Even if they do shoot the giraffe.

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3 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Zoos

  1. I am not sure if you read the book The Life of Pi, but there is an interesting diatribe by the main character (well author really) about zoos at the beginning of the book. Basically arguing that just like we have chosen to become domesticated because it is safer than living in the wild, many animals simply have longer life spans than they would in the wild. Living disease and predator free, guaranteed food everyday, able to raise their young in safety, etc. Obviously it’s not a completely airtight case, but I appreciated the perspective.

    • Hi Swarne, good comment as always. That’s a very relevant point for zoo animals and farm animals alike; there’s no denying they lead safer, more comfortable lives in captivity than in the wild.

      The question is whether security in this case translates to wellbeing. For farm animals the case is pretty clear – I can’t imagine a better scenario for a cow than domestication. But for wild animals and particularly apex predators like lions, safety is only one factor in their wellbeing. Unltimately though that’s a question for zoologists, and given the importance placed on animal welfare in modern zoos, I dare say they do pretty well out of it all.

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