Are Captive Animals Happy?

Our enthusiasm and indulgence for animal captivity is changing yet very slowly. But we can accelerate our pace, because it can only be a win-win for science, for the animals, and us as moral individuals…

Are zoo animals happy? There’s a simple empathy test we can apply‘ is a very good piece of journalism on a topic supported by solid and known research, peer-reviewed studies, including veterinary, welfare science, ethics and natural science work. It’s worth a read with an open and humble mind.

We recommend reading the article: it’s more than worth it. It is both factual, as well as it raises important issues and asks relevant questions –the kind of questions we don’t want to hear although we now should as we grow our knowledge in the multifaceted dimensions (including biology, ethology, psychology, ethics) that Captivity implies both in the science. It is also a compassionate article. It’s not an easy read for sure since it calls for a little introspection and humility. In all cases, the article makes you think (in light of new scientific findings and consequent ethical considerations). Maybe it will even lead you to add to your-to read list the book –The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by the renowned animal-behavior expert Marc Bekoff and a leading bioethicist Jessica Pierce (2017)– and that this article showcases.

I haven’t read the book fully yet (it just got published), but this excerpt itself is certainly not a subjective piece despite what some of the detractors would like to make us believe. It is as simple as that: the data exist, the studies are in, the evidence is growing every single day (e.g., search for ‘animal welfare’, ‘zoo’ or ‘captivity’ references in our bibliography for a sample of the science and expert literature on the topic). Besides it is important to realize that the ratio of accredited animal exhibitors is less than 10% both in the US and Europe – with that ratio dropping radically when we shift to a world view. And among those few accredited, then the ones making a real difference welfare-wise and investing more than 3% of their budget into in-situ conservation projects is then negligible. The mandate of very few institutions who are trying hard are now the shining face behind which all institutions are hiding: the average ones, the not-so-good, and the ones who should be closed immediately. And all of us believe in ‘it’, supported by our own propensity for denying the effects of captivity, so strong is our desire to pet, to walk with, to ride, to peep on and admire the life of those animals that populate our imagination and dreams.

The captivity effects denial phenomenon is indeed widespread and still embraced by a majority of us at different levels. The captivity concept permeates many various levels of our society and has done so for centuries, so we don’t see it really or if we do, we have fully accepted it, when we don’t defend it vehemently. Fortunately, it’s changing but very slowly.

Sadly, the most fervent defenders of captivity are very hard to connect with. Luckily we don’t have stakes anymore because some of those defenders behave as they would send you to burn at the stake as soon as you dare to approach the topic (including when you are challenging welfare for improving welfare itself and not even for closing the institutions). More than often it does not even matter that you happen to be a naturalist or a specialist (in a particular species), your average animal exhibit visitor or enthusiast, as well as some captive animal handlers, suddenly know more than the most expert in the field. To some extent, captivity effects denialism is more firmly planted in the human psychology than other types of denialism, including Climate change denialism. And if you are interested in reflecting a little more on the social, political, and ethical issues raised by captivity, including discussions about confinement, domestication, captive breeding for conservation, the work of moral repair, dignity and an ethics of sight, and the role that coercion plays, then we can’t recommend enough the recent and very sound work from Lori Gruen, and the many experts who worked with her on ‘The Ethics of Captivity‘ (2014).

Thinking of it, the only real obstacles to making good progress in understanding and improving the welfare of captive animals, as well as curbing our over-indulgence of captivity is our own human obstination, our disproportionate sense of human exceptionalism that flirts with an extreme arrogance. This sounds too strong? But let’s think about it for a second. Who are we on average? And if look deep ‘inside’ who would we rather be?

We who:

  • enjoy our freedom of movements (going to a park on Sunday or staying cozy at home),
  • cherish our freedom of choices (which food, partners, place to rest, friends),
  • value our freedom of socializing or not (and therefore being seen or not at will),
  • but then deny or control those basic needs of others -animals (or humans), justifying it without any nuance, most often with no evidence (and rather in contradiction with what the science and ethics are telling us) with a “we’re saving them”, “they are living a longer life”, “they’re happier this way”, “we provide them with all that (we think) they need”, etc.

Or we who:

  • humbly recognize that there are now far too many of us with an exploding population while all other species are declining (although being a very recent species in the history of the Earth);
  • understand we are only one species among 8.7 or so other millions of species (species that we need for our own survival as a species);
  • grasp that we changed radically all landscapes and ecosystems, using far too many habitats, grabbing far too many lands, over exploiting far too many ecosystems and other species and this to the point of being on track with a forecasted two-thirds decline of all species by half this century if we don’t humbly change our course and for our own good;
  • are ready to rescue them (of course) but also understanding deeply that it will never be the same than allowing them to be fully what they were meant to be;
  • appreciate that we can do better at protecting them right where they belong (and at a lower cost);
  • are humble enough to not think that we (humans) are Nature supremacists, or resist the temptation of feeling entitled to do as we feel, as we wish, because we can or consider it our right, or because we think we know better…

Shifting our attitude from seeing such places as places of restitution for what these animals lost to an attitude of humility and genuine empathy while respecting them for what they are ecologically, would do us, our children and wildlife a great favor. Understanding that those institutions are places of moral repair at best and certainly not life substitutes would be a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, if we want to genuinely help wildlife and us, then let’s connect our kids with nature in our own backyard, city parks, and local forests, where ecological empathy really starts. And let’s protect the habitats of the animals we say we love (again it actually costs less than handling those animals in a captive facility).

It is together with the solid research publications and those popular publications written by experts -such as those authors- who will at the end make a difference. It is worth persisting, communicating relentlessly on the topi so that we learn and spread knowledge, humility and empathy around us. That’s how changes happen…

More on the topic (including the references for this op-ed)? Check our Zoo Evaluation EssentialsAnnotated Resources & Extended Bibliography, as well as a Q&A with both authors of the showcased book

ClaireMay 15th 2017 | by Claire O’Neill

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