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 for 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 and 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 leading bioethicist Jessica Pierce (2017)– that this article showcases.

While I haven’t had the opportunity to read the book in its entirety yet, as it has just been published, the excerpt provided here is anything but subjective, despite the assertions of some detractors. The truth is straightforward: the data exists, the studies have been conducted, and the evidence continues to accumulate every day. For instance, a quick search for references to ‘animal welfare,’ ‘zoo,’ or ‘captivity’ in our bibliography will provide a glimpse into the vast body of science and expert literature on the topic.

Moreover, it’s crucial to recognize that the proportion of accredited animal exhibitors stands at less than 10% in both the US and Europe, and this percentage drops significantly on a global scale. Among these few accredited institutions, those genuinely prioritizing animal welfare and allocating more than 3% of their budget to in-situ conservation projects are exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, the commendable efforts of these select institutions have become a facade behind which others conceal themselves: the average, the subpar, and those that arguably should cease operation immediately.

Despite this reality, many of us continue to believe in the legitimacy of these institutions, buoyed by our innate desire to interact with and admire the animals that capture our imaginations and inhabit our dreams. Whether it’s the desire to pet, walk alongside, ride, observe, or simply marvel at their existence, our propensity to deny captivity’s negative effects remains strong.

The captivity effects denial phenomenon is widespread and still embraced by most of us at different levels. The captivity concept permeates many various levels of our society. It 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 if 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 often than not, 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 human psychology than other types of denialism, including Climate change denialism. 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 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 and curbing our over-indulgence in captivity is our own human obstination, our disproportionate sense of human exceptionalism that flirts with extreme arrogance. Does this sound too strong? But let’s think about it for a second. Who are we, on average? And if we look deep ‘inside,’ who would we rather be?

We who:

  • Enjoy our freedom of movement (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, and overexploiting 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 not to 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…

Transitioning from viewing such facilities as places of restitution for animals’ lost freedoms to adopting an attitude of humility and genuine empathy while respecting them for their ecological significance would benefit not only us and our children but also wildlife immensely. Recognizing that these institutions serve as sites for moral repair rather than substitutes for natural habitats, at best, represents a crucial step in the right direction.

Simultaneously, if our goal is to aid wildlife and ourselves genuinely, let’s prioritize connecting our children with nature in their own backyards, city parks, and local forests—where genuine ecological empathy begins to flourish. Let’s also prioritize the protection of wildlife habitats, which is often more cost-effective than managing animals within captive facilities.

It is through a combination of rigorous research publications and accessible works authored by experts—such as those authors—that meaningful change can be realized. It’s imperative to persist in communicating relentlessly on this topic, ensuring that knowledge, humility, and empathy are disseminated widely. This is how transformative changes take root and spread.

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


May 15th 2017 | by Claire O’Neill

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