“Unless an animal can thrive in our environment in our region whether it’s climate or space or social dynamics we shouldn’t do it. The only thing we should do is have animals that can thrive in our environment…” – Ron Kagan | Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director

Panda enclosure (China)There are many ethical concerns regarding the handling of, and the reasons for having, animals in captivity. Prominent and reputable zoo experts themselves agree about those concerns and are pushing for a redefinition of zoos and their standards [KR15]. And we as zoogoers have an important role to play as we are the ones financing those institutions by visiting them. For this we need to gain an awareness about the ramifications and implications of what zoos are now. Asking respectful questions so that we understand how the institution we are visiting justifies its existence –and if it can be improved– is critical: it promotes a dialog that is lacking currently. We all have something to learn in the process for our own good, and the good of the animals in those facilities.

Often it is said that zoos provide longer life to the animals as a means to justify captivity, and zoos. Besides being arguably true for many species, also remember that “quantity” of life does not equal quality of life. No two zoos are equal in quality. There are more than 10,000 zoos worldwide, with millions of animals under their ‘care’. Zoos vary enormously in quality, in how they comply to wildlife husbandry guidelines. Additionally, there is a blurring of the line between ‘accredited’ zoos –whatever accredited means in the country of origin– and private collections and wildlife entertainment business operations. For instance, less than 10% of zoos are accredited in the US. Similar numbers generally hold for many European countries as well. Be aware that being ‘rightfully’ accredited zoos or aquarium does not prevent poor welfare: what was good and acceptable yesterday might not be today by a long range as shown in the cases of the captivity of large cetaceans at SeaWorld and alike organizations. As well as be aware that there are now suspicious accreditations (often confused with proper zoo accreditations) that are not conservation-based but rather ‘accreditations’ to the service of the exotic pet trade industry (e.g., big cats, exotic birds trade that is overwhelmingly under-regulated).

➭ Welfare / Quality of Care

There are no zoos devoid of animals (that are being exhibited). Whatever the reasons for having these animals, it comes with a responsibility – the responsibility of providing them with proper conditions to experience the life they were supposed to live (as much as possible).

Tiger (San Diego Zoo - US)Often Animal Welfare is seen as being a subjective field – a domain that is more a collection of opinions than anything else. This is an incorrect view of animal welfare. Animal welfare is actually a domain of science, that is not subjected to beliefs but is rather evidence-based science. A quick look at the publications from The Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, that is the leading peer-reviewed journal on the science of animal welfare for veterinarians, scientists and public policy makers, should clarify this misconception. Indeed a vast body of science studies reports regularly on practices that demonstrably enhance the welfare of wildlife, companion animals and animals used in research, agriculture and zoos ([WN16], [MK07], [DJ07], [KR15], [MB13]). This means that (1) we have tools to measure and therefore understand the impact of captive conditions on the animals that we have under our care, and (2) we have the means to provide for better conditions.

At the root, animal welfare tries to work towards satisfying what’s known as the Five Freedoms ([5F], [RTA]). The Five Freedoms outline five aspects of animal welfare under human control. They were developed in response to a 1965 UK Government report on livestock husbandry, and were formalized in 1979 press statement by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council. The Five Freedoms keep evolving and have been adopted by professional groups including veterinarians, and organizations including the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The Five Freedoms constitutes a practical framework to work with when assessing the welfare conditions that an institution offers to its animal patients/workers/refugees –whatever you want to qualify them.

The Five Freedoms (Conditions)
Freedom #1: Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
Freedom #2: Freedom from Discomfort
Freedom #3: Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease
Freedom #4: Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
Freedom #5: Freedom from Fear and Distress

⚠ Check our detailed description of the Five Freedoms & our Captivity Standards Indicators, to help you identify good vs. weak or unacceptable welfare conditions.

💡 Ask the institution if it knows the Five Freedoms. How do they feel they compare to them?

➭ Confinement (Liberty)

No matter how the animals are cared for, these animals live in confinement. For some people, this is a violation of liberty. Although we understand the rationale for some animals to be rescued and protected, this is an undeniable truth: they are indeed confined. And this means that they are subjected to our view of them and how we think they should live. This also means that they are not free to choose their food, their partners, not even their reproductive mates, their activities [WN-16]. Put yourself in their place, practice some empathy… Would that be acceptable to you? Most likely not. Don’t dismiss the idea of ‘getting into their skin’ thinking that sentience does not apply to them: the concept of human exceptionalism with respect to emotions, pains, and cognition (even metacognition) is being disproved every single week as new pieces of scientific evidence come to light [WF16]. It does not mean that all captive animals should be released tomorrow, but at least it means that we can learn a little about being more respectful of what they are and need to thrive in the environment that we impose on them.

💡 Ask the zoo staff about their opinion regarding the ethical issue of confinement. How they see we can improve in this regard. Engage in a respectful discussion.

➭ Extirpation

Many zoos rely on ‘extirpation’. Extirpation is the removal of an individual from the wild. The reasons vary from diversifying the gene pool of the captive population of the species of interest, to make the zoo collection more attractive from a business and entertainment perspective. This comes at the price of undeniable stress related to the capture and the transport of the animal ([WN16], [MK07]).

💡Get the staff to talk about extirpation. Ask what is the ratio of extirpated animals that they are exhibiting. How do they view the practice? How do they manage and control the transport of extirpated wildlife from a welfare standpoint?

➭ Endangered and Not

The vast majorities of zoos exhibit non endangered species. Some are rescues, but many are not and have been extirpated from the wild for reasons that we should ask about. From a conservation point of view, collection of non-endangered species do not fulfill any conservation purpose. So know your endangered species so that you can identify the ones who are and those who aren’t.

💡 Ask why non endangered species are present. What is their story? How did they got acquired? What role are they fulfilling by being here and in conserving the species in the wild?

➭ Fate of Surplus Animals

Not discussed enough is the issue of surplus animals in institutions that practice breeding for business or are part of a zoo breeding program. There are many reasons for an animal to be considered a surplus animal. These reasons vary from simply being not wanted (not enough space, resource, etc.), uncontrolled breeding results, not genetically diverse enough, no consumer could be identified [SA96], etc.

This is another uneasy topic from an ethical captivity point of view. On one hand by allowing (controlled) breeding you allow a natural behavior –although in unnatural conditions as the mate was not chosen by the animal. On the other hand, the responsibility for that new life, how genetically it is viable, how you allow motherhood (natural behavior) and more generally what you do with it, is a big issue. The issue is even bigger when you have too many of them, and you end up culling, killing or selling these new lives. This domain is totally hidden from the public view, and it is our duty as responsible citizens to grow an awareness about it.

One has also to be aware, that while zoos may be concerned about the health and welfare of animals exhibited before the public, there are breeding programs, operating behind closed doors that produce “surplus” animals. Some zoos are less concerned with the welfare and fate of these animals as they are easily sold off at auctions or to dealers in shady, backdoor transactions. “The exotic and wild animal trade is an extensive industry. A black market has emerged because sale and transport of both species and their products is so highly regulated. Many animals no longer wanted by zoos go to canned hunts, other zoos, or are sold for various uses of their bodies”. For those unfamiliar with the concept of canned hunting: “Canned hunts involve customers paying a fee in exchange for a guarantee that they will be able to hunt and kill exotic game animals. Canned hunts allow the illusion of hunting a dangerous animal, by enclosing them into small spaces where they have little chance against a close-range weapon. Unfortunately, there are no limits on how many animals one could kill at such a canned hunt, so long as patrons are willing to pay the price. Additionally, canned hunters are not required to carry hunting licenses and firearm experience is not required” [GK04(1&2)].
Canned hunting is not another country’s problem. Just in the U.S., there were already over two thousand such hunting facilities in over twenty-five states in 2004 (and this number keeps increasing). Many of these operations are less than 100 acres in size, although there are some as large as 16,000 acres. However, even though some of the animals used have a large area in which to roam, they are essentially domesticated animals that have been raised by humans all their lives and have little fear of them [GK04(1&2)].

💡 Ask what animals they do breed in their facility. What happens to the new lives. How do they handle their surplus animals? If they sell them, do they follow/monitor (and for how long) the animals (just be aware that some animals are sold to canned and trophy hunting facilities)? Ask how this all fits into a conservation agenda.

➭ Educational Value

Yes the educational value that an institution offers to the public reflects indirectly the quality of welfare that this institution provides to the animals it says it helps to conserve. Staff and volunteers need to have a deep knowledge about the animal natural history and the conservation efforts for that animal. Few institutions have an appropriate level of knowledge, but the majority don’t and this needs to change.

Hornbill (UK)There is also the claim that zoos educate people about the fate of animals. However, there is no scientifically proven evidence of the educational value yet. A few years back, there was an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) sponsored publication on the topic, which was rebutted shortly after by the scientific community as the report failed to follow a proper investigation methodology. Education from zoos at this point is still considered (by experts and including a growing number of zoo staff) as being marginal, primarily human-centered (as opposed to animal-centered) and with no lasting effect ([MA13], [JE14], [RN16]).

Zoos are not going to disappear tomorrow, so we need to push for better education standards at all the levels: from the general zoo staff and volunteers to us, zoogoers. This starts with us, as visitors, asking pertinent questions.

💡Ask the zoo staff to qualify (and quantify) how they educate the public. As well ask how they do measure success (what are those measurement criteria?).

Home / Prepare / The Zoo Evaluation Guide / ☆ Zoo Ethics & General Questions
The references mentioned in this page are listed in the Extended Bibliography.

Zoo Evaluation Essentials
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