The common public ‘rhetoric’ these days about zoos is: zoo changed and they are now good for both conservation and the collected/exhibited individuals. Well then good! But the topic is not an easy one, after all this is really about ethics and of course, as ethics goes it’s tedious and painful at times (remember the women’s rights issues, slavery, etc.).

Indeed in the case of zoos: when asking for clarifications and data, more than often the answer is formed of vague statements that actually do not withstand scrutiny (fact-wise). It does not mean that some of these statements are incorrect. It just means that often one does not know the supporting facts (or non-facts), or can’t find them, or does not understand them in the larger context, somehow just repeating what he/she has been told without checking.

In short how zoos are ‘substantiated’ publicly is often obscure, unclear, blurry, and reduced to blobs of unchecked emotional opinions…

So how about asking few critical questions and getting clear answers in a consolidated science-based peer-reviewed study? Here are a first set of questions that came to mind -here ours- when we were reading a recent article on the topic…

Orangutan-SB signedYou read an article as well as the comments and opinions of an audience about that piece. You’re about to add your questions but you realize that ‘it’ does not fit the allowed ‘size’ (text-wise). How sad is that? Thankfully we have a medium here with Earthwise Aware that allows us to discuss topics we feel of importance, publicly and without any size constraint!

So, starting my EwA week and day as I always do – scanning the news and the different conservation groups that I follow – I stumbled upon an article from Margi Prideaux (‘Zoos are the problem, not the solution to animal conservation‘). The author herself, an international wildlife policy & law expert,  was sharing it in a LinkedIn group…

It is always interesting to see how pieces talking about zoos are generally received. Had I not been limited by size, here is the comment I would have added to that LinkedIn thread. I first thought about shortening my answer, but then I realized that this answer would have suffered from a lesser value. So here it is in full:

This is a very good, well documented, and valid article on the topic of zoos (and their ethics). This article has the merit of getting the conversation going, and therefore is advancing the modern ethics of zoos. Do we need zoo ethics? Yes! It’s not a done deal at all. Remember that not so long ago, women as subdued individuals with no voting rights, or having slaves were totally and ethically accepted by a large majority until it finally did rise as an issue and tipped (in some countries at least). Would we now reverse the outcomes? So discussions pertaining to having animals in restrictive environments (compared to how they would live physically and emotionally in their natural habitat), for their good and not, are indeed critical discussions to have. Obviously, if it was so ethically right then we would not have all these controversies and clarity issues.

I am a statistician by training, therefore I have a tendency to see the world in numbers (collected and interpreted with scientific integrity). The beauty in ‘ethical’ numbers is that it removes (or at least decreases) ambiguities and clarifies the discourse. Reading this good article then raised a few questions that I have had in my mind for a long while, and that I started to investigate recently:

  • How is a ‘good’ zoo defined precisely conservation-wise and welfare-wise? Is there a generally accepted (precise is key) definition? And accepted by who (which countries)?
  • Among all the institutions that have a zoo denomination, what is the % of accredited zoos? And what is the agreement of what an accredited zoo is (standards, regulation)? Again which countries accept and follow that accreditation. You might ask why we should care about what other countries do. Simple: for a start, because extirpations for the benefit of one zoo happen in different countries; because zoo individuals travel between international zoos… So you better have some form of international regulations behind all that.
  • What is the % of animal species (say mammals, birds, and amphibians) listed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2006), kept in zoos?
  • What is the % of least-concern species kept in zoos, and what is the rationale (considering that a least-concern species is not one that needs protection)?
  • What is the % of captive breeding (species-wise) that has had a positive effect on the conservation of their wild siblings and who were successfully released into their natural habitats?
  • The same question as the one above but specifically focused on large mammals – including cetaceans, elephants, big cats (e.g. tigers, lions, leopards), great apes (e.g. the different subspecies of gorillas, orangutans, chimps, bonobos)… Note that there are few cases of the Sumatran rhino (which took an amazing effort from the Cincinnati zoo), but besides rhinos, and pandas, which else? Does the ROI and are the conservation outcomes good enough to justify the general practice (versus having captive breeding restricted to a set of proven species and categorically exclude others).
  • What is the total amount and % of ‘good’ zoo’s budget dedicated to in-situ conservation (benefit species in the natural habitat)? After all many are deploring the less-than 3% of revenue from trophy-hunting going to conservation and local communities, so is it reasonable to expect that a much larger % of zoo budget should be dedicated in-situ conservation.
  • How is the education value precisely defined (reminding that education value without long-term effect is not relevant)? And how is it measured? One note on that topic: there was a paper published a few years ago claiming the undeniable proof of the education value of zoos, which ended up being disproved shortly after for methodology flaws (the flaws including Demands characteristics, experimenter expectancy effects, response bias, social desirability bias, weaknesses of the post-only retrospective-pre design, weaknesses of the long-term impact study). So we discard this one…

Again this is a non-exhaustive/unrefined/unpolished set of questions that I think we should be asking, and for which we should receive clear answers. This so, that we can assess properly and perform rigorous inductive/deductive reasoning, the key to any ethical process.

One would think that with zoos having been under the line of fire for a long while now, that there would be a good consolidated scientific / peer-reviewed study answering all these questions (and more). But no. I am yet to find that piece. However I might not have been looking hard enough (or in the right place), and if someone has that type of (peer-reviewed) information, don’t hesitate to send it our way!

Claireby Claire O’Neill 

Special thanks to Sharan Bahra for allowing the use of some of her photos.

[Disclaimer] The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of any of her colleagues at Earthwise Aware.

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