Recently I went to the Bronx Zoo where I was able to see first hand, all different types of wild animals, ranging from grizzly bears to polar bears. Aside from visiting a zoo I will most likely never experience seeing these wild animals first hand. However, seeing these animals outside of their natural habitat made me think about whether it is ethical to confine a wild animal to a synthetic version of its natural habitat. In the past zoos were seen as a source of entertainment and their missions were to make profits. In contrast, today zoos purport that their role has transformed into one of promoting conservation by providing educational and scientific mechanisms. If a zoos role is what it claims to be, they can become a crucial source in saving species from the brink of extinction. With increasing threats to wildlife in their natural habitats, it is becoming more important to find ways to sustain populations.
Thus far zoos have provided an opportunity for scientist and veterinarians to study the behavior and biology of species that would be too difficult to observe in the wild. These studies have led to technological developments that are utilized in field conservation. For example, satellite telemetry and radio tracking devices, which were developed by zoo veterinarians, are now used to track animal populations in the wild. Zoos also financially contribute to conservation efforts. In fact, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums contribute an estimated annual rate of $350 million. Furthermore, recent studies show that zoos have been an effective mechanism for educating their visitors on the importance of conservation and in showing visitors how they are connected to wildlife. When I went to the Bronx Zoo they even had kiosks where visitors could provide their email address in order to obtain additional educational information about an animal they were interested in.
Despite all of the benefits zoos provide in conserving a species as a whole, the question still exist as to whether the importance of conservation outweighs the interest of the individual animal. Would it be better to allow the animal to live its life in the wild knowing that the species is on the brink of extinction? Should we allow animals to go extinct to ensure that we aren’t infringing on any animal’s individual rights? Consider the recent case where a hunter in Washington illegally killed the mother of three 10-week old cubs. The cubs were immediately transferred to the Oregon Zoo in order to provide them with a ‘safe environment.’ Michelle Schireman, Oregon Zoo keeper and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ population manager for cougars, stated that the cubs would not have survived in the wild without their mother. In situations like these, would it better to let the cubs fight for survival or are they better off in a zoo that can provide a ‘safe environment’ for them?
Arguably, the real concern should rest on whether the conditions of the zoos are suitable for animals to maintain a happy and comfortable life. Even though a species natural habitat cannot be replicated, a synthetic environment closely resembling their natural habitat may be a better option when their chances of surviving in the wild are slim. Unfortunately, the federal law that governs the standards of zoos, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), is not stringent enough to ensure all animals will maintain a happy life. The requirements laid out in the act only require a basic minimum of food, water, housing, and sanitation. Additionally, the act excludes all cold-blooded animals, which constitute a large make up of a zoo’s collection. State laws can also provide protection for zoo animals, however, there are still states that choose to exempt zoo animals from their anti-cruelty statutes. Currently, the best hope for suitable standards of zoo animals comes from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), which regulate the zoo industry through voluntary standards. Under the current legal framework, where voluntary standards are the best hope for humane standards of zoo animals, the importance of conservation does not outweigh the interest of the individual animal. However, if standards were created where animals could live a happy life and the zoos main objective was animal welfare and conservation, zoos could arguably be considered ethical.
Filed under: animal ethics, animal rights Tagged: | American Zoo and Aquarium Association, animal advocacy, animal ethics, animal law, animal welfare, Bronx Zoo, endangered species, environmental ethics, zoos