A Day at the Zoo

Jessica Witmer

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.

10 Responses

  1. Good of you to ask these probing questions, Jessica.

    I learned how to think even more critically — that is, analytically — about zoos when reading Derrick Jensen’s “Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening to the Nightmare of Zoos” earlier this year. I highly recommend it. He refers to a number of other books and articles (by scholars or journalists); full information on each can be found in the bibliography. Scanning that list right now, I’m drawn to the book title “The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation,” by John A. Livingston. But I see it was written way back in 1981, and, as you say, zoos are changing their stripes — or at least they “purport” to be different beasts now, according to the fifth sentence your opening paragraph.

    While reading your blog, I vaguely remembered hearing about a new book that takes a look at zoos (and circuses) through the eyes and actions of the animals. So I went to my files and found a blog about it here: http://challengeoppression.com/2011/03/16/when-animals-fight-back-fear-of-the-animal-planet-the-hidden-history-of-animal-resistance. That, in turn, reminded me that I meant to read it but hadn’t. Maybe I forgot because it sounds so painful to read.

    I also vaguely recalled reading about the zoo underworld, so I Googled those two words and came up with this 1999 title, which I suspect is still apropos: “Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species,” by Alan Green.

    This short review by Amazon reviewer Gregory McNamee makes it sound like a hard-to-stomach read:

    “Zoos are places where animals are protected, kept safe from the ravages of the outside world and sheltered from extinction, right? Not necessarily, writes investigative reporter Alan Green, who takes his readers behind the bars in Animal Underworld to tell an unsettling tale of deception and cruelty.

    “That story opens at a zoo in northern Virginia, one of many such places around the United States in which black bears, once an exotic sight, have become a too-common commodity. Baby bears bring crowds, Green writes; unruly juveniles and listless adults do not. What happens to the bears who cannot contribute to the zoo’s overhead? Animal sanctuaries are already overfull; individuals are not allowed to keep bears as pets without hard-to-obtain licenses; and bears raised in cages do not know how to fend for themselves in the wild. There is simply no place for them, Green writes, and the bears have economic worth only for their parts–the claws for jewelry, the flesh for restaurants, the paws for Asian apothecaries.

    “The nefarious means by which supposedly protected animals–many in danger of disappearing in the wild–are brought to market forms the heart of Green’s disturbing report. Some of the country’s most important zoos and museums turn up as villains in his pages, and readers will likely never visit such places again without wondering at the fate of the creatures that look out at them from the other side of the cage.”

    Finally, Jessica, I’ll reference two essays “(“Against Zoos” and “Zoos Revisted”) by NYU professor Dale Jamieson. Excerpts from them are here: http://www.CreatureQuotes.com, Chapter 17, pp 44-47. You can click on a hyperlink that leads to Jamieson’s compendium of essays, titled “Morality’s Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature.”

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, how your research led you to lots of easy-to-access material quoting people in support of zoos but nothing from those who refute the pro-zoo arguments! I suspect that has less to do with your diligence and more to do with how the status quo slants this subject. That is, only rarely looking at zoos from the perspective of the individual creatures who are subject to human domination.

    Perhaps you’ll end up writing a follow-up blog after you’ve had a chance to explore the above-mentioned writings.

  2. I have mixed feelings on zoos.

    I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where I have the opportunity to see grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, wolves, moose, elk, deer, pronghorn and countess other species in the wild. Not everybody else is that lucky.

    Zoos afford people the opportunity to see and appreciate exotic animals, and to get them thinking about ecology and conservation.

    Also, several grizzly cubs from this area have been moved to zoos, after becoming involved in intractable conflicts with humans. A better option than killing them, I think.

    On the other hand, yes, there are the ethical concerns over confining animals which, in nature, require huge tracts of habitat.

  3. I propose a science experiment: let’s put humans young and old in cages and have nonhuman animals tour the facilities.

  4. Maria- Again I completely agree with your extremely well organized-rationale argument against the caging of animals proposing that we think about how “we would like it, if it were us.” I am confused as to whether you even read the article or just briefly read the title and in your heat anger posted that we should cage humans and place them display. However, once again, this argument fails to account for the ACTUAL argument jessica witmer has made in this article. She is stating that it is so wonderful places like the Bronx Zoo exist, but explains it is a rationale solution for conservation and the study of animals to prevent extinction and promote a more comprhensive understanding of species for the PUBLIC. Isn’t the ultimate goal of animal advocates that everyone respect and understand the importance and preservation of animals? This article proposes that if Zoo’s do provide a safe place for extinct animals to be preserved so that they can hopefully re-populate, isn’t that a positive alternative to just allowing the animals only protection be provided by laws, (which are not always enforced) and hope the species not die out. Again, if humans one day do become endangered, I HOPE other non- animals would care enough to provide for a safe environment so humans could re-populate. Furthermore, to suggest we cage humans is not a far off suggestion since around 100 years ago, Americans did cage African Americans and sell them on blocks to be sold into slavery. Also, today there is form of modern day slavery where children and girls are caged and sold for work and commercial sexual exploitation. So, just be aware- your statements have far reaching implications of behavior you support. However, thankfully, most Zoo’s, especially the Bronx Zoo, does not engage in those activities with humans OR with Animals.

  5. Wow. There is a bunch going on here.

    I am just going to comment on a few things.

    First, In response to CQ, there is a ton a literature out on the internet and in the blogosphere that is anti-zoo. In fact being anti-zoo is def the safer position to take when it comes to this zoo debate because at first glance it is wrong to use something as a means. That is called exploitation and zoo essentially are exploiting animals without their consent. This is not a profound prosition to take, in fact its quite obvious. This is the postion that is ALL over the internet.

    It seems like CQ does not like zoos because there are a few bad ones. That is called a generalization. That is like saying if one cafe has roaches all cafes are roach infested. If this is in fact CQ’s position that is fine. The debate goes no further. Similar generalizations have been made in the animal rights movement. PETA for example feels that since some pets suffer all pets must be euthanized, so there will never be another pet that suffers at the hands of humans again. See this blog http://www.nathanwinograd.com/?page_id=166.

    This debate is more complex. As a vegan, former zoo keeper, and animal advocate I can tell you not all zoos are bad. In fact the one I worked at was amazing, but it was not perfect.

    A fair way to discuss zoos and the ethics behind them is through a balancing test of interests. Who goes to these zoos, how many endanged species are kept at these zoos, are the animals wild caught or captive bread, are the breeding programs for the endangered species successful, do underprivileged youth go to these zoos via school programs, do zoos provide families with a reason to go outside and stop watching sports games and playing video games, are the zoo keepers trained, are the curators skilled and knowledgeble, is the zoo AZA accredited, are there heavily monitored enrichment programs for the animals, is the commissary stocked everday with fresh produce meat and fish, do the zoo visitors empathize with the animals, do they take this empathy back with them to their everyday life and treat animals differently, do they become vegan or vegetarian after their zoo trip…

    CQ has not taken any of these factors into account. In fact CQ’s statment reminds me of a meat eater telling me I don’t get enough protein because I am a vegan. His info is not first hand and it comes from books he hasnt even read. Btw, the fallacy of the conservation movement are not zoos. In fact thats the bright line definition. A zoo conserves. The actual fallacy of the conservation movement is shooting animals and killing them in order to stuff them and study them. Apparently this is for the greater good but who knows. Again if your problem is with exploition then the discussion stops there. But again another balancing test is necessary. I wont go into those factors.

    Now, Jessica’s post. I don’t know, but i get the feeling that zoos come up with B.S. science projects in order to get funding and more animals etc. Honeslty what good is a tracking device in field conservation. I mean whenever I watch those animal shows on TV and they shoot a big tiger or shark with a stun gun and put it through all kinds of unnecessary stress so they can plug it with a cumbersome walkie talkie implanted in its skin, I get annoyed. Just leave them alone. Unless that group of animals is in danger, leave it alone.

    If you know what good shooting an animal is with a tracking device to monitor it in its daily activities let me know. I am being serious.

  6. Hey doug,

    CQ did not need to take any of those supposedly redeeming factors into account.

    CQ’s position on zoos is that it is always wrong to exploit/use to one’s advantage/manipulate another sentient being WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT for any reason. Not just “at first glance,” but in all glances.

    CQ is sorry to not have made that clear.

    CQ’s cited books and articles are all anti-exploitation, so far as can be ascertained; they do not differentiate between zoos.

    CQ believes that the non-exploitive alternatives to zoos are sanctuaries (which house rescued animals that don’t have laws protecting them from human exploitation) or land trust preserves (which set aside and guard territory where nonhumans are already inhabitants — whether their species are considered populous, threatened, endangered, or nearly extinct — so they cannot be exploited by humans).

    CQ is glad that the anti-zoo position is all over the Internet.

    CQ also believes that animals have inherent rights, which will one day be reflected in our laws. For more on the subject of basic animal rights, see CQ’s comments here: https://animalblawg.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/dolphins-dead-following-rave-at-swiss-aquarium (specifically this link: http://www.rpaforall.org/billofanimalrights.html).

    CQ ignorantly used to think well of PETA but then became more informed and in recent years has been in full accord with Nathan Winograd on that subject.

    With no sarcasm, just a touch of light-heartedness,

  7. You missed some of my points and conceded to most of my assertions.

    AZA accredited Zoos, sanctuaries, ah semantics. Many zoos take rescued animals. Many sanctuaries are actually canned hunting areas. All are green spaces.

    For the sake of animals, society, and a thorough argument, you should asses each zoo on a case by case basis. Look, I understand the CONSENT issue, but it should not exist in a vacuum. Although the consent issue has lots of weight, there are other relevant factors.

    Of course, CQ is entitled to its own opinions.

    I am not trying to be right, just trying to be reasonable and enlighten.

  8. Zoos are for misguided people, not for animals. There isn’t enough regulation in existence to make sure animals are properly cared for in zoos. Same for aquatic parks. No wild animal should be kept in a cage for human entertainment or research, period. It’s cruel and inhumane. My son, at 5 years old recognized this. He was so disturbed by what he saw in the S.F. zoo he asked to leave and go home.

  9. The reaction of Darris’ five-year-old son says it all. To quote Leo Tolstoy for probably the 20th time in this blawg (yes, CQ is pretty boring): “Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised.”

    Time to move on….

  10. Amen to your every single word, Joe P. You warm my heart as much as Darris’ son does.

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