Do Zoos Value Animals As Individuals?
The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums presents modern zoos as centers of education, conservation, research, animal welfare, and entertainment. Zoos take care of and breed wild animals in captivity. Although zoos take individual animal welfare into account, they prioritize conservation goals such as biodiversity and ecosystem preservation.
This study used a combination of interviews, document analysis, and observation of zoos in the U.S., France, and South Korea to uncover the different ways zoo officials frame the value of individual animals. The study focused on the framing of individual animals in the context of three controversial zoo practices:
- Keeping wild animals in captivity
- Breeding wild animals in captivity
- Killing healthy animals for the sake of the zoo’s broader goals
In general, animal rights advocates who want to abolish zoos framed animals as sentient beings with a right to life, liberty, and bodily integrity. Conversely, pro-zoo advocates saw animals as species ambassadors who teach humans about the wild members of their species and as reproductive components necessary to preserve the species for future generations.
Pro-zoo interviewees justified captivity by arguing that zoo animals’ individual freedoms have been sacrificed for the sake of the future of their species. Furthermore, they said that seeing animals up close allows humans to connect with nature and become educated on conservation. In return, zoos provide the animals in their care with ways to express choice in their captive environments where possible (e.g. choosing which foods to eat, choosing when to hide or be in view of visitors, choosing which other animals to interact with). Pro-zoo interviewees saw releasing animals from captivity as idealistic, because zoo animals wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild.
Meanwhile, French anti-zoo animal rights activists argued that taking care of the animals’ welfare needs at the expense of their freedom is still morally wrong. By contrast, South Korean animal rights organizations tend to collaborate with welfare groups and ask zoos to improve welfare, rather than arguing that zoos should be abolished.
Zoos justified the related practice of breeding animals in captivity by claiming that captive breeding is necessary for storing the wild population’s genetic diversity for long-term species survival. In this case, pro-zoo interviewees framed individual animals in their care as a necessary ingredient to preserve their species’ genetic lineage. Even if captive breeding causes an animal to suffer — for example, because they are transported from one zoo to another — the sacrifice is necessary to protect the species. The animal rights approach, on the other hand, argued that conservation efforts should focus on protecting habitats and targeting the root causes of extinction, rather than creating more animals that rely on zoos to take care of them.
The third controversial practice, culling, refers to the “humane killing” of otherwise healthy animals. Zoos kill individual animals when they do not serve species-level goals. Both the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria and the (American) Association of Zoos and Aquariums recognize culling as a legitimate way of managing captive populations. In discussions about culling, pro-zoo interviewees framed animals as mostly not self-aware and therefore not suffering welfare losses from loss of life via “painless euthanasia.” Some interviewees worried that, if the animals weren’t euthanized, they would be sold to an unaccredited zoo and suffer greatly.
However, many interviewees struggled with the ethics of culling healthy animals. Zoos also kill animals for other management reasons, such as artificially reproducing mortality rates experienced by wild populations to reproduce the social configurations and demographics of wild populations (e.g. in terms of age and sex). Pro-zoo interviewees said that this kind of culling actually improves the animals’ welfare by allowing them to have more natural conditions. Whereas animal welfare perspectives might embrace culling when deemed necessary for captive group-level or species-level goals, the animal rights approach would not.
Overall, the study found that zoo officials justified practices such as captive raising, captive breeding, and culling as necessary for broader species-level goals, thus failing to frame animals as intrinsically valuable individuals. However, zoo officials did use welfare practices that valued individual animals’ preferences and autonomy where possible, despite considering them components of a larger conservation project rather than beings with intrinsic rights. However, according to the animal rights approach, this dilemma of pitting individual and species goals against each other is often caused by taking animals from the wild and putting them into captive zoos in the first place.