Helping Zoos Harms Animals
Empty parks and shuttered restaurants have become common sights during the COVID-19 pandemic. The health crisis has been mirrored by an economic one, with businesses trying to survive while the usual stream of patrons has slowed to a trickle. This double devastation has hit tourist destinations like zoos and aquariums especially hard, and many are on the verge of bankruptcy. The response of governments and individuals will determine if this portends the doom or the salvation of the animals confined within.
In this paper, the authors contend that zoos, as unjust institutions, should be shut down— and that COVID-19 may bring that end about sooner than previously hoped. However, they also contend that we must find a way to eliminate zoos and aquariums without condemning the animals held there. Zoos and aquariums are pleading for aid from governments and individuals, and it is a difficult plea to ignore. How can we withhold aid when zoos no longer have the funds to feed and care for animals, and some are even threatening to butcher some resident animals to feed to others?
The problem with propping up zoos and aquariums is that they consistently violate three basic rights of the animals they hold captive: the right to not suffer unnecessarily at the hands of humans, the right to not be killed by humans, and the right of self-determination.
It’s no secret that there are some shabby outfits passing themselves off as zoos where animal care standards are abysmal, but even at the biggest and best-funded zoos, animals are subjected to unnecessary suffering. A few species may be well-suited to their zoo accommodations, but the biggest attractions — bears, elephants, primates, big cats, whales — are not. They cannot roam or avoid the human gaze. They cannot gather food, claim territory, or socialize normally. This deprivation takes a toll on their psychological health, resulting in anxiety, sadness, and neurotic behaviors like pacing, rocking, and swimming in circles. As zoos are unnecessary to human thriving, this very real suffering is unjustifiable.
The second basic right — to not be killed by humans — has been violated by zoos in rare and highly publicized incidents when an animal escapes, or a human falls into an enclosure. Less publicized are the routine killings that take place in zoos for reasons as flimsy as population management, the expense of ongoing medical care, or because their genes are not especially useful to the zoo’s breeding program. This was the fate of Marius, a giraffe in the Copenhagen zoo who, though healthy, was killed, dissected in front of an audience, and fed to carnivores at the zoo. Meanwhile, some animals are killed because they do not get along with others in their enclosures, a completely unsurprising consequence of the unnatural conditions zoos impose upon them. All told, it’s estimated that in Europe alone, 3,000 animals are killed in zoos every year. This deliberate killing, as well as the shortened lifespans of many zoo animals relative to their wild counterparts are the direct or indirect results of human actions, and are completely avoidable. Zoos have no right to kill these animals.
The third basic right zoos deny their inmates is the right of self determination — to have some meaningful choice about what to do, when, where, and with whom. In a zoo, every part of an animal’s life is regimented. The captive animal cannot choose what to eat or when. She cannot choose where to go. She cannot seek seclusion. She cannot choose whom to associate with, whether or with whom to mate. Every meaningful decision is denied her. She has no agency in her own life.
We — as governments and individuals — have a duty to protect the rights of these animals. Governments are responsible for the welfare of dependent residents whose caregivers have failed them, human or not. Zoos’ COVID-19-induced financial crises provide a rare opportunity for governments to shape the future of zoos. By refusing to bail out zoos, governments can starve them of the funds they need to continue operating. As societies, we have been complicit in the abuses suffered by animals in zoos, by patronizing them or failing to demand their closure. We can begin to right this wrong by lobbying our governments to phase out these unjust institutions, signing petitions against zoos, and withholding donations from zoos.
What, then, will become of the animals currently confined in zoos? What does happily ever after look like for them if we do manage to shutter zoos for good? The answer, according to the authors, varies depending on the animal but with a dual approach of release to the wild or transferral to sanctuaries, the needs of all captive animals can be met.
Those animals with the wherewithal to survive in the wild should be released into the wild. Those who could survive in the wild with some assistance — the provision of food, for instance — should be released and provided this assistance.
The majority of animals raised in zoos cannot survive in the wild, and should instead be transferred to sanctuaries. These sanctuaries could even be converted zoos, the key difference being that, as sanctuaries, they will revolve around the wellbeing of the residents, not the gratification of visitors. Animals released to sanctuaries should be allowed as much autonomy and freedom to associate with other animals as possible, following a just interspecies community model. Visitors would not be allowed in sanctuaries, as their presence can be stressful for the animals and it reinforces the false idea that animals exist for our gratification. Humans could, however, take up temporary residence in just interspecies community sanctuaries as part of the community. Ideally these sanctuaries would be funded by governments, thereby avoiding the conflicting interests of institutions that have to court donors. Because community sanctuaries are just institutions, they can be allowed to continue to operate permanently.
This interspecies community model will not be practical for all animals. Predators in particular are necessarily excluded. What then? Because they cannot be released into the wild or live in harmony with other animals, the best we can do for some zoo animals is to provide a comfortable retirement. The sanctuary model for these animals will have to be more restrictive than the community model, because they must be kept safe from one another, and they must not be allowed to reproduce, dooming offspring to continued captivity. Their feeding poses a problem too, as most are obligate carnivores, and it is a sticky problem indeed to determine whether one animal should be killed to keep another alive. It is hoped that roadkill salvage and plant-based alternatives can provide a solution. When the retired animals have died, the temporary retirement sanctuaries can be closed.
A future without zoos is a future made brighter by the rejection of injustice and the insistence upon dignity for all creatures. The current financial crisis of zoos could be a catalyst to this transformation. The authors here believe that, if we and our governments resist the impulse to bail them out, we can close the chapter on zoos, and the animals imprisoned in them can claim their rightful place in a kinder society.