The History Of Animal Welfare In U.S. Zoos & Aquariums
In recent years, the welfare of animals kept in zoos & aquariums has come under increasingly greater scrutiny. However, animal welfare is not a new concept for the zoo & aquarium industry. This paper, published in Zool. Garten N.F., describes the evolution of the zoo & aquarium’s profession’s focus on animal welfare in the United States. It also draws comparisons between animal welfare in zoos & aquariums (referred to collectively as zoos) and in laboratories and farms. The authors base the review on interviews with leaders from three industries and a publication analysis of studies related to the welfare of zoo animals from 1975 to 2014.
The paper provides a timeline of the evolution of animal welfare in zoos, which seemingly began with the 1950 publication of Swiss zoo director Heini Hediger’s Wild Animals in Captivity (a book that “described the importance of considering animals’ flight distance and the quality of the spaces in which they are kept”), was spurred by external and internal drivers in the 1970’s and 80’s that sought to use behavioral research to enrich zoo exhibit environments, and was solidified in the 1990’s and beyond with a proliferation of research and programs focused specifically on zoo animal welfare (e.g. the creation of animal welfare centers at zoos and establishment of the Animal Welfare Committee by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums).
Throughout the paper, the authors also compare animal welfare research in zoos with that conducted in labs and farms. They note that while research in all three areas underwent similar growth, they had distinct trajectories, as scientists studying welfare in labs and farms concentrate on large numbers of homogenous animals in confined environments, while those at zoos work with diverse species who live in a variety of settings, are managed individually, and grow to old age. The authors also state that within all three areas, particularly in zoos, there may be an overlap in research on animal husbandry and animal welfare, as “animals that experience good welfare will generally survive and reproduce well.”
Despite major differences in animal welfare research in zoos, labs, and farms, the authors note that researchers in the three areas have learned from each other. They found that in particular, the zoo community has extensively used results from welfare studies on farm and laboratory animals as a foundation for their research, in most part because research in farms and labs is better funded. However, through a literature analysis, the authors found that animal welfare research from zoos is cited by scholars throughout farm, lab, and academic communities.
Finally, the authors examine which participants conduct animal welfare research and how it is funded. They conclude that “the vast majority of welfare science conducted in zoos and aquariums has been conducted by individuals who work within the zoo industry, sometimes in collaboration with universities,” in contrast to research in labs and farms, which is most often conducted by academics. As far as funding, they found that zoos play a key role in supporting research through use of staff and facilities and that zoos rarely receive large foundation grants but do receive small to moderate grants from federal government, non-profits, and universities. In comparison, they report that farms receive funding from a mixture of federal grants and industry and labs from a variety of external grants.
In conclusion, the authors reiterate their finding that the biggest driver and source of animal welfare research at zoos has been the zoo industry itself, as the “emphasis on animal welfare in zoos has arguably been most forcefully developed from within the profession by scientists, managers, and animal care staff that have made animal welfare an ethical priority.” They offer two recommendations for next steps: for zoos to “continue to assess, study, and improve the welfare of the diverse species they manage” and to export the “animal welfare expertise held by zoo and aquarium professionals with a variety of wildlife species to the field in the service of science and conservation.”
For advocates, the paper offers an informative look at the evolution of animal welfare in zoos as well as interesting comparisons between animal welfare concerns in zoos, farms, and labs, three areas which are generally treated as distinctly separate. Advocates will likely take issue with several ideas presented by the paper (apart from differences in philosophies of animal rights vs welfare in relation to captive animals), including the authors’ assertions that advances in animal husbandry equate with improved animal welfare and that certain advances in animal welfare were driven internally and not by external pressures.