Reforms For A Postzoo Future
Held in May 2017 at the Detroit Zoo, the Fourth Global Animal Welfare Congress brought together some of the leading zoo directors and administrators from around the globe to discuss welfare improvements for animals kept in captivity. Despite their willingness to discuss the challenges captivity presents to individual animals, this review article points out that their welfare-based approach only addresses superficial moral problems, and doesn’t get down to the root of the problems that zoos face.
The authors note that the root of the problem is the captivity itself. According to them, a vast empirical database has already shown that various species held in zoos and other captive environments present behavioral problems or neurobiological and physiological changes. These captivity effects include, for example, repetitive and abnormal behaviors, changes to immune function, brain morphology, reproductive behaviors, and so on.
As a result of the analysis of this scientific database, the authors draw the conclusion that it is unethical to hold animals in prolonged captivity if this condition imposes profound suffering. Based on that, and with the argument that even the best practices in the world will not make zoos ethically benign or even acceptable, the authors propose a paradigm change that implies a radical reform of the zoos.
To this end, the paper proposes 6 actions to achieve this goal:
Reform 1: Shut down bad zoos as soon as possible
The article estimates that between 90% to 97% of all zoos in the world can’t meet rigorous animal welfare standards and for this reason should be closed. Sanctuaries would be a possible destiny for the animals who don’t have the skills necessary to live in the wild.
Reform 2: Stop exhibiting animals who cannot and never will do well in captivity
Studies have already shown that some species of animals can’t have reasonable freedom and well-being in captivity. Elephants, bears, wolves, whales, dolphins, chimpanzees, and lions are some of the species that can’t thrive in the zoo setting. The Detroit Zoo’s experience replacing animals with technology (such as a virtual safari) is cited as an alternative that has the potential to be more fun and more educational than traditional zoo animal exhibits.
Reform 3: Stop killing healthy animals
Healthy animals are killed at many zoos in a common practice called “management euthanasia” simply because either their bodies or genetic material are no longer needed. The authors bring the case of Marius, a healthy two-year-old giraffe who was killed at Copenhagen Zoo, as an example of this practice.
Reform 4: Stop captive breeding programs
If zoos adopted a rule of not killing healthy animals, they also would have to stop creating the conditions that create a surplus. That means ending captive breeding programs.
Reform 5: Stop moving animals around from one zoo to another
Regardless of the reason (exhibits, DNA samples, etc.) moving animals is a stressful experience for the animals being moved and for the animals with whom the new arrival is housed. Since there is no good animal welfare-based reason for these relocations, these practices should stop.
Reform 6: Use the science of animal cognition and emotion on behalf of animals
Despite all the scientific studies performed in the last decades showing what animals think, feel and want, progress on zoo ethics and welfare are not evolving at the same pace. This “knowledge translation gap” blocks gains for the animals even with all the information acquired by scientists.
The authors point out that this failure is caused by “welfare science,” a science in the service of human industry rather than a science in the service of animals. As an alternative they have developed a science of animal well-being focusing on what individual animals want and need, trying to understand their preferences from their point of view. They suggest that freedom should be a priority: “a better life is not necessarily a good life”.