The Moral Case Against Zoos

Intercoastal System

Pivoting off Alex Halberstadt’s piece from last week, Benjamin Wallace Wells argues forcefully against keeping animals captive:

A giraffe who freaks out about men with large cameras, a brown bear whose cage door is the subject of his obsessive compulsive disorder, a 5,000-pound killer whale who shows her trainer who is boss by dragging him underwater for just about as long as he can live, before letting him go — these episodes seem like something more complicated than simple errors of confinement. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in some way the animals understand that the world around them is an artificial one, that these phobias and psychotic episodes represent reactions to that artifice, or subversions of it. Which means that the central illusion of the zoo is no longer holding. The animals know.

All of which makes [veterinarian] Vint Virga’s project — sustaining that illusion, by incremental changes in how the animals are treated — seem more than a little quixotic. Last August, the Costa Rican government announced it was closing all its zoos. The new policy, the government declared, was “no cages.” (A court ruling has so far kept the zoos open.) I think we’re moving slowly toward the same sensibility. In 25 years, there will likely still be some way for Americans to see exotic animals. But I will be pretty surprised if those places have cages, mirrors, smoke machines, and conference-room tanks for 12,000-pound whales. There may be nature preserves. But it seems to me that we’re pretty rapidly reaching the end of the era of the modern urban zoo.

Relatedly, Laurel Braitman reports on the giving of psychiatric drugs to zoo animals. Here’s the story of the Central Park Zoo’s polar bear Gus:

[T]he zoo staff didn’t want Gus to scare children or their parents, so they put up barriers to keep visitors farther away from the window. Gus soon started to swim in endless figure eights.

Hoping to curb the neurotic behavior, the zoo hired Tim Desmond, an animal trainer who had trained the orca who played Willy in the film Free Willy. Desmond was able to reduce Gus’s compulsions by giving him new things to do, such as bear food puzzles or snacks that took him longer to eat: mackerel frozen in blocks of ice or chicken wrapped in rawhide.

The zoo redesigned his exhibit and installed a play area stocked with rubber trash cans and traffic cones that Gus could pretend-maul. They also put him on Prozac. I do not know how long he was on the drug, or even if it was as effective as his new exhibit and entertainment schedule, but eventually Gus’s compulsive swimming tapered off, though it never went away entirely.

(Image from Daniel Kukla’s Captive Landscapes series. Earlier Dish on Kukla’s work here. See more of it here.)

The Tears Of An Elephant

Thailand's Elephant Hospital and Mahout School

Yesterday, there was a strikingly good reported piece in the NYT magazine on the growing evidence that consciousness does not have some kind of radical break between humans and every other species on the planet. And by consciousness, at varying levels, I mean, for example, the ability to feel fear, or joy, or anxiety, or even grief. This is emphatically not about anthropomorphism. It’s about the reality of creation:

A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence. In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals”[PDF]  — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness.

And then I come across this rather beautiful story about an elephant around my own age, captured in his infancy, chained and shackled his entire life, until he is released by an animal welfare group:

Fitted with painful shackles for nearly his entire life, Raju had been forced to walk the dusty roads of India, interacting with tourists in exchange for coins and food. His body bears the signs of malnutrition and the scars of physical abuse — but the emotional toll was no less profound. Late last week, a team led by the UK-based animal charity, Wildlife SOS, intervened to liberate Raju from his cruel keeper. As it started to become clear that they were there to help him, the elephant wept.

Wept? I was doubtful until I read other tales of exactly this phenomenon: in a book from Jeffrey Masson, When Elephants Weep, and a recent story about a newborn elephant calf, rejected by its mother, who then cried uncontrollably for five hours.

Does weeping mean in elephants what it does in humans? We cannot know, of course. But when it is occasioned by the kind of event that prompts human tears, it does not seem to me to be indulging in anthropomorphism to posit that something like grief or relief (or some elephantine version of either) is behind it. And that, to my mind, tells us a huge amount empirically about the way we treat animals in our society: we treat countless living creatures as if they had no feelings and as if we shared nothing in our experiences. That’s not just based on untruth; it is the kind of thing that future generations may well look back on in horror and disbelief.

To see what is in front of one’s nose …

(Photo: Tears run down the face of Motala the elephant. She is crying from the pain as vets clean up the damaged tissue that is all that is left of her front left foot. She is a patient at the Elephant Hospital where vets and doctors hope she will recover from extensive damage when she stepped on a landmine on the Thai/Burma border. The hospital was founded by Khun Soraida Salwala, and the NGO Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE). By Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The View From The Zoo

Monuments National Park

Daniel Kukla photographs the murals designed by zookeepers to mimic the animals’ landscapes of origin:

Obviously the addition of foliage and a mural depicting the savannah don’t fool captive critters into thinking they’re in the wild, but the illusion isn’t for them. It’s for us. That’s why Kukla’s images, though beautifully shot and visually gripping, also are unsettling. “They’re kind of bleak,” Kukla says of the scenes he’s documented. “I really chose to highlight some of the more bizarre.”

The stated goal of most zoos is wildlife research and public education. For either to be possible, a captive animal must adapt to life within a confined space. Attempts to make that enclosure appear more natural, regardless of its size, help the viewer forget about this part of the arrangement.

See more of Kukla’s work here and his Kickstarter for an expedition to the Arctic here.

Seeing Yourself At The Zoo

Evolutionary psychologist David Barash considers one reason why people enjoy observing animals:

screen-shot-2014-01-31-at-11-43-33-amOne of my earliest research projects as a graduate student in zoology at the University of Wisconsin was titled “Who Watches Who at the Zoo?” I sat in front of a naturalistic exhibit of a family group of lion-tailed macaque monkeys (adult male, adult female, a juvenile and an infant) and pretended to watch them while, in fact, recording the conversations among zoo visitors about the monkeys. The results were quite clear: men focused on the ‘other’ adult macaque male (“Look at that big guy!”), women paid particular attention to the adult female, as well as the infant (“Look, honey, there’s the mommy and her baby!”), while children looked especially at their simian counterpart (“How cute, there’s a tiny little monkey!”). One plausible explanation is that people, at least some of the time, look at animals – non-human primates in particular – as reflections, albeit distorted, of themselves.

Recent Dish on zoos here and here.

(Macaque portrait from the “Behind Glass” series by Anne Berry)

Cuteness In Captivity, Ctd

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Unlike Bert Archer, Rachel Lu loves the zoo (joined by several readers below):

I’m confident [our local zoo] will linger in my kids’ memories as one of the most beloved places of their childhood. I joke to my friends that we’re “zoo junkies” because we generally visit once a week. Those animals are like old friends to my kids, and I’ve outlined many an article from the bench of the monkey house on a quiet winter afternoon. When there are no other visitors, the monkeys will sometimes come down and interact with the boys from the other side of the glass. …

When we see animals in real life, we get a perspective on the natural world that we just can’t get through television.

My kids watch TV, but at their age, understanding the reality of what lies behind the flickering images is quite difficult. (I find that older people often have this problem too.) Recognizing that fact makes me that much more grateful for the opportunity to give them a direct encounter with lions, tigers and bears.

Zoo animals have been their primary conduit for coming to understand that the world contains a diverse array of climates and ecosystems. We discuss why it is that the tiger comes outside in the winter but the giraffes not. We note how the arctic foxes exchange their white coats for grey ones as the seasons change. Even contrived, pseudo-ecosystems enable the kids to recognize how particular animals are suited to their environments. They marvel at the upper-body strength of monkeys and note with amazement that both polar bears and seals, despite their many differences, are adapted to swimming. A nature show could point this out, but they benefit far more from making the connection themselves.

A related email from the archives, responding to this post on captive orcas:

I have at times felt uncomfortable in zoos as well, for the same reason as your reader – it seems an unnatural state in which to view these animals, akin to imprisonment (and often, in a climate that is vastly different from the ones they would typically experience).  But your reader is wrong to speak of animals being “snatched from their normal lives”.  Perhaps generations ago, that was the case.  Yet the majority zoo animals alive today are born into captivity, including over 80% of mammals according to industry counts.

Of course, that doesn’t lessen the power of your slavery analogy (and in fact, it may strengthen it).  But bear in mind, too, that many zoo animals are endangered species – sometimes severely so.  The practice of keeping such animals in zoos, and breeding them in captivity, is in some cases the only thing standing between a species’ existence and extinction.

Recent Dish on breeding endangered animals in captivity is here. An animal keeper also responded to the orca thread:

The debate over zoos and aquariums is a good and healthy one to have, especially when it results in improvements in the welfare of the animals we are caring for.  But this statement by one reader just went right through me: “It just seems incredibly selfish of the human race to snatch these innocent animals from their normal lives and dump them into one we see fit to create for them, all to give families something to do on weekends.”

What were these animals “normal” lives?  I readily acknowledge that not all zoos treat animals equally, and some are incredibly abusive, which is sickening.  But not all animals in zoos were born in the wild – they were bred in a zoo, raised in a zoo, and would not be able to live in the wild even if we wanted to release them.  Others were rescued from the pet trade or taken in from the wild after their mothers were killed or they were injured by human action.  Do we simply let these animals fend for themselves? And if not zoos, where else to we put them?

I, and most animal keepers that I know, would love it if the animals we care for didn’t have to be paraded around for dog and pony shows to entertain people.  It can be stressful for the animals (no matter how well they tolerate people) and exhausting for the handlers.  We would love it if the animals we cared for could roam huge open expanses without fences or bars or cages.  We would also love it if it were still possible to see a snow leopard outside of a zoo without having to sit for weeks on end to glimpse ONE of the last remaining of the species.  We don’t live in that world, and unless a significant number of us were to die off, we never will.

While zoos may have been originally created to house unusual animals so that people other than rich trophy hunters could see them, zoos do not simply exist for that now.  If the people weren’t allowed to see the animals the zoos wouldn’t be able to help conserve the animals we have left.  The zoos wouldn’t be able to care for the animals that poachers try to kill, that cars maim, or that people try to keep as pets.  A family’s “weekend entertainment” is the bargain that zoos make so that they can help do some good in the world.

But that family’s visit DOES come with a bonus because every once in while if you’re really lucky you get to see the face of a small city-born child who comes face to face with an animal they have never seen before – even common animals like birds and turtles and frogs.  And that child realizes that there is something more than steel, concrete and rats in the world.  And if that child can appreciate the simple wonder of a turtle, that child might, just might grow up and realize that animals have just as much right to this planet as humans do, and that they are not just for entertainment.  And that is priceless.

Another reader is on the same page:

At the headquarters of Denali National Park, there is an exhibit on caribou. They do not have an easy life. Four-fifths of the calves never make it to adulthood, mostly falling to predators who rip them apart and eat them alive. The survivors are plagued by swarms of biting flies and parasites that burrow tunnels in the haunches before they are weakened by age or disease, and ripped apart by a predator.

This contrasts with responsibly-raised farm animals, who have room, board, and medical care, live much longer than their cousins in the wild. They certainly die more humanely than being eaten alive, in fact they die more humanely than most of us do hooked up to machines.

I grew up in the country and saw how wild animals lived. I suspect that most animal rights peoples’ experience with animals is limited to dog, cats, and zoos. While on a bus at Denali, we saw a fox walk by with a bloody squirrel dripping from his jaws. This was a revelation to my wife who was raised in a genteel suburb. From the oohs and aahs it caused it seemed to be a revelation to most of the passengers.

While I certainly back humane treatment of captive animals, I think at the further end, animal rights people, isolated from nature, are projecting their human selves on animals.

(Photo by Günter Hentschel)

Cuteness In Captivity

Bert Archer makes the perennial case against zoos:

I feel confident in saying that we, the animal-loving public, are idiots. We don’t pay attention (and step on nests), we don’t think things through (and pay companies to put whales in aquariums), and, since the entirety of our context for animal-human interaction seems to be cats and dogs, we have a deep desire to treat all animals the same way. We want to pet them and hug them and love them and kiss them. Hence the outrage directed of late at Sea World and its cognates, with their riding and caressing animals in a way that makes it clear, when put alongside the hoop-jumping sea lions and the dancing dolphins, that we as humans have dominion over these creatures, and can make them do our bidding, as is natural and just. Dogs and cats are our creations; those other creatures are not, no matter what it says in Genesis. Thinking that they are here for our use is the sort of logic that led to the sealing and whaling industries of the last two centuries, which nearly wiped out the upper echelons of the aquatic food chains.

Previous Dish on the ethics of zoos here.

Ask Charles Camosy Anything: Are Zoos Ethical?

In another video from the author of For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action, Charles weighs the immorality of animal captivity against the benefits of human interaction, particularly among children:

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Previous Dish on confining animals for our entertainment here. A reminder of our guest’s background:

Charles Camosy is an assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. … His early work focused on medical and clinical ethics with regard to stem cell research and the treatment of critically ill newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit, which was the focus of his first book, Too Expensive to Treat? Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU. His second book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, uses intellectual solidarity in an attempt to begin a sustained and fruitful conversation between Peter Singer and Christian ethics.

Camosy’s previous videos can be found here. Our full Ask Anything archive is here.