My dad says Zoo's are becoming politically incorrect. I've seen both arguments but I wanna hear your opinion on it: do you think Zoo's are a good idea?
Well, let’s see if I can keep this response short.
First, I’m guessing that by ‘politically correct’ you mean ‘ethically sound.’ So, is keeping animals in zoos an ethical thing to do? As with many things, there is no easy or even single answer to that question.
Without a doubt, there are bad zoos- private or roadside zoos, zoos that keep their animals in abhorrent conditions, zoos that allow visitors to engage in unsafe things like cub-petting schemes. It is obvious that these types of zoos are unethical and exploitative.
(Hint: something like this is never a good sign.)
On the other hand, what constitutes a ‘good’ zoo? In the best captive conditions currently available, is it okay to keep an animal locked up? Some say no, no matter what; some say what we have now isn’t good enough. Others say yes- the best zoos are able to provide their captives with good lives.
This of course brings us to just what a ‘good’ life is. Those who say that animals should never ever be placed in captivity usually value a sense of freedom above all else. Even in perfect captive conditions, an animal will not be free, wild, or ‘natural.’
However, we must acknowledge that ‘freedom’ is a concept created and defined by humans. A human locked in a prison knows the difference between captivity and freedom, and is able to conceptualize that certain ‘rights’ that they have are being violated. But for animals, this may be too complex to perceive. How far back do you have to move a fence before a kudu decides that he is wild again? The idea that animals sense when they are ‘free’ versus ‘not free’ is, to me, not realistic.
Animals do, however, benefit from the ability to be free to make choices, such as what they eat, where they will go, who they will interact with, and so on. Undeniably, captivity presents animals with fewer choices of these kinds than they would have in the wild. The best zoos are now implementing programs to accommodate these choices, particularly with highly intelligent animals such as elephants and apes.
One such example: the “O Line” at the Smithsonian National Zoo allows orangutans to choose one of two buildings to stay in during the day. Other animals, such as the otters, can choose whether or not to be on exhibit via spaces in their enclosure that are sheltered from the public. Scatter feeding and foraging enrichment is yet another way that zoos allow animals to choose what food they want to eat.
Still, despite these improvements, there will always be limitations of choice in captive environments compared to wild ones by the very definition of ‘captivity.’ Furthermore, while many strides have been taken to update enclosures with choices in mind, the fact remains that the implementation of behavioral science in zoos lags behind the research due to the costs, and often due to the stress of the animals themselves when trying to adjust to new schedules and norms (even if they are theoretically better ones).
A forty-year old captive elephant will have lived through decades of zoo reform, and we can’t erase those negative experiences from her mind.
One danger of comparing captive animals to their wild counterparts is assuming that captive environments should mirror the wild ones as closely as possible. But what the wild even is is not well-defined. ‘Wild’ deer roam my suburban neighborhood: should that habitat be replicated in their zoo enclosure? Wild environments include predators, diseases, and natural disasters: is it better that those be implemented in zoos as well?
In actuality, an animal born in captivity likely has no sense of what its natural environment should look like. Certainly it has natural instincts and inclinations- a tiger likes to urine-mark vertical objects and a gibbon likes to climb- but neither of them specifically needs a tree to do this with- a post or rope swing would also work. The ‘naturalistic’ look of many zoo enclosures is actually for the benefit of the visitors, not the animals. In fact, a lush, well-planted habitat could still be an abysmal one for an animal if all of its needs aren’t being met.
This brings us to one of the most important aspects of zoos: the visitors. Theoretically, one of the major purposes of good zoos is to educate and inspire the public about animals, particularly in regards to their conservation. But do zoos actually do this?
The answer is yes… to a small extent. People given surveys upon entering and leaving a zoo exhibit generally do know slightly more about the animals than they used to, but this depends a lot on how educated they were to begin with. While many visitors express an increased desire to engage in conservation efforts after leaving a zoo, not many of them have actually followed up on it when surveyed again a few weeks later. Still, most zoo visitors seem to leave the zoo with several positive if perhaps short-term effects: interest in conservation, appreciation for animals, and the desire to learn more. If a visitor experiences a “connection” with an animal during their visit, these effects are greatly increased.
However, certain types of animal “connections” and interactions can also produce a negative effect on zoo visitors. This reflects what I said earlier about the naturalistic design of habitats being more for the visitors than the animals. Individuals who view animals performing non-natural behaviors (such as a chimpanzee wearing clothes and acting ‘human,’ or a tiger coming up to be petted) are less likely to express an increased interest in their conservation, and even less likely to donate money towards it. Generally, our own perception of freedom and wildness matters much more than the individual animal’s.
The fact of the matter is that, worldwide, zoos spend about $350 million dollars on wildlife conservation each year. That is a tremendous amount of money, and it comes from visitors and donations. What amount of discomfort on the part of captive animals is worth that money being devoted to their wild counterparts? It’s hard to say.
This is a very, VERY general overview of some of the ethical issues surrounding zoos; to go over it all, I’d need to write a book. But hopefully, it got you thinking a little bit about what your own opinion on all this is. (I didn’t explicitly state mine on purpose, though it’s probably fairly clear.)
Do you visit circuses that use animals, do you give money to these awful gimmicky animal tourist attractions, do you watch videos of elephants painting and monkeys riding bikes etc… And laugh? Is this entertainment to you? Because it’s no fun for the animals that are used. Please next time you come across any animals used in entertainment, think about this image. Think about all the things that happen to these very same animals behind the scenes. Is it natural behavior for a monkey to ride a bike or an elephant to paint? Is it natural behaviour for elephants and horses to be dancing in shows with huge noisy crowds? Is this what we are going to reduced these beautiful wild creatures to? Our entertainment?
While vacationing this year, I had the privilege of riding trained South African elephants. This story’s a bit of a long one, so have a seat if you will. I’ll try to shorten it (not really).
When we arrived at the center, we got to meet the six elephants they had living in the reserve, all of whom were well trained and taken care of. The eldest of them of the six, named Tembo, could respond to between 120 and 130 verbal commands, and could even recognize each trainer by name. By name. How cool is that? (Believe me when I tell you that these elephants are not trained like captive Asian elephants you might hear about. They’re treated with the best of tender love and care.)
Now, the thought of riding one of these giants was more than a little nerve-wracking. I had butterflies in my stomach just being so close to them. It was enjoyable meeting them, but it’s not every day you get to pet an elephant and feed it by its trunk, y'know?
Regardless of my fear, the time for riding the elephants inevitably came. The elephant assigned to my sister and I was Andile, meaning “to multiply” in a local language. She stood a meter or two tall, I’d say, so you can imagine how high up I was sitting on its back. After mounting her, I shifted my position pretty often cuz I was more than a little uncomfortable and my hips were hurting. These legs don’t normally open that wide if you know what I’m saying, haha! (Someone slap me for that later.)
But the thing that stood out most to me was that legs were shaking. Intensely. Every time I moved them, they shook like there was no tomorrow. To my knowledge, I have never shaken so much in my entire life. I wasn’t just nervous. I was afraid.
Even whilst sitting in the car, I could still feel my legs shaking. They didn’t shake for the entire ride, but they were definitely feeling weak long after the experience. My family members had already called me out for being scared, and I’m sure the trainers walking with us were talking and laughing about me and how uncomfortable I looked. I was very visibly out of my comfort zone, so I don’t blame them.
To be honest, I’m glad I didn’t chicken out, though it does make me a little sad that I was so nervous. I know I’m timid; even when putting on a “tough guy” look, I’m a nervous wreck on the inside. It’s just how I am. I just wish I wasn’t so scared, you know? I’m kinda like those elephants, now that I think about: a giant, but gentle and easily scared. Perhaps in due time I’ll warm up to the experience and try again sometime. Hopefully I’ll be more flexible then…
Side note: Yes, elephants are as easily scared as they’re often portrayed. It’s hard for them to see small things up close, like mice, and generally become startled when they see some small, blurry image moving about so close to them. They also don’t appreciate loud noises or being snuck up on, so don’t try to approach an elephant from behind. You’ll probably die. Thank you.
Going back to that post about The Dodo, you mentioned how they're anti-captivity and that they support animal rights. It sounded like you were implying that's a bad thing. If so, how is that a bad thing?
First off, because animal rights is a super different movement from animal welfare. It’s a radical movement that wants to see all animals out of human control (not just livestock - no pets) and thinks they’re all better off dead than involved with people. The Dodo hasn’t espoused the particular views that make PETA and HSUS so egregious but they unthinkingly parrot the rhetoric of the movement and support the furor around animal rights activism like Blackfish without an ounce of critical thinking or fact checking.
This is also why the anti-captivity stance of their writers is a problem. It’s not an educated opinion informed by research and experience with animal husbandry and welfare. It’s a political stance that gets web traffic which consists of opinion pieces written by people who consistently prove they can’t tell a hawk from a handsaw. They don’t only spread misinformation, they actually create more of it, and because they’ve got the feel-good clickbait thing down pat it manages to travel really far and really fast. Irregardless of your stance on cetacean (and ape, and elephant) captivity, The Dodo being anti-cap shouldn’t be something to support; their publications help to damage actual public understanding of welfare issues and muddy the waters so badly no effective discourse that would improve the lives of animals can exist.
This fabulous 17th century armour is composed of 5,840 plates and weighs
118kg, some plates are missing and originally the total number would be
8,439 and weigh 159kg! The tusk swords that accompany this armour (not
on display) weigh in at 10kg.
It is the only animal armour of this scale on public display and
recently entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest animal
armour in the world.
Acquired in India by Lady Clive, wife of Edward, 2nd Lord Clive
(Governor of Madras), between 1798 and 1800, and brought back to England
in 1801; displayed in the Elephant Room at Powis Castle. Placed on loan
to the Armouries in 1949 for conservation.
Presented to the nation in lieu of death duty by the Earl of Powis in 1962 and placed in the care of the Armouries.
Until the widespread introduction of firearms war elephants were a
dominant force in Indian warfare.
Many were provided with complete armours, yet this is the only
near-complete surviving example in the world.
Arms and armour from India form the largest part of the Royal Armouries
Asian collection, and include the largest armour in the whole
collection, the only elephant armour in captivity.
Probably made in one of the arsenals of the Mughal Empire in northern
India in the late 16th or early 17th century, in its present state, with
two of its mail and plate panels missing, it weighs 142 kg.
It is made of some 8450 iron plates joined by rows of riveted mail.
The armour also has a pair of tusk swords, with heavy sockets to fit the
elephant’s sworn-off tusks and fierce wavy blades with strong armour
What's your opinion on the captivity of animals who have shorter life expectancy in captivity? Eg: orcas, ellies, I believe quite a few shark species? And any others you know about?
For individual long-lived animals and why they’re dying early, it really depends on the circumstances of each one. Many of them were brought into captivity before we had decent knowledge of how to take care of them properly, or were rescued from abuse and have that history constantly impacting their health. I’m highly unlikely to condemn early death for individual animals because of captive scenarios unless there’s outright abuse or purposeful mistreatment or negligent husbandry going on (which thankfully isn’t common in the US).
When it comes to the species in general, I don’t have any distinct thoughts based on the early mortality thing because it’s generally a symptom of larger problems with keeping the species in captivity. Those bear more discussion than just ‘long-lived species in zoos are wrong because they die early’.
For instance, elephants used to die much earlier in captivity because for so long they were fed such junk that they were incredibly obese. That’s changed in recent years as AZA facilities have focused on understanding and providing adequate nutrition. Same with problems with tuberculosis - it was way more common in captive elephant populations when it was also common in humans, and now that everywhere is incredibly on top of the issue it’s been mostly negated (although elephants do seem to have more problems with harboring it than other animals, IIRC). That’s just talking physical health for elephants. They’ve also got other issues with captive management related to social structure which also probably impact longevity. The more I read about the current understanding of elephant cognition, emotion, and social bonds, the more it does seem that the way we manage elephants in captivity (small groups, moving bonded animals away from each other) is likely contributing negatively to their welfare long-term. That’s something that desperately needs to be improved, but from what I can tell it’s a process that’s already begun and will definitely continue - it’s hard, since that research is longitudinal and has been in the works already for 30 years but still isn’t necessarily published or widely available.
Orcas are a hard one because, as much as facilities do everything they can on the ground level to provide accurate care for these animals, I don’t believe that long-term we’re able to provide them with everything they need for positive welfare given current setups. Does this likely impact their longevity? I’m sure it does, but that’s obviously not the only factor. Again, most whales were brought into captivity in absolutely abysmal conditions even by today’s standards, and that affects overall immune function and longterm health even after they’re in better scenarios. Add to the fact that we don’t know nearly as much about their ideal management as we do about even elephants, and it’s all complicated. I do think we should phase out captive large whales, but that’s more because overall welfare is meh as opposed to specifically that they live shorter lives, ya dig?
Sharks are sort of a special case because cartilaginous fish are very, very easily affected by stress and will die from it easily. It’s similar to capture myopathy but at an incredibly sensitive level. The bigger pelagic sharks have much more problems with it than reef sharks, which is why you generally already don’t see them exhibited for long periods of time - they’re rehabbed and released to provide them the best survival chances.
So it’s a really complicated question, and a good one to ask. I think it’s obviously a problem that these animal are dying younger than their wild counterparts as an overall tend - some animals will always underlive the natural lifespan, but obviously not a huge number. It’s hard one to look at right now and find concrete answers about if those animals should be in captivity or not since the ethos of animal management has changed so drastically during their lifetimes. There’s no cut and dry answer, except that we should figure out what’s causing it and do better. We already are, but that’s not enough. (And, obviously, as part of that, we need to determine if we can provide for them well enough at all).
Temple elephants are a type of captive elephants. These elephants are a vital part of many temple ceremonies and festivals in India, particularly in South India. With mahouts who strike to injury in the name of disciplining them, owners who underfeed them, admirers who fail to see their suffering, and an administration that is indifferent to their plight, temple elephants, and captive elephants in general, have never had it so bad though there are laws meant to protect them.