ARE ZOOS ETHICALLY JUSTIFIABLE IN THE TWENTY-FIRST
By Neil Midlane
AN ASSIGNMENT SUBMITTED TO THE UNIVERSITY OF
STELLENBOSCH IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR THE M.PHIL IN ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT
May 2008 Introduction
Zoos, in some form or other, have been around for thousands of years, and it is not
until relatively recently that the merits of these institutions have been debated to any
extent. The holding of wild animals in captivity is an emotive issue, and can result in
heated exchanges between various interest and lobby groups.
In this paper, I will remove emotion by following an objective process to determine
whether zoos are ethically justifiable in the 21 century.
What is a zoo?
The South African Standard on Zoo and Aquarium Practice (Standards South Africa
2005, 5) defines a zoo or an aquarium as a:
permanent legal establishment, primarily open to and administered for the visiting
public, for the ethical maintenance and exhibition of living organisms for th e
demonstrable purposes of education, conservation and research.
The standard does not, however, define “ethical maintenance” and it is not until
section 16 (of 17 sections) that the topic “Ethical Review Processes” is encountered.
The definition gives no indication that the zoo or aquarium is there for the benefits of
the animals it houses, or the species to which they belong. It quite clearly states that
the primary reason for the existence of the institution is for the public.
Zoos from an animal rights and animal welfare perspective
There is a vast literature on the issues of animal rights and animal welfare. I will refer
to certain arguments and principles to determine whether zoo inhabitants have rights,
and if so, whether the zoos infringe on these rights by holding the animals captive.
In his essay entitled “Animal Liberation,” Peter Singer presents a convincing
argument for the fact that animals of a certain level of intelligence are able to suffer
(Singer 2003). The question that then arises in the context of zoos is whether being held in captivity
can cause suffering for the animals involved. A zoo would argue that modern zoo
standards require animals to have sufficient space, food, water, stimulation etc to
ensure that they do not suffer in any way.
A parallel can be drawn in this instance to human prison systems. With prisoners’
rights being enshrined in the constitutions of many countries, certain minimum
standards are required to be met by prisons. In essence, prisoners are to be given
adequate shelter, and sufficient food and stimulation in order to make their
incarceration bearable. However, the fact remains that prisons are seen as a
punishment for crimes against society. It follows then that being incarcerated in a
prison would generally result in a person suffering more than he would if he remained
free. An argument may be made that a homeless person with no food is better off in
prison, but if the offer of a friendly shelter and food were made versus a prison term,
any rational person would choose the former.
The implication then is that it is the loss of freedom that causes the suffering of the
prisoner. I argue therefore that loss of freedom causes suffering in animals in the same
manner. However, in order to suffer from a loss of freedom, the animal needs to be
aware of the fact that this loss has occurred. Certain animals would clearly have this
awareness, while many probably would not.
As Singer said (Singer 2003: 138), “It remains to consider how far down the
evolutionary scale this analogy holds. Obviously it becomes poorer when we get
further away from man.” The argument for suffering from being in captivity would
therefore probably not hold for a fish in a sufficiently large aquarium, but would most
definitely apply to a dolphin in a pool. The next step in the discussion comes from Tom Regan (Regan 2003) and his
arguments around animal rights. He states:
The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals asour
resources, here for us… Once we accept this view of animals – as our resources – the
rest is as predictable as it is regrettable. Why worry about their loneliness, their pain,
their death? (Regan 2003: 143)
Zoos would argue that they do not view animals as resources, but are in fact there for
the good of the animals, as well as conservation in general. However, the definition of
a zoo given earlier specifically states “…primarily open to and administered for the
visiting public…” This implies that the main reason for a zoo’s existence is to provide
a service of some sort for the people who come through its gates. This service
revolves around the visitors getting some sort of satisfaction or value out of viewing
the animals in the zoo. The animals are therefore a resource being utilised by the zoo
for the good of the people, being the visitors, employees and owners of the zoo itself.
Although Regan limits his debate to animals in science, commercial agriculture and
sport hunting and trapping, it has been demonstrated here that it should be expanded
to animals being kept in captivity for the benefit of humans.
In his piece “Interspecific Justice” Donald VanDeVeer (VanDeVeer 2003) draws up a
matrix under the heading “Two Factor Egalitarianism Explored which he then applies
to certain problem statements reflecting conflicts of interest between humans and
animals ” (VanDeVeer 2003: 157). The matrix looks as follows:
Human interest Animal interest
1 Basic Basic
2 Basic Peripheral
3 Peripheral Basic
4 Peripheral Peripheral
VanDeVeer (2003: 157) goes on to discuss utility where “on the principle that utility
should be maximized in adjudicating conflicts of interests, peripheral interests ought
to be subordinated to basic ones.” He does identify certain problems with this, such as in a conflict between cockroaches and humans. These problems are, however,
addressed through a “Weighting Principle” where “…the interests of beings with
more complex psychological capacities deserve greater weight than those with lesser
capacities – up to a point” (VanDeVeer 2003: 157)
If we go back to the earlier argument where it was established that animals are able to
suffer as a result of being held in captivity, then the matrix can be applied as follows:
• It is in the interest of humans and animals not to suffer
• Not suffering is a basic interest
• Animals can suffer through loss of freedom
• Keeping animals in a zoo robs them of their freedom
• Certain animals have the capacity to recognise this loss
• It follows then that for some animals it is a basic interest not to be kept in a
• Humans use zoos for recreation, entertainment etc
• Recreation, entertainment etc are peripheral needs
• Humans use of zoos is therefore a peripheral need
We therefore arrive at a conflict as contemplated in 3 on the matrix, where a
peripheral human need is in conflict with a basic animal need. In cases where the
animal in question is sufficiently advanced to recognise its lack of freedom, and
therefore suffer from it, its basic need not to suffer must then take preference over the
peripheral recreational/entertainment need of humans.
The Five Freedoms
In the United Kingdom, the welfare of animals in captivity is generally evaluated
based on the principle of “five freedoms” (Born Free Foundation 2006) which
describes the minimum requirement for all animals in captivity as:
1. Sufficient and good quality food and water
2. A suitable living environment
3. An opportunity to exhibit natural behaviours
4. Protection from fear and distress
5. Good health The first and last of the five are the only ones that we as humans can reasonably
ensure are met in most cases. Number two is highly subjective. Number four is
difficult to quantify, as it would require an understanding of the thought processes of
the animal(s) in question.
It is number three though, that is of greatest concern. For example, how can an
African elephant in captivity “exhibit natural behaviours?” How can a bull elephant
walk fifty kilometers in a day to get to a new food source? How can an elephant cow
partake in all the intricacies of social bonding in a matriarchal herd of 10 to 15 closely
related individuals? How can a male lion patrol and mark his territory to ensure that
other male lions in his area know it’s his? How can a snow leopard stalk and capture
The simple answer is that they cannot. But are these not all natural behaviours that
one would expect of these animals in the wild? Indeed they are. Does this mean that
the five freedoms are satisfied if only some natural behaviours are possible? What is
the cut-off point then? 20%? 50%? Or perhaps it’s sufficient that an animal displays
no aberrant behaviour?
If the “five freedoms” principle was applied rigorously, the criteria around natural
behaviour would result in the living conditions of a huge number of captive animals
not meeting these minimum requirements.
It has now been shown that animals can suffer from being in captivity, zoos view
animals as resources, the keeping of animals in captivity can result in favouring a
peripheral human need over a basic animal one and many of these animals’ “five
freedoms” cannot be met in a captive situation.
I submit, therefore, that if the considerations of the individual animal(s) in captivity
are taken into account, based on the preceding arguments, it is ethically unjustifiable
to keep an animal in captivity if the particular animal has sufficient psychological
capacity to be aware of the fact that its freedom has been limited. Justification for zoos – the counter-argument
When asked to justify their existence, as zoos frequently are, they normally build their
defence around three pillars:
The conservation defence
A recent article documents the story of the “Taiping Four,” four young gorillas who
for the last seven years have been at the centre of a wildlife power struggle (Turnbull
The four gorillas were originally captured in Cameroon, before being smuggled in
2001, via the Ibadan Zoo in Nigeria, to the Taiping Zoo in Malaysia, which was
intended to be their final destination. As gorillas are protected under Appendix I of
the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it is illegal to
buy and sell wild-born gorillas or gorilla products. Through illegal documentation
claiming that the gorillas had been bred at Ibadan Zoo (this zoo’s gorilla population
consisted of one elderly female at the time) the law was circumvented, and the
gorillas were dispatched to Malaysia (Turnbull 2008).
When the animals were eventually discovered, and their history traced, there was an
outcry from conservation bodies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s)
worldwide (Turnbull 2008).
After a few years of negotiation and legal wrangling, the gorillas were moved in 2004
to the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, South Africa. The zoo was very quick
to build an enclosure where the intent was to house the animals on a permanent basis
However, after further lobbying, and in terms of CITES, it was eventually agreed to
repatriate the youngsters to Cameroon, the country of their origin. At this point, the National Zoo dragged its feet significantly before eventually bowing to pressure and
releasing the gorillas (Turnbull 2008).
In November 2007, the four unfortunate animals finally arrived back in Cameroon,
where they are now being housed in a primate sanctuary on the outskirts of a town
called Limbe. It is here that they will hopefully live out the rest of their lives in peace
It had taken six years, vast costs, huge amounts of resources, both human and other,
and untold suffering on the part of the unwilling primate participants to finally get
them back reasonably close to where they belong.
According to an advertorial placed in the same magazine by the International Fund for
Animal Welfare (International Fund for Animal Welfare 2008):
It is estimated that four out of five infant gorillas die in trade, meaning that four live
baby gorillas means 20 captured. In order to capture one infant, at least two adult
gorillas must be killed. So, four live babies equal (sic) 40 de ad adults, and 16 infants
that died before reaching adequate care.
If you go onto the website for the Taiping Zoo (Taiping Zoo 2008), you will find the
following among four points under the heading “Taiping Zoo’s Objectives:”
This important role cannot be over emphasized. Ex-situ conservation goes hand in
hand with in-situ conservation.
This is the same institution that reportedly paid US$1.6 million for the Taiping Four,
and if IFAW’s estimates are accurate, was simultaneously complicit in the deaths of
at least another 56 gorillas! This is a species listed as Critically Endangered by the
World Conservation Union (IUCN)!
Whether the actual origin of the animals was known to their new owners or not is
irrelevant: if they did know the truth, they were complicit in the crime, and if they did
not, surely they were grossly negligent? Either way, the greed of two zoos contributed, directly or indirectly, to the death of
possibly as many as 56 critically endangered animals through the creation of a market
in which the poachers could readily dispose of their “goods.”
There is a similarity here between zoos and the market for elephant ivory. Currently,
it is illegal to trade in ivory and ivory products due to the damage that has been
wrought on elephant populations over the last few centuries. Certain countries,
including South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, however, have huge stockpiles of
elephant ivory, which are extremely valuable and could be sold for vast sums of
money, which could then be ploughed back into conservation. This would, however,
result in a legitimate market for “legal” ivory, into which black market traders would
very quickly push poached “illegal” ivory, once again leading to a threat to the
existence of elephants. It is for this reason that these sales are aggressively opposed
by many conservation NGO’s around the world.
I argue that, in the same way, the existence of zoos and a “legal” trade in live wild
animals opens up opportunities for illegal, unscrupulous operators such as the captors
of the Taiping Four.
The Taiping Zoo’s website does not give any indication on whether it is affiliated to a
standard-setting regulatory body or association of any sort, and I am sure that many of
the zoos which do belong to such groups would be quick to point this out. There are a
number of such organisations around the world, for example the Association of Zoos
and Aquariums (AZA) based in the United States, the British and Irish Association of
Aquariums and Zoos (BIAZA) and the African Association of Aquariums and Zoos
(PAAZAB), which has members throughout the African continent.
The AZA website on its page detailing the accreditation process states:
In AZA, "accreditation" means official recognition and approval of a zoo or aquarium
carefully examine each zoo or aquarium that applies for AZA membership. Only
those zoos and aquariums that meet our high standards can become members of AZA
(Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2008a) Further down the same page it is stated that in order for zoos to maintain their
accreditation, “…they must go through the entire accreditation process every five
years.” Five years is a long time between inspections. Public companies need to be
audited every year to ensure that shareholders are properly protected; surely the lives
of animals and people in zoos are important enough to justify annual inspections?
The San Francisco Zoo Tiger Incident
On 25 December 2007, one visitor was killed and two others injured in the San
Francisco Zoo when a female Siberian tiger escaped from her enclosure. Fifteen days
later, at the same zoo, a male snow leopard managed to force his way out of a holding
area as well, and was only contained due to the reactions of a keeper working in an
adjacent area (Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2008b).
Subsequent investigation into the first incident revealed that among other issues, the
wall of the tiger enclosure was four feet lower than the minimum standard set in the
industry for holding large cats. The San Francisco Zoo is an accredited member of the
AZA! Here is a