Sunday, May 23, 2004

Are Zoos Ethical?

Prof Yin posts this interesting bit of news from the Detroit Zoo, who will no longer keep elephants in captivity due to the negative effects on the animal's health. Whether zoos should even exist is something I grapple with on a regular basis. The Saint Louis Zoo is literally around the corner from where I live and I tend to go there rather frequently. And while I have always loved animals and spent way too much time watching Nature, Animal Planet, National Geographic and Discovery, the zoo brings about mixed feelings for me.

On the plus side, zoos provide a place for people to come into contact, at least on a a visual level, with animals they would otherwise never observe. This is beneficial in building support for environmental policies focused on species preservation. It also provides what I think of as a spiritual benefit to zoo-goers in terms of communing with other species and helping humans to realize that we are not god's only creatures. Zoos also play a role is species preservation and animal rehabilitation, which is objectively good.

But does this role in species preservation let humans off the hook too easily, so to speak. Do we, or might we, rely on zoos and other forms of captive care to take the place of natural habitats and wild life for animals. Are we running the risk of a world where many of its species exist only in cages, mastered by humans. Given the level of modern ecosystem and habitat destruction, this does not seem all that implausible. Will it satisfy our collective conscience that we have somehow kept these animals alive in the zoo?

In addition, as noted in the article referenced above, captivity can have negative consequences for the animals. How might we feel if we were caged and put on display for other animals to see? While many of us may like to believe that our fellow members of the animal kingdom have neither emotions, nor our level of intelligence, it seems to me quite obvious and rational that animals can and do feel emotional pain. We might be tempted to satisfy ourselves by noting the relatively harsh conditions the wild presents for most species and how the zoo life is objectively less so. But does a life spent in a small enclosure with catering service really eclipse the plains or jungles of Africa or the rainforests of South America?

If zoos are not ethical or objectively good for the animals, then what do I, as an individual, owe to animals? I am not sure of the answers to any of these question. And each time I visit the zoo they form the basis of the argument/dialogue that is happening in my head.


Blogger les said...

Very nicely written. I agree wholeheartedly about the issue, but I guess its something left up to the public. If people want zoos, other people are going to create zoos to make money.

10:15 PM  

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