Captivity, Liberation, Conservation, the Wild: Rhetorics and the Value of Zoological Institutions
2018 Joint EAZWV/AAZV/Leibniz-IZW Conference
Marcus Clauss, MSc, Prof Dr med vet, DECVCN; Jean-Michel Hatt, MSc, Prof Dr med vet, DACZM, DECZM (Avian)
Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

Animals living in nature undergo systematic harms on a daily basis.1 The facts behind this statement are the reason why on average, animals living in zoos live longer than their conspecifics in the wild,5 and why perceived safety may induce behavior not observed in the wild.6 Increased understanding of animal needs, improved husbandry skills, and efficiency in the use of resources may lead to an increase in zoo animal longevity (and, arguably, welfare) over historical time, indicating progress in the skill of wild animal husbandry.8

However, the perception of ‘the wild’ as a place that is difficult to reconcile with individual welfare, though evident once pronounced, is not widespread. In a nutshell, ironically, anti-speciesism generally appears to stop at ‘the wild’ where different degrees of suffering according to species are silently accepted. Zoos implicitly contribute to a glorification of ‘the wild’ when communicating that the ultimate aim of displaying animals is to achieve educative conservation goals, as if ‘being in the wild’ was a higher good for individuals. From the angle focusing on the individual’s welfare, the aim to reintroduce individuals of a species into the wild that once went extinct in that wild implies some cynicism.

We argue that rather than glorifying ‘the wild’, a differentiated message that decouples questions of individual welfare and nature conservation could mitigate public perception of zoos as prisons. Zoos might benefit from arguing that in their strict consequences, the approach focused on the welfare of sentient individuals calls for massive intervention in the wild to alleviate the ubiquitous suffering and disvalue2,3 and ultimately necessitates preference of a well-designed and controlled artificial environment over a natural ‘wild’ habitat,7 whereas the approach focused on an abstract value assigned to entities such as ‘ecosystems that must be conserved’ does not account for individual welfare (yet may be valuable nevertheless).

One important rhetoric aspect is the narrative of ‘liberation’ of zoo, domestic or laboratory animals. Typically, animal rights entities generate resources with this narrative, regardless of the fact that there is usually no habitat such animals can be ‘liberated into’. Unveiling this fact can be done without demeaning the evident emotional value of the narrative itself: There is nothing wrong in wanting to ‘free’ a fictitious ‘Willy’; deriving from the emotional value of the narrative, however, the idea that there is nothing wrong in ‘freeing Keiko’ (the orca that was used as ‘Willy’ in the original movie) reveals a clouded view of reality.4 The theoretically consistent consequence of the view that any form of captivity is bad for certain or all animal species is not the propagation of a liberation, but the propagation of non-existence to avoid suffering, including the mentioned necessity to interfere in natural ecosystems to alleviate suffering and disvalue.2,3

We conclude that zoos provide animals with a habitat. Calling it ‘hell’, ‘captivity’, ‘artificial’, ‘protected’, ‘focused care’, ‘civilized’, or ‘paradise’ is a matter of rhetoric. Zoos may provide bad habitats, and if that is the case, irrespective of whether the wild is better or yet even worse, it is deplorable and should be fought and changed. Zoos may provide good habitats, and if that is the case, it is a value in itself, as valuable for individual welfare as ecosystem conservation is for mankind.

Literature Cited

1.  Faria C, Paez E. Animals in need: the problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature. Relations Beyond Anthropocentr. 2015;3:7–13.

2.  Horta O. The problem of evil in nature. Evolutionary bases of the prevalence of disvalue. Relations Beyond Anthropocentr. 2015;3:17–32.

3.  Johannsen K. Animal rights and the problem of r-strategists. Ethic Theory Moral Pract. 2017;20:333–345.

4.  Simon M, Hanson MB, Murrey L, Tougaard J, Ugarte F. From captivity to the wild and back: an attempt to release Keiko the killer whale. Mar Mamm Sci. 2009;25:693–705.

5.  Tidière M, Gaillard J-M, Berger V, Müller DWH, Bingaman Lackey L, Gimenez O, Clauss M, Lemaître J-F. Comparative analyses of longevity and senescence reveal variable survival benefits of living in zoos across mammals. Sci Rep. 2016;6:36361.

6.  van Schaik CP, Burkart J, Damerius L, Forss SIF, Koops K, van Noordwijk MA, Schuppli C. The reluctant innovator: orangutans and the phylogeny of creativity. Phil Trans R Soc B. 2016;371:20150183.

7.  Veasey JS. In pursuit of peak animal welfare; the need to prioritize the meaningful over the measurable. Zoo Biol. 2017;36:413–425.

8.  Wich SA, Shumaker RW, Perkins L, De Vries H. Captive and wild orangutan (Pongo sp.) survivorship: a comparison and the influence of management. Am J Primatol. 2009;71:680–686.


Speaker Information
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Marcus Clauss, MSc, Prof Dr med vet, DECVCN
Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife
Vetsuisse Faculty
University of Zurich
Zurich, Switzerland

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