Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Ethics of Captivity: A New Book Covers All the Issues

A must read for anyone who has contact with captive animals which is everyone

I'm thrilled to announce the publication of Wesleyan University Professor Lori Gruen's new edited book called The Ethics of Captivity (additional details can be found here). There are very few people who don't have at least some contact with captive animals so this book is a most valuable contribution to available literature and should be of interest to a large and wide-ranging audience. 

Dr. Gruen has been thinking about the ethics of captivity for a long time and has gathered an extremely knowledgeable group of writers to reflect on the specific conditions of captivity and the social and ethical implications of keeping animals in cages. As she notes here, "In the United States roughly 2 million people are incarcerated; billions of animals are held captive (and then killed) in the food industry every year; hundreds of thousands of animals are kept in laboratories; thousands are in zoos and aquaria; millions of “pets” are captive in our homes. Though conditions of captivity vary widely for humans and for other animals, there are common ethical themes that imprisonment raises, including the value of liberty, the nature of autonomy, the meaning of dignity, and the impact of routine confinement on physical and psychological well-being."


For convenience, here is the Table of Contents.

Section One

1. "Canis Familiaris: Companion and Captive" -- Alexandra Horowitz

2. "Cetacean Captivity" -- Lori Marino

3. "Captive Elephants" -- Catherine Doyle

4. "Captive Chimpanzees" - Stephen R. Ross

5. "Rabbits in Captivity" -- Margo DeMello

6. "Captivity in the Context of a Sanctuary for Formerly Farmed Animals" -- Miriam Jones

7. "Life Behind Bars" -- John Bryant, James Davis, David Haywood, Clyde Meikle, Andre Pierce

8. "Political Captivity" -- Lauren Gazzola

Section Two

9. "For their Own Good: Captive Cats and Routine Confinement"-- Clare Palmer and Peter Sandoe

10. "Born in Chains? The Ethics of Domestication" -- Alasdair Cochrane

11. "The Confinement of Laboratory Animals: Ethical and Conceptual Issues" -- Robert Strieffer

12. "Captive for Life: Conserving Extinct Species through Ex Situ Breeding" -- Irus Braveman

13. "Sanctuary, Not Remedy: The Problem of Captivity and the Need for Moral Repair" -- Karen S. Emmerman

14. "Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight" -- Lori Gruen

15. "Captivity and Coercion" -- Lisa Rivera

This highly anticipated book provides in depth discussions of the vexing questions that center on the lives of a wide variety of captive animals kept in various settings including factory farms, zoos, circuses, laboratories, prisons, and even companion dogs and rabbits with whom so many people share their homes. Of course, chimpanzees, elephants, and cetaceans get a lot of attention as well. There are also essays on the politics of captivity, domestication, and life in sanctuaries.

On the one hand, one might write this book off and claim something like, "Animals shouldn't be in captivity so who needs to worry about the arguments for and against keeping them cages." However, in the real and non-ideal world (as Dr. Gruen calls it), and whether we like it or not, it's not even close to being the case that all or even most captive animals will disappear in the near or distant future. So, it's essential that we do the very best we can for them while their lives are compromised to various degrees in captive settings. Let's hope that open discussion of the issues and the questions at hand, including what we know about the cognitive and emotional lives of animals and their capacity to suffer and to empathize with others, will work on behalf of those unfortunate billions of individuals who lives are a mess because of their confinement. 

My suggestion is to read this book, share it widely, and revisit it from time to time. It's a perfect volume for advanced undergraduate and graduate classes. 

Note: As I was writing this review I discovered an essay called "Captive lions risk brain damage from deformed skulls" that showed the extent to which captivity can cause unanticipated effects. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (