Dogs in Crates, Gorillas in Cages: Woes of Captive Breeding

Dogs are wonderful metaphors for questions about what we do to other animals

Posted Jun 26, 2016

Dogs are wonderful metaphors for questions about what we do to other animals 

After Harambe the gorilla was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo to prevent him from possibly killing a youngster who had fallen into his cage, global attention focused not only on why he was killed but also why he was in the zoo in the first place and the role zoos possibly play in education and conservation (please see, for example, "Why Was the Gorilla Harambe Killed at the Cincinnati Zoo?", "The Harambe Effect: The Legacy of a Gorilla Provocateur", and links therein). 

Another topic that also received a good deal of attention centered on the captive breeding of zooed animals "in the name of education and conservation." Captive breeding, some argue, is essential to keep individuals of a given species alive, especially members of threatened and endangered species. Others and I have argued that captive breeding by zoos should end because those individuals born in captivity are doomed to spend the rest of their lives in cages and really are not "ambassadors" for their species, any more than I would be for mine if I were forced to live in some sort of captivity. A captive gorilla is not really a metaphor for wild gorillas, other than looking like their wild relatives. 

Would you do it to your dog?

Because of my views on Harambe and captive breeding by zoos, I've had a number of very fruitful exchanges with some people who disagree with my stance. Of course, it's always nice to hear from people who agree with me, but those "opponents" who took the time to be polite and inquisitive got me thinking some more about the issues at hand. While we never really agreed on much, once again I began to think of our relationships with domestic dogs. I often ask people something like, "Would you do it to your dog?" when talking about factory farms, zoos, and circuses, and this question, that uses dogs as metaphors for what do to other animals, seemed highly relevant when discussing captive breeding by zoos.

Dogs in crates: Closing the empathy gap

During one of the email exchanges, it came to me that breeding gorillas, for example, to make more gorillas who will then spend the rest of their lives in captivity, is similar to breeding dogs who will live the rest of their lives in crates with no chance for experiencing what it is like to be a dog, even those who spend a good time alone and indoors. Dogs living in crates have no freedom at all, and neither do gorillas or other zooed animals who live in different sorts of cages.

So, I asked some people about what they thought about breeding dogs solely to live in crates. All said "no," and all were incredulous. "Why would anyone do this?" they asked. Their responses were similar to those I hear when I ask if they would put their dog on a factory farm or in a zoo or circus. "We just don't do this to dogs," many exclaimed. When I explained that dogs are no more sentient than most of the other animals who are treated in this manner the discussions get very interesting, and it becomes clear that there is a good deal of inconsistency looming about how we view and treat dogs and how we view and treat other animals. Questions about dogs can be very effective in closing the empathy gap that exists when considering what's not acceptable for dogs but is just fine for other animals. 

When I go on to explain that many zoos have captive breeding programs, often ship animals from one zoo to another to breed, and kill those individuals who are no longer useful for their breeding programs (please see, for example, "'Zoothanasia" Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter," Is Going to a Zoo Like Shopping for a Car? Musical Semen." and "What Zoos Need to Do for Zoo’d Animals"), almost all were shocked. These are little known facts. 

Why do we treat sentient dogs in one way and other sentient animals in other ways?

So, the not so simple question arises, "Why do we treat sentient dogs in one way and other sentient animals in other ways?" Following up on using dogs as metaphors, we can ask, "Why don't we just breed dogs to live in crates to be sure we have representatives of this or that breed?", especially focusing on those breeds that have few living representatives or those breeds, members of whom die young because of anatomical and physiological disorders that come from our selfish desire for specific traits or from careless and irresponsible breeding?

For me and some of the people with whom I've had exchanges about captive breeding, the most important discussions go on from dogs to zooed animals, focusing on why do some people try to argue that we have to have captive breeding programs to keep members of a given species alive, even if they will spend the rest of their lives in cages. 

Captive breeding as a "feel good" move: We must view animals as individuals, not merely members of this or that species?

Captive breeding programs in zoos focus on the survival of species, not on individual animals. The reasoning is simple: We need to keep individuals of a given species alive so that future generations of humans will be able to see them, even if they are confined in cages. Captive breeding makes some humans feel good about what they're doing, and I do not mean this in a demeaning way, because some of the people with whom I have had discussions really believe that are doing "a good thing." However, captive breeding is for us, and surely not for the captive individuals who are used as metaphors for wild members of their species. 

I respectfully disagree with captive breeding programs in zoos for a number of reasons, some of which I mention here. First, I don't believe we should breed animals who we know will live in cages for their entire lives. Second, these individuals shouldn't be used as breeding machines for our, not their, benefit. Third, I don't think we should trade off the lives of these individuals "for the good of their species." Fourth, captive breeding sends the wrong message, namely, that we humans can do whatever we want as we plunder our planet, decimating habitats and killing off species willy-nilly.

Captive breeding (as is the recent epidemic of taking selfies with other animals) is a good example of human superiority -- we come first. It sends the wrong message to youngsters and others that we've been doing just fine and we can always have a caged gorilla or another animal to look at as a representative of an endangered species or, and it is highly likely for some species, a representative of a species that used to be, a species that once was and now is gone because of us. 

Where have all the animals gone? Surviving the rage of humanity and saving wild animals and their homes

We're living in the anthropocene, often called "the age of humanity." But really, when you look at what we are doing to other animals and their homes, the anthropocene is more appropriately called the "rage of humanity." Instead of breeding individuals to live in cages, we should -- indeed we must -- put our efforts, our time and money, into preserving wild critical habitats and protecting wild animals while we still can. While I am an optimist at heart, I can foresee a future where people are asking, "Where have all the animals gone?" 

So, to conclude, I'd like to suggest that when we discuss what we do, or allow to be done to numerous nonhuman animals, we substitute "dog" for the other animals who are being considered, and see where the discussion goes and why. I am fully aware that numerous dogs do not have cushy lives, but it's also clear that many people will go out of their way to help dogs in need but allow countless other animals to be mistreated in all sorts of venues. All in all, dogs can be wonderful metaphors for what we do to other animals and can be very effective at closing the empathy gap.

Note: The phrase "zooed animals" is discussed in The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age referred to below.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017. (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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