Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Different Views on How to Make Zoos More Resident-Friendly

A summary of papers from an international meeting on zoo animal welfare.

In May 2017 the Detroit Zoological Society hosted a meeting called Zoos and Aquariums as Welfare Centres: Ethical Dimensions and Global Commitment that brought together people with radically different views on zoos. I wrote about this gathering in a essay titled "It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain." Just this week, courtesy of Kenneth Shapiro, Co-Editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS), some of the papers stemming from the presentations at this meeting were published online and are available for free.

I realize that many people won't take the time to read all of the papers, though they are worth the time. Here is a summary of the eight essays that provide a lot of food for thought for people interested not only in the welfare of zoo animals but also in animal welfare science in general. These essays could nicely form the basis of a number of different classes that consider animal behavior and the nature of animal-human relationships (anthrozoology, conservation psychology, and human-animal studies, for example). Only one seriously questions the existence of zoos and aquariums and argues for what a few others and I who were at the meeting would call radical reform. This is not a criticism of the other essays. Rather, it became clear that many people who work at zoos or who like to visit zoos think it perfectly ok to keep nonhuman animals (animals) in captivity and for zoos to kill healthy so-called "surplus animals." With this as the starting point, the attempt to give these captive beings the best lives possible is considered in light of how they can serve humans for entertainment and how their being held in cages of different sizes and shapes may have educational and conservation benefits. During the meeting it was clear that sharp divisions still remain on the way to reforming zoos to becoming more suitable homes for their residents and phasing them out as we now know them.

As I previously wrote, I was very pleased to be at the meeting and I learned a lot. However, one of the main questions, namely, "Should animals be in zoos in the first place?" was pretty much ignored except by a few people. Many people who spoke simply assumed that it was perfectly okay to keep animals in cages for any number of reasons, and some were rather overt in their criticisms of people who spoke about the loss of freedoms by zooed animals and how keeping animals captive raised some very basic and important ethical questions that demand careful scrutiny. In a few discussions I heard something like, "Well, we all assume it's all right to keep animals in cages, so let's get on with figuring out what sorts of reforms are needed." We didn't all assume this at all.

The first essay by Kenneth Shapiro is called "Whither Zoos? An Inescapable Question." He notes "Another force within which we must place zoos is the emergence of animal protection as a social justice movement." He also writes "Another subtheme of this symposia is a greater focus on ethical issues construed to include not only the ethics undergirding welfare, but more radically, the ethics of keeping animals in captivity." Shapiro also notes that because zoos are very popular and generate a good deal of money (approximately 175 million paying visitors annually in the United States), it's highly unlikely that zoos will cease to exist any time soon. He writes, "Several ideas taken together represent transformation, if not abolition, and describe two somewhat distinct trajectories." The first trajectory, the zoo as sanctuary, involves replacing exotic animals with indigenous animals and primarily populating the zoo with animals who have been rescued and/or animals in need of rehabilitation...Related to or at least consistent with the idea of the zoo as a sanctuary is a shift from featuring megafauna, particularly large mammals, to mesofauna and even microfauna, particularly amphibians and invertebrates." And, "In the second transformative trajectory, zoos morph into wildlife, conservation, or zoological parks. In effect, the architecture of the zoo as a wildlife park reverses the role of human and nonhuman animals. Animals have the run of the zoo, while visitors are constrained and confined."

"Life in a zoo can be longer, safer, and more comfortable. But zoos are basically dead ends. Captive breeding can occasionally help conservation. But captivity can never be conservation." (Carl Safina)

"Zoos of the future should be uplifting places of respect, rescue, enhancement, conservation, and engagement. They should be kid-oriented and fun. They should transform into wildlife conservation centers carrying on that mission in their communities, in the schools, and in near and distant wilds, as well as inside their gates." (Carl Safina)

"There is incomparably more cruelty in farming than in zoos. So if you want to help animals and you want to reduce suffering, stop eating meat." (Carl Safina)

The second essay by Carl Safina is titled "Where Are Zoos Going—or Are They Gone?" He writes, "To some, zoos are prisons exploiting animals. In reality zoos range from bad to better. I make this distinction: A bad zoo makes animals work for it; a good zoo works for animals. Good zoos do effective conservation work and continually strive to improve exhibits, relevance to conservation, and inspiring public engagement for wildlife. Many zoos have improved enormously; the better ones being crucial in saving species that would have otherwise gone extinct. And, "Without a strong public constituency, wild animals will not withstand continued human proliferation. Zoos and aquariums must innovate toward being a crucial force abetting the continued existence of wildness on Earth. Zoos of the future must become uplifting places of respect, rescue, enhancement, conservation, and public engagement." Dr. Safina also asks, "Are zoos prisons where animals suffer and are treated cruelly? Or are they conservation centers that help animals from the wild and educate the public? They are neither and they are both, because zoos vary widely. Some are awful. There are bad zoos and better zoos. I would eliminate the bad zoos and make the best ones better. But I think that is the responsibility of the zoo profession itself." Dr. Safina then compares cruelty in zoo with that of farming animals and writes, "There is incomparably more cruelty in farming than in zoos. So if you want to help animals and you want to reduce suffering, stop eating meat." I agree.

He also believes that zoo animals can be ambassadors for their species because they "represent their culture, their kind, and their needs." I don't agree because a captive wolf, tiger, elephant, antelope, or eagle does not represent how these amazing beings live in the wild. For example, they can't perform behavior patterns or display activity budgets that resemble what their will relatives do. They also usually don't live in species-typical groups, zoo administrators assemble and disband social groups when they feel it's necessary, and individuals' movements are severely restricted. Animals who are moved around and forced to breed also don't resemble their wild relatives. Clearly, zooed animals don't and can't do what wild animals do, and often are forced to do things they wouldn't choose to do.

Dr. Safina rightly stresses the importance of educating children and "making kids conservation-supporting citizens should be a major focus" of zoos, a point with which I wholeheartedly agree. He concludes, "My challenge and my plea is that zoos become true mission fighters for the existence of free-living animals in natural places and that what are now zoos become the first stage in bringing young people into lifelong engaged caring about animals."

The next essay by Temple Grandin is called "My Reflections on Understanding Animal Emotions for Improving the Life of Animals in Zoos." She clearly accepts that animals are emotional beings, but she still argues widely, often focusing on so-called "food animals," that welfare works despite knowing there is a great deal of harm, suffering, and death. Concerning what I see as a dwindling list of nay-sayers, Dr. Grandin writes, "Scientists are often reluctant to attribute emotions to nonhuman animals that are similar to human emotions. When the author published her early studies, reviewers prohibited the word fear. Fearful behavior had to be described as agitated. The core emotional systems described by [Jaak] Panksepp may provide a useful framework for people who work hands-on with animals. The core systems are fear, rage, panic (separation distress), seek, lust, nurture, and play. Some scientists who deny that animals have real emotions often fail to review important areas of the literature." She also notes that "Animal welfare and being 'natural' are two different things. These two topics need to be discussed as separate issues.''

I agree that those researchers who deny that animals don't experience a wide range of emotions, few as they seem to be, are totally out of touch with the reality of scientific research (for more discussion of what I call the "as if disclaimer" -- animals are only acting "as if" they experience emotions, please see "Make No Mistake, Orca Mom J-35 and Pod Mates Are Grieving" and "Can Science Tell Us What We Ought to Do to Protect Animals?").

The fourth essay by Samantha J. Ward, Sally Sherwen & Fay E. Clark is titled "Advances in Applied Zoo Animal Welfare Science." They write, "The article focuses on current trends in research on zoo animal welfare under the following themes: (a) human–animal interactions and relationships, (b) anticipatory behavior, (c) cognitive enrichment, (d) behavioral biology, and (e) reproductive and population management. It highlights areas in which further advancements in zoo animal welfare science are needed and the challenges that may be faced in doing so. Also, "The distinction between animal welfare and animal care is imperative; the best intentions of animal staff and good standards of care do not automatically translate to good animal welfare." Concerning animal welfare science they write it "is the scientific study of the welfare state of animals that attempts to make inferences about how animals feel. It is based on a number of available welfare indicators (behavior, endocrine function, physical health, and so on) with the purpose of providing objective data. It also includes the study of cause and effect—in other words, which factors contribute to a reduced or enhanced welfare state. Animal welfare science and ethics are inextricably linked, and for brevity, we use the term animal welfare science to also include ethics."

Before I move on to other essays, I want to comment on a something the authors claim about the prevalence of ethical concerns in zoos. They state, "The majority of zoos worldwide are in tune with the need to assess animal welfare on a continual basis." They also write, "This article highlights that animal welfare is a key, if not the primary, consideration of modern zoos."

These claims are not supported by available data. In her book Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation, Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria (Australia), writes, "Unfortunately the bulk of zoos in existence today still fall short of meeting the requirements of ethical operations. At best, 3% of zoos are striving to meet ethical standards, with perhaps only a handful meeting all the requirements." (Page 208, My emphasis)

"Compassionate conservation and the tools I have presented ask zoos and aquariums to review their operations against the challenges of being justified, humane, and effective. Zoos and aquariums need to expand their approach to animal welfare, while increasing their investment in research and science and constantly improving the conditions under which animals are cared for." (Jenny Gray)

Jenny Gray is author of the fifth essay titled "Challenges of Compassionate Conservation." she writes, "Compassionate conservation provides a contemporary framework for animal welfare professionals and ecologists to develop new approaches. Simple tools can help in identifying areas of agreement and areas of dispute. While engaging with both ethics and animal welfare science will move animal welfare discussions forward, working together will identify shared values and goals and perhaps reveal ways to save species, one animal at a time, before it is too late." [For more discussion of compassionate conservation please click here and also see "Killing 'In the Name of Coexistence' Doesn't Make Much Sense," and links therein.] She goes on, "Compassionate conservation calls on us to think about the good of individuals and the good of the environment to slow down our decision making and to look for better ways to address the problems that threaten our planet and the diversity of life that shares the earth. To get it right, we need to create and reinforce new values and beliefs. Together, we can become a supportive network of academics, zoos, aquariums, and animal welfare organizations that can encourage wildlife-friendly attitudes and beliefs in the public to ultimately benefit both humans and animals and secure a future rich in biodiversity."

Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, open access
A decision tool for compassionate conservation.
Source: Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, open access

Ms. Gray offers a simple decision tool that "plots the benefit or harm to a species on one axis and the benefit or harm to an individual on another axis. Using a simple graphic, we can consider the actions that we are proposing to see within which block they fall." Concerning how this tool should be used she writes, "Actions that are good for the individual and good for a species are the actions we should be striving to take. Actions that are bad for individuals and bad for species should be stopped. It is the actions that fall in the other two blocks—either good for species and bad for individuals or bad for species and good for individuals—that should give us pause to think and to consider if there are better ways of acting."

I find this tool to be useful, but along with many of those who advocate for compassionate conservation, I maintain that individuals come first and they should not be harmed in the name of their own or other species.

The next essay called "A Postzoo Future: Why Welfare Fails Animals in Zoos" is by Jessica Pierce and me. We note that the fact that an entire literature is dedicated to so-called captivity effects should leave us in no doubt that being caged causes major problems for individual animals. The vast empirical database on captivity effects spans from behavioral problems observed in various species held in zoos and other captive environments to evidence of neurobiological and physiological changes induced by conditions in captivity. The basic moral principle we might draw from looking at the scientific database on how captivity affects animals, then, is this: It is prima facie unethical to hold animals in prolonged captivity, because captivity imposes suffering and it is wrong to deliberately impose suffering on a sentient creature. Clearly, zoos exist on a morally tenuous foundation.

In our piece we advocate for major reforms in the ways zoos operate and argue that discussions on the welfare of nonhuman animals in zoos tend to focus on incremental improvements without addressing the underlying problem of captivity. Real zoo reform will involve working to completely change the landscape. We offer six necessary reforms to bring zoos into a more ethical future: (1) Shut down bad zoos, now; (2) stop exhibiting animals who cannot and never will do well in captivity; (3) stop killing healthy animals; (4) stop captive breeding; (5) stop moving animals around from one zoo to another; and (6) use the science of animal cognition and emotion on behalf on animals.

Available data all too frequently are not used on behalf of other animals. We call this the “knowledge translation gap.” This gap is nowhere more evident than in the realm of zoos. Despite everything we have learned in the past several decades about what animals think and feel and want, conversations about zoo ethics and welfare have not really evolved. We may have better welfare standards and we may be asking better questions about how to improve the lives of animals confined to zoos, but we have not yet begun to challenge the acceptability of captivity itself. Nor have we really taken to heart the reality that all the welfare enhancements in the world will not provide animals with what they most want, which is freedom to live their own lives. Somehow, all the scientific gains have not translated into practice.

Our recent book, The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, was our attempt to figure out why science is failing animals. The brief answer is that the study of animal emotion and cognition has been channeled into animal welfare science. And “welfare science” is not science in the service of animals, but rather science in the service of human industry. Good animal welfare just is not and never will be good enough for the animals themselves.

The science of animal well being that we developed in The Animals’ Agenda focuses on individual animals and would not allow animals to be used and abused in the way that welfarism allows. Welfarism puts human needs first and tries to accommodate animals within the “human needs first” framework. Well being broadens the question of “what individual animals want and need” beyond the welfare box and tries to understand animal preferences from the animals’ point of view. For example, welfarism asks whether elephants would prefer one acre or three acres; well being challenges the idea that elephants should be in cages in zoos in the first place, because they cannot have true well being or “good lives” under such conditions—no matter how many welfare modifications we make.

We conclude, "All in all, even so-called “good” zoos have a lot of work to do to give their residents better lives. And, it is important to recognize that a “better life” is not necessarily a “good life.” Meetings such as the one at the Detroit Zoo certainly are steps in the right direction; however, the hard questions must be addressed openly and squarely, and we cannot assume that it is just fine to keep animals in cages and move on from there."

The next essay by Justine Cole and David Fraser is called "Zoo Animal Welfare: The Human Dimension." They write, "Drawing mostly on the farm animal literature, we propose that this “human dimension” of animal welfare involves seven components: (1) positive human–animal interaction, (2) consistency and familiarity of keepers, (3) treating animals as individuals and taking account of their personalities, (4) the attitudes and personalities of keepers, (5) the keepers’ knowledge and experience, (6) the keepers’ own well-being, and (7) the influence of facility design on how keepers and others interact with the animals. We suggest that attention to these human factors provides major scope for improving the welfare of animals in zoos." They also stress the importance of positive human-animal interactions. Summarizing available data Cole and Fraser write, "One way to achieve consistency is to have animals attended by the same keepers so that they and their behavior become familiar" and cite a study in which "Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) appeared to seek proximity to, and engaged in longer and more affiliative human-directed behaviors with, familiar keepers, whereas they were more likely to avoid, hide from, or act aggressively toward unfamiliar members of the public." They also stress the importance of treating animals as individuals and having positive attitudes toward the animals with whom keeps worked. They conclude, "research on keepers—their manner of interacting with animals, their attitudes, personality, knowledge, experience, and their own well-being and other factors—could provide major avenues for improving zoo animal welfare." Others also agree with this assessment.

"Zoos and aquariums may very well have a troubled future unless we address current and predictable questions as societal values change and knowledge grows." (Ron Kagan, Stephanie Allard, & Scott Carter)

"Zoos and aquariums of the future must be committed to the care of each animal for life. There should be retirement plans for every animal so there is a cradle-to-grave commitment." (Ron Kagan, Stephanie Allard, & Scott Carter)

The last essay in this series by Ron Kagan, Stephanie Allard, & Scott Carter is titled "What Is the Future for Zoos and Aquariums?" The authors argue "If animal welfare science and policy are strongly rooted in compassion and embedded in robust accreditation systems, the basic zoo/aquarium paradigm will move toward a more thoughtful approach to the interface between visitors and animals. It starts with a fundamental commitment to the welfare of individual animals." They also note that "By making clear the distinction between good care and good welfare, we attempt to enhance, expand, and legitimize to some extent the zoo and aquarium communities’ standing as providers of excellent social, psychological, and physical environments for captive animals. In particular, the burgeoning field of animal welfare science has enabled the profession to effectively tackle a number of welfare concerns if it so chooses."

The authors all work at the Detroit Zoo and write "The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has long challenged zoos’ and aquariums’ relative reluctance to acknowledge gaps in the welfare of exotic nonhuman animals in captivity and has facilitated efforts to recalibrate zoo and aquarium practices and policies accordingly. In the DZS Ford Education Center, an academy for humane education and a humane science lab were created to help teachers and students learn about biology and science without harming animals. Models and simulations are used (rather than once-living animals) for dissection and study." The DZS also works with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on accreditation standards.

One topic about which there has been a good deal of controversy involves kill healthy animals who don't fit into breeding programs. I was shocked when I discovered how few people know about this practice and how many thousands of animals are killed each year because they're useless to zoo breeding plans. Concerning this egregious practice the authors write, "Culling healthy animals in zoos and aquariums because they may not be genetically important to captive populations is ethically unsound. There should continue to be discussion about the culling (often erroneously but intentionally referred to as euthanasia) that goes on in zoos and aquariums. Though rarely shared with our communities, it needs to be wrestled with because it may be seen by many as conflicting with our mission to save animals."

This is a point I have stressed over and over again, namely, that killing healthy so-called "surplus" animals in zoos, what I call "zoothanasia" is not euthanasia, and it should be stopped immediately. This is one of the reforms Jessica Pierce and I call for in our essay (for more discussion please see "Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: 'Zoothanasia' is a Reality," "Zoos Shall Not Kill Healthy Animals: A Moral Imperative," and links therein). There are no useless "surplus animals" and surely healthy animals shouldn't be killed because zoos can't keep them if they don't make more of themselves.

I was very surprised and disappointed that the authors didn't come out forcefully against this practice rather than calling for more discussion. Jenny Gray also hedges on killing healthy animals in her book Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation, noting that it is a complex situation. On pages 214-215 she considers the topic of "Killing Surplus Animals," focusing on the fate of Marius, a young and healthy giraffe who was killed (not euthanized, despite what they claim) at the Copenhagen zoo, because it was decided that Marius couldn't contribute to the zoo's breeding program. A bit after Marius was killed, four lions were killed at the same zoo for the same reason. At the Detroit meeting, someone referred to the scientific director of the Copenhagen zoo who decided that it was perfectly okay to kill Marius as a hero. I frankly find this to characterization be perverse and the slaughter of Marius and the four lions to be unacceptable.

In an interview I conducted with Ms. Gray I asked her about killing "surplus animals" and what zoos called "management euthanasia." She did not answer this question with a "yes" or a "no," but I was hoping she would. Instead she wrote, "I agree that there is a difference between a death that is in the interest of the individual (euthanasia) and killing which terminates a healthy life. I challenge readers to think about the issues in the wicked questions section, including the death of Marius, and develop their own arguments. I have deliberately not given simple answers to what are complex issues. Many arguments can be mounted. I would hope that students of ethics can refine not only their personal view but also the plausible arguments to the contrary."

Many people I know who like and visit zoos are aghast when they learn about this reprehensible practice. Some simply can't believe it's true, but when they see the data they see that it's a grim reality. I remain shocked that the killing of healthy "surplus animals" isn't one point on which everyone can agree, namely, that it is wrong and should be stopped right now.

The last paragraph of this essay reads, "So, are we centers of great care, conservation, science, and education where animals thrive and not just survive? Are we centers of compassion and rescue? Or as some critics continue to assert, are we centers of confinement and cruelty where animals might suffer? We have to answer these questions with science, common sense, and actions. We need honest answers and clear, compassionate solutions." I agree, but as long as numerous animals are treated as they are, and numerous healthy individuals are killed, it's difficult to view zoos as "centers of great care, conservation, science, and education where animals thrive and not just survive." There still is a lot of hard work to be done. Necessary and meaningful reform is still not happening at zoos.

Where to from here?

"At the very least I would also like to see all zoo administrators agree that forcing animals to breed, shipping them around as breeding machines (a practice which is stressful and entails breaking up groups and forming new ones at the whim of the humans), and killing healthy animals should be off their agendas. Sadly, they're not."

As I mentioned above, these eight essays are rich in ideas and I hope this brief summary will motivate people to read them carefully whether they agree or disagree with some of their major assumptions and conclusions. I learned a lot despite there being many claims and conclusions with which I strongly disagree. I would like to see much more discussion of the notion of captivity itself, and the assumptions underlying decisions to keep animals in cages of all shapes and sizes (for more discussion please see Lori Gruen's edited book called The Ethics of Captivity). At the very least I would also like to see all zoo administrators agree that forcing animals to breed, shipping them around as breeding machines (a practice which is stressful and entails breaking up groups and forming new ones at the whim of the humans), and killing healthy animals should be off their agendas. Sadly, they're not.

I fully realize that reform can take a long time, however, it's also important to keep in mind that as we ponder the issues that need to be carefully examined, numerous animals continue to languish "behind bars" and suffer because they have little choice or control over their lives and have lost and continue to lose many -- far too many -- freedoms.

Surely we can do and must do much better as zoos morph and become significantly more resident-friendly. Let's hope that meaningful reform is just around the corner. It can't come too soon for the large number of individuals we choose to confine and whose lives we totally control.