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Zoo Ethics Fail Residents: The Laws Don't Protect the Animals

Data show why "zooed" animals suffer poor welfare.

Tina Nord, Pexels free download
Source: Tina Nord, Pexels free download

"During my study period spanning eleven years, almost 2,000 instances of legal breaches were found in English zoos and less than twenty examples of the correct enforcement action being taken against them." —Liz Tyson

Zoos and aquariums are popular places to visit but also controversial because many people question just how important they are for educating people about their residents and for supporting conservation projects.1 Many people think that regulations and laws designed to protect "zooed" animals really work on their behalf but in fact they don't, and data clearly show this. Zoo residents surely deserve much better. It's my pleasure to offer an interview with animal welfare and zoo expert Dr. Liz Tyson, Programs Director of Born Free USA, about her new book, Licensing Laws and Animal Welfare: The Legal Protection of Wild Animals.2,3

Why did you write Licensing Laws and Animal Welfare?

The book comes from my Ph.D. research, which was focused on the regulation of zoos in my native United Kingdom. I had worked for years on the issue of wild animals in captivity as a campaigner and, as part of that work, had to visit many zoos and see the way in which the animals were kept. Notwithstanding my own opposition to them from an ethical standpoint, from the largest, most well-funded establishments to the smallest, most run-down places, there were always instances of animal suffering. This might include animals demonstrating stereotypic behaviors such as obsessive pacing, rocking, bar-biting or even self-mutilation. I have seen flocks of large birds such as flamingos who had had part of their wings surgically amputated so that they were denied flight forever. I have seen seals and sea lions swimming in chlorinated pools which burn their eyes and result in persistent eye infections and injuries.

Palsgrave Macmillan, with permission
Source: Palsgrave Macmillan, with permission

In addition to these commonly seen, but often ignored, instances of animal suffering, inspection reports made accessible via the UK’s Freedom of Information legislation gave campaigners an insight into the inner workings of the industry. Time and again, animal welfare issues were recognized by inspectors, and time and again, they were let slide for months or even years while the animals continued to suffer.

All the while, the zoo industry and the UK government would claim that the most rigorous animal welfare laws were in place and that possession of a zoo license signified that animals were being well cared for. My research sought to demonstrate that this was not the case. And that is what it ultimately did.

During my study period spanning eleven years, almost 2,000 instances of legal breaches were found in English zoos and less than twenty examples of the correct enforcement action being taken against them. The book demonstrates that the law is simply not being enforced. And while I believe that wild animals should not be held captive for entertainment in zoos, I hope we can all agree that, while they are, they should at the very least be housed according to minimum legal standards.

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I have worked for almost two decades on issues surrounding wild animals in captivity—both as a campaigner and in the rescue and care of wild animals previously exploited in commercial captive setting such as zoos, the pet trade, circuses, and labs. My particular focus has been non-human primates and as part of my role as Programs Director for Born Free USA, I have responsibility for the management of the largest accredited primate sanctuary in the United States.

As I was working on the research, a number of people asked me why I didn’t focus on an industry where animals are exploited in higher numbers, such as in animal agriculture. I understand why people ask this, and I think it also speaks to the fact that large parts of the general public—and even many in the animal rights movement—see zoos as somewhat benign, or even positive, institutions. The suffering of animals in zoos is perhaps not as obvious or immediately understandable as suffering in farming but, nonetheless, I think it is important that we do not disregard the issue of wild animal captivity. I believe that, for example, the decades of mental suffering of the captive elephant—denied everything she would naturally experience and enjoy in her natural environment—is different to the suffering of a sick and terrified chicken or pig in a factory farm but no of less importance—particularly to that individual elephant. In short, her suffering matters.

In addition, I strongly believe that the exploitation of animals in entertainment—whether in a circus, in a zoo, or in TV and film—is such a frivolous waste of life. No one can possibly argue that they have any need to see a miserable animal in a cage. They go to the zoo or the circus because it amuses them. And for that amusement, hundreds of thousands of animals spend their entire lives incarcerated. We need to challenge this and not let their suffering be ignored.

Who is your intended audience?

I hope that anyone with an interest in animal law will find my book interesting and informative, along with campaigners and advocates working on legislative change for animals. While the specific subject matter is focused on England, the legal structure used to govern captive wild animals and the problems relating to such governance is replicated in many countries around the world.

What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

The overarching conclusion of the book is that laws ostensibly designed to protect animals often do nothing of the sort. The United Kingdom, for example, has always made strong claims of being “a nation of animal lovers” and was the first in the world to introduce laws with the specific intent of protecting animals. But our global legal system is based around the principle of animals as property and animal welfare laws have caveats included in them which prioritize the needs of industries which use animals—whether that be zoos, factory farms, animal testing labs, or others—over and above the needs of the animals themselves. The book calls upon lawmakers to pioneer approaches which move away from the principle of animals as “commodities" toward considering them as individuals with needs which matter, and regulating for their protection accordingly.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

There are relatively few organizations and individual advocates focusing specifically on the issue of wild animals in captivity—with two exceptions being Born Free and Freedom for Animals in the UK. My study is the most comprehensive analysis of the regulation of the zoo industry to date. As such, it brings new information into the public domain on a subject which has not been explored to the same extent as others in the fields of animal ethics and animal law.

What are some of your current projects?

My main role for Born Free USA is divided between ensuring the smooth running of the primate sanctuary and leading our campaigns work. So, just now, along with caring for the monkeys, I am working with colleagues on a far-reaching campaign on the fur farming and trapping industries in the United States. Both of these issues will be major focuses of our work in the coming year.

In a personal capacity, I am also working on a translation for my friend and colleague, Aitor Garmendia, from the Tras los Muros (Behind the Walls) project, of his groundbreaking investigation into pig farming in Spain.



1) Bekoff, Marc. Should Zoo Workers and Veterinarians Kill Healthy Animals? (No. "Zoothanasia" and "convenience euthanasia" should stop.)

_____. Different Views on How to Make Zoos More Resident-Friendly.

_____. Cuddly Pandas Are "Cuteness Crack" Says British Zoologist.

_____. Swedish Zoo "Zoothanizes" Nine Healthy, "Useless" Lion Cubs.

_____. Captive: A New Book About Zoos Is a Game Changer.

_____. Zoo Ethics and the Challenges of Compassionate Conservation.

_____. It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain.

_____. The Case for the End of the Modern Zoo: An Important Debate.

_____. Killing Healthy Animals in Zoos: "Zoothanasia" is a Reality.

_____. What Zoos Need to Do for Zoo’d Animals.

_____. What Do Zoos Teach about Biodiversity and Does it Matter? (A new study claims zoos provide a learning experience but little more.)

_____.Elephants In Zoos Don't Do Well.

_____. Most Animals in Zoos Are Happy: Really?

_____. Zoos "Zoothanize" Many Healthy Animals According to BBC.

_____. "Zoothanasia" Is Not Euthanasia: Words Matter. (We shouldn't kill captive animals because there are too many of them.)

_____ and Jessica Pierce. The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. Beacon Press, 2017.

2) Elizabeth Tyson, PhD, is the Programs Director for Born Free USA, an animal rights advocate, and legal scholar with over 16 years of experience working in animal protection not-for-profits around the world. A major focus of her work has been campaigning and advocacy against the keeping of wild animals in captivity, with a specific interest in zoos, circuses and the exotic pet trade.

3) Reviews of Licensing Laws and Animal Welfare can be found here.

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