Penny Conly Ellison
Penny Conly Ellison ()

Many of us felt profound sadness when Harambe, a 17-year-old lowland gorilla, was executed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child climbed into his enclosure. Many questioned the parents for not supervising their child; others thought the zoo could have tried nonlethal alternatives to sedate rather than kill Harambe. Still others used the experience to question the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity for the amusement of humans. No matter how diligent a zoo is about attempting to provide an enriching environment, especially for larger and more intelligent species, it can never come close to either the physical space or the social structure that exists in the wild. Harambe’s death, as well as other similar incidents, raises many questions that have no easy answers: If we profess that it is wrong to cause animals unnecessary suffering, should we be confining them in zoos? Should we be preserving endangered species only to live in zoos because their habitat is disappearing? Even if we decide zoos are justifiable for some species, is that true for all species? It presents a real conundrum.

Most Americans will visit a zoo or ­similar facility that exhibits animals at some point in their lives. According to the website of the Humane Society of the United States, “Zoos are a fact of life. They have a responsibility to give every animal humane, professional care.” But are they really a fact of life? And is “professional care” enough? Zoos are full of people who deeply care about and greatly respect animals, but the practical and ethical questions they raise are serious and worthy of intense consideration.

History of Zoos

Public zoos began to appear in western Europe in the early 19th century. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, only a small number of animal collections existed, consisting of animals acquired during the African and Asian travels of Victorian-era explorers. Then, in the 1950s, there was a “zoo boom” when entrepreneurs realized the amount of money that could be made from exhibiting wild animals to a curious and growing population. According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), today, there are more than 10,000 zoos worldwide. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture licenses 2,400 “animal exhibitors.” Of these, only about 212 are members of the American Zoological Association (the AZA), an organization that sets industry standards of animal care, science, and conservation. The remainder of the licensed exhibitors consists of roadside zoos and local attractions for whom the only standards are those set by the Animal Welfare Act and its implementing regulations.

Zoos and The Animal Welfare Act

The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulates entities that use animals for experimentation or in exhibitions, which includes most captive animals in zoos (but many species including all cold blooded species are excluded from the AWA’s protections). The Department of Agriculture is charged with promulgating regulations under the AWA. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). enforces the act and its regulations. APHIS employs about 120 inspectors who are charged with annual inspections of all entities covered under the AWA, which includes not only zoos but all circuses, all commercial and academic facilities that perform tests or experiments on animals and most commercial dog breeding facilities. There are at least 7,000 such facilities and many roadside zoos are in remote locations or travel regularly, making it difficult for inspectors to get to them or come back to check on any violations they find.

In addition, each inspector must be expert in the care of a multitude of different ­species. Finally, audits performed by the Office of Inspector General concluded that APHIS was not aggressively pursuing violators and assessing only minimal fines when they did, preferring to cooperate with violators rather than assess ­meaningful penalties.

In addition, the standards set by the AWA are not exactly ideal. Take, whales and great apes for an example. Lolita, a killer whale, has been in a tank at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970 when she and others from her pod were captured in the waters off Washington State. She was a 4-year-old infant at the time and is now the oldest orca in captivity. She performs tricks during her scheduled shows, and has done so for the past 46 years. In the wild, orcas stay with their mothers their entire lives. Scientists monitor Lolita’s mother and we know that she is still alive today at approximately 90 years old. Lolita has lived alone since 1986. In the wild, killer whales swim hundreds of miles a day, diving as deep as 500 feet. Lolita’s tank is the size of a hotel swimming pool. It is 35-feet-wide and 20-feet-deep at the deepest part. APHIS has inspected her solitary living ­arrangements annually and never taken action and ­instead has deemed the tank an acceptable ­enclosure to contain a whale for decades.

Lowland gorillas like Harambe are not only a critically endangered species, they are highly intelligent and share 95 to 99 percent of their DNA with humans. They can laugh and grieve and have rich emotional lives. AWA regulations permit lowland gorillas to be kept in small enclosures in zoos where they live for decades.

Justifications for Zoos

The AZA cites education, conservation, science and recreation as justification for the current existence of zoos. They do play a role in each of those areas, but is it enough to justify confinement of intelligent animals for decades? Zoos as a whole spend about 1 percent of their revenue on conservation efforts. And even that small amount is given by a small number of zoos that take the obligation seriously and donate far more than 1 percent. Most contribute nothing.

Zoos can and do serve an educational ­purpose. But, with a limited amount of funds to spend on educating people about wildlife and conservation, is keeping zoos the most effective way to accomplish that mission? Even without captive breeding programs or harvesting animals from the wild, we would have captive wild animals to observe. For example, some “zoos” are really sanctuaries that take in exotic pets unwanted by their owners. Also, in today’s world, there are many ways to teach children about wildlife that do not require certain members of the species to sacrifice their lives to the cause.

Ethics of Zoos

When considering the ethics of keeping animals for exhibition, it is interesting to note that, in the not so distant past, we kept humans in captivity for other humans to gawk at. At the beginning of the last century, the monkey house exhibit at the Bronx Zoo had an exhibit called our “evolutionary ancestors,” which included monkeys, chimpanzees, an orangutan, and an African pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga. Benga had been sold into slavery in the Belgian Congo and was brought to the United States by his purchaser. He was “displayed” at the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis before he was delivered to the Bronx Zoo. Benga was locked in the monkey house with other primates for most of the day and, occasionally, let out under the supervision of a keeper. The exhibit was ­immensely popular, with thousands of visitors gawking, howling, jeering and chasing him. Ota Benga’s story is not unique. Indeed, the captive exhibit of human beings was considered acceptable into the early part of the 20th century. Along with Ota Benga, the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis presented an entire ­”ethnological zoo” for the amusement of fair-goers, with displays of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Africans, and other people—most of whom were coerced into coming to the United States to serve as zoo exhibits.

We have evolved since then and surely there is room for further evolution of human thinking about the extent to which ­lifetime confinement of wild animals, particularly given our growing knowledge of their ­mental and emotional capacities, meets our moral standards. •

Many of us felt profound sadness when Harambe, a 17-year-old lowland gorilla, was executed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child climbed into his enclosure. Many questioned the parents for not supervising their child; others thought the zoo could have tried nonlethal alternatives to sedate rather than kill Harambe. Still others used the experience to question the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity for the amusement of humans. No matter how diligent a zoo is about attempting to provide an enriching environment, especially for larger and more intelligent species, it can never come close to either the physical space or the social structure that exists in the wild. Harambe’s death, as well as other similar incidents, raises many questions that have no easy answers: If we profess that it is wrong to cause animals unnecessary suffering, should we be confining them in zoos? Should we be preserving endangered species only to live in zoos because their habitat is disappearing? Even if we decide zoos are justifiable for some species, is that true for all species? It presents a real conundrum.

Most Americans will visit a zoo or ­similar facility that exhibits animals at some point in their lives. According to the website of the Humane Society of the United States, “Zoos are a fact of life. They have a responsibility to give every animal humane, professional care.” But are they really a fact of life? And is “professional care” enough? Zoos are full of people who deeply care about and greatly respect animals, but the practical and ethical questions they raise are serious and worthy of intense consideration.

History of Zoos

Public zoos began to appear in western Europe in the early 19th century. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, only a small number of animal collections existed, consisting of animals acquired during the African and Asian travels of Victorian-era explorers. Then, in the 1950s, there was a “zoo boom” when entrepreneurs realized the amount of money that could be made from exhibiting wild animals to a curious and growing population. According to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), today, there are more than 10,000 zoos worldwide. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture licenses 2,400 “animal exhibitors.” Of these, only about 212 are members of the American Zoological Association (the AZA), an organization that sets industry standards of animal care, science, and conservation. The remainder of the licensed exhibitors consists of roadside zoos and local attractions for whom the only standards are those set by the Animal Welfare Act and its implementing regulations.

Zoos and The Animal Welfare Act

The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulates entities that use animals for experimentation or in exhibitions, which includes most captive animals in zoos (but many species including all cold blooded species are excluded from the AWA’s protections). The Department of Agriculture is charged with promulgating regulations under the AWA. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). enforces the act and its regulations. APHIS employs about 120 inspectors who are charged with annual inspections of all entities covered under the AWA, which includes not only zoos but all circuses, all commercial and academic facilities that perform tests or experiments on animals and most commercial dog breeding facilities. There are at least 7,000 such facilities and many roadside zoos are in remote locations or travel regularly, making it difficult for inspectors to get to them or come back to check on any violations they find.

In addition, each inspector must be expert in the care of a multitude of different ­species. Finally, audits performed by the Office of Inspector General concluded that APHIS was not aggressively pursuing violators and assessing only minimal fines when they did, preferring to cooperate with violators rather than assess ­meaningful penalties.

In addition, the standards set by the AWA are not exactly ideal. Take, whales and great apes for an example. Lolita, a killer whale, has been in a tank at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970 when she and others from her pod were captured in the waters off Washington State. She was a 4-year-old infant at the time and is now the oldest orca in captivity. She performs tricks during her scheduled shows, and has done so for the past 46 years. In the wild, orcas stay with their mothers their entire lives. Scientists monitor Lolita’s mother and we know that she is still alive today at approximately 90 years old. Lolita has lived alone since 1986. In the wild, killer whales swim hundreds of miles a day, diving as deep as 500 feet. Lolita’s tank is the size of a hotel swimming pool. It is 35-feet-wide and 20-feet-deep at the deepest part. APHIS has inspected her solitary living ­arrangements annually and never taken action and ­instead has deemed the tank an acceptable ­enclosure to contain a whale for decades.

Lowland gorillas like Harambe are not only a critically endangered species, they are highly intelligent and share 95 to 99 percent of their DNA with humans. They can laugh and grieve and have rich emotional lives. AWA regulations permit lowland gorillas to be kept in small enclosures in zoos where they live for decades.

Justifications for Zoos

The AZA cites education, conservation, science and recreation as justification for the current existence of zoos. They do play a role in each of those areas, but is it enough to justify confinement of intelligent animals for decades? Zoos as a whole spend about 1 percent of their revenue on conservation efforts. And even that small amount is given by a small number of zoos that take the obligation seriously and donate far more than 1 percent. Most contribute nothing.

Zoos can and do serve an educational ­purpose. But, with a limited amount of funds to spend on educating people about wildlife and conservation, is keeping zoos the most effective way to accomplish that mission? Even without captive breeding programs or harvesting animals from the wild, we would have captive wild animals to observe. For example, some “zoos” are really sanctuaries that take in exotic pets unwanted by their owners. Also, in today’s world, there are many ways to teach children about wildlife that do not require certain members of the species to sacrifice their lives to the cause.

Ethics of Zoos

When considering the ethics of keeping animals for exhibition, it is interesting to note that, in the not so distant past, we kept humans in captivity for other humans to gawk at. At the beginning of the last century, the monkey house exhibit at the Bronx Zoo had an exhibit called our “evolutionary ancestors,” which included monkeys, chimpanzees, an orangutan, and an African pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga. Benga had been sold into slavery in the Belgian Congo and was brought to the United States by his purchaser. He was “displayed” at the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis before he was delivered to the Bronx Zoo. Benga was locked in the monkey house with other primates for most of the day and, occasionally, let out under the supervision of a keeper. The exhibit was ­immensely popular, with thousands of visitors gawking, howling, jeering and chasing him. Ota Benga’s story is not unique. Indeed, the captive exhibit of human beings was considered acceptable into the early part of the 20th century. Along with Ota Benga, the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis presented an entire ­”ethnological zoo” for the amusement of fair-goers, with displays of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Africans, and other people—most of whom were coerced into coming to the United States to serve as zoo exhibits.

We have evolved since then and surely there is room for further evolution of human thinking about the extent to which ­lifetime confinement of wild animals, particularly given our growing knowledge of their ­mental and emotional capacities, meets our moral standards. •