Does Wildlife Conservation Justify Wildlife Captivity?


The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, recently published an article addressing conservation efforts in relation to animal rights. This, (and an interesting discussion on Tumblr,) has inspired me to delve deeper into the issue of zoos, aquariums, and conservation.

In response to the question of whether or not zoos and aquariums are important, a post was made in a discussion on Tumblr by a captivity supporter citing The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) handbook entitled “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter.”  The handbook focuses on education as contributing to wildlife conservation. Part 1 of the handbook, explains the results of a study which polled the general public, religious leaders, politicians, and conservation biologists. The poll found that the majority of the public, religious leaders, and politicians, support zoos and aquariums. However, “more than half,” of the conservation biologists polled had been anti-zoo and aquarium at one point, criticizing such facilities for their lack of education and conservation efforts. No more data regarding the opinions of conservationists on zoos and aquariums is provided in the handbook. This is unfortunate  because conservation biologists are the individuals who directly observe the affects of conservation efforts by zoos on wild populations.

The rest of the handbook focuses on a survey of the general public, and their views on whether or not zoos and aquariums are fun and educational. The opinions of the public on these facilities, hold no bearing in whether or not zoos and aquariums are actually educational, or conservation-oriented.

In truth, there is no evidence to suggest that people learn about animals at zoos and aquariums, at all. In fact, a study conducted by the AZA demonstrates that people do not increase their overall knowledge of animals at zoos and aquariums, and only 10% of those in the study had an increase in knowledge of conservation. The only major affect of zoos and aquariums had on their patrons, came in the form of an attitude change toward the environment. A little over half (54%) of people left the facilities feeling more responsible for environmental issues. Of course, whether or not these feelings manifest into actions is not supported by any evidence whatsoever.

If education of the public related to an increase in conservation efforts, it logically follows that countries and areas with the most zoos and aquariums should be world leaders in conservation. However, there are countries such as Japan, that have more aquariums and marine parks than any other country on the planet, yet also are the world leader, not in conservation, but in whaling and dolphin slaughter.

Another link I received to support the view that zoos and aquariums have an important role in conservation, took me to this article . The article uses the main argument employed in defense of the captivity industry’s conservation efforts: that zoos and aquariums are saving endangered species through reintroduction programs. Captive breeding programs are seen as an insurance against extinction. Even some supporters of marine parks claim that the captive breeding of orcas and dolphins is an act of conservation to preserve the species in case they were to become endangered in the future. In reality, many captive whales and dolphins could not be released because their owners have not preserved their genetic diversity to make them suitable for life in the wild. Many captive orcas are unnatural hybrids, as would be their offspring, which means that their entire lineage would be unsuitable for release. Does possible reintroduction of future generations justify the current captivity of animals?

There are 233 AZA accredited zoos and aquariums, but only 43 species reintroduction programs. Many species reintroduction programs are not zoo or aquarium based, but are based on government and wildlife agencies. Benjamin Beck for the Reintroduction Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC), used data from reintroduction programs to determine how successful such programs are in creating a viable wild population out of an endangered species. He found that only 16% of reintroduction programs were successful. (Ethics on the Ark x) This may be due to the fact that the species are being reintroduced into the same situation and habitat which endangered them in the first place. Zoos and aquariums tend to believe that they can save wildlife by bringing it indoors, but do little to help preserve the land. In fact, some of them are environmental polluters themselves, and in the very least encourage the high-consumption American culture that is so damaging to the environment.

The fact that there are few reintroduction programs, and such a small success rate, should be enough to take this off the list of defenses for animal captivity. However, even the promotion of these programs by zoos, have their own harmful side-effects. Zoos and aquariums often promote reintroduction methods as if they were arks, built to preserve and save the world”s endangered species.”So far, zoos have had only a modest, and in some cases insignificant, involvement in reintroduction efforts, yet, as an industry, they have grossly overstated their own importance in this area, often for self-serving reasons.”  (x) The public picks up on this message and as a result, an attitude of complacency may grow among zoo patrons who believe that zoos and aquariums are solving the problem of wildlife endangerment, when in fact, they are not. This also promotes a man-manipulates-nature attitude which is oftentimes what endangers a species in the first place.

Zoo and aquarium conservation also helps to harm wildlife in that it focuses on the preservation of a species as a whole rather than the welfare of individual members. Oftentimes individual animals must be sacrificed in a captive setting in an attempt to save their species. “You have to be prepared to have a very objective cost-benefit analysis,” says the Chair of Zoology at the University of Adelaide.  Another issue is the single-species management promoted by zoos and aquariums. That is – the attention is on attractive species, rather than a variety of biological collections which rely on each other for their existence. People are often drawn to zoos or aquariums because they want to see one attractive species (which the facility often spends vast amounts of money promoting and advertising.) As a result, other species are often put on the back burner.

Many of the arguments for zoos and aquariums comes from arguments proposed by the AZA. In reality, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the zoo and aquarium industry. Focusing on the glossy image of AZA credited facilities gives a sanitized view of the industry as a whole, which also consists of sideshows, and run-down facilities.

I have included a lot of information in this post, but I hope that it wasn’t too difficult to understand. There is obviously so much more information that I did not touch on in this post that can be found  by reading “Ethics on the Ark: Zoo & Aquarium Biology and Conservation” by various authors, or “Last Animals at the Zoo: How mass extinction can be stopped” by Colin Tudge.

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7 thoughts on “Does Wildlife Conservation Justify Wildlife Captivity?

  1. Pingback: Does Wildlife Conservation Justify Wildlife Captivity? | Cetacean … | Our Endangered Planet and it's Wildlife.

  2. Only 10% ! Such a small number. So let’s just disregard the 182 people who benefited from attending the zoo, who may be career-motivated, want to help, or seek out animal-related work with conservation in the future. And I guess from such a conclusion we can gather that a similar percentage out of the millions of people who attend zoos would be probable. Should we ignore all of these people because it just so happens that most of the public is unwilling to properly utilize the amazing resource put in front of them? I feel sorry for urban-dwelling kids that can’t afford to go on glamorous vacations to see exotic nature, in a world where zoos are blocked to suit your ideology. I can assure you that out of all the math and science classes, only a few students actually gain sophisticated knowledge while the others dump the information come summer break. That does not invalidate the course. And, you also underestimate the emotional impact that the seeing animals has, which is immeasurable. This is also true of pet ownership. People will surely care more about animals if they can form a real bond with them. People like you, who claim to be able to appreciate wild animals by only watching documentaries and seeing them on pages in a book, are in the minority. Please think of that small percentage of something other than a small, minority number.

    • I’m a bit confused as to what arguments you are proposing here. It seems you believe that zoos should not be shut down simply because some folks choose to disregard them as an amazing resource. In the same way that a science class should not be stopped because some students choose to forget the information. This is a false analogy. Science classes obviously do not involve a concern for the welfare of living, caged animals. In this case, the question is whether or not wildlife conservation justifies wildlife captivity. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you have failed to address this question.

      • I was addressing this part of your post: “In truth, there is no evidence to suggest that people learn about animals at zoos and aquariums, at all.”

        and
        “…and only 10% of those in the study had an increase in knowledge of conservation.”

        I was just explaining that 10% is a significant number of people that zoos, according to the study, help educate about wildlife issues, just as science classes help to inspire young thinkers. However, I value zoos (in terms of public education) mostly for the emotional impact that viewing live animals offers. But it is true that this applies mostly to charismatic animal species. Yet I’d say that another small percentage will be motivated to be involved with animal welfare (and for some, unfortunately, animal rights) due to the existence of zoos.

        “the question is whether or not wildlife conservation justifies wildlife captivity.”

        Well, that’s a loaded question. I feel as though if the animals are well cared for in captivity and are granted the ‘5 freedoms’, it does not need to be justified. If I thought that animals were all suffering in cages, I would say no, it does not. Species survival programs that zoos carry out that significantly impact conversation causes are in the minority. I’m in the minority with my stances on conservation, I value the well-being of extant animals over their survival as a species. Frankly, I don’t see the point in maintaining artificial populations of wildlife (in the wild) just for them to exist. Much of these animals that suffer from human encroachment, poaching, and habitat destruction have irreversible situations. If I were most animals, I would prefer the comfort of a good zoo over the struggle that the wild entails, especially with its added pressures.

        • 10% is not a significant number. When you consider whether or not the changes in attitude amount to changes in action; the statistic will be even smaller.
          No, this is not significant…certainly not significant enough to justify the caging of wild animals (especially highly intelligent, self aware animals.)
          I understand that it may be emotional to see the popular animals at the zoo, but as these studies have shown – this “emotional impact,” has not shown itself to be valuable in terms of conservation or education.
          “Does wildlife conservation justify wildlife captivity?” Demonstrate how this question is loaded, please.
          You say you feel as though if the animals are given the five freedoms, their captivity does not need to be justified. Support this feeling with evidence. Many animals, especially whales and dolphins, are not allowed the five freedoms (which largely focuses on basic physiological necessities, rather than considering the emotional or mental needs of “higher” mammals.)

          • Well yes, it’s very unrealistic to hope that 99 percent of the population will become activists. However, I think that thousands of people is still a decent number. Change is generally accomplished by those who are in the minority. We can also expect that those who aren’t invested with animal-related issues will at least provide some financial support to important issues via the zoos. I think it’s important that everyone is at least exposed and his the -opportunity- to make a connection. I need to remind that the current studies may be the only ‘official’ stats we have to go by but they are not conclusive, they just provide loose evidence. Lori Marino (director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy) published a study suggesting it is essentially meaningless, which I’ve read. I would love to see a number studies done that accounts for some of these flaws. At this point though we’re both speculating. Would hate to see a zoo-less experiment, however. I know how they’ve impacted myself.

            “You say you feel as though if the animals are given the five freedoms, their captivity does not need to be justified. Support this feeling with evidence.”

            “Freedom from hunger or thirst
            Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
            Freedom from pain, injury or disease
            Freedom to express normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
            Freedom from fear and distress”

            Yes I believe this (as you can see it does address social needs), and I did not say that all animals in zoos are being provided this, but I believe most of them are. This isn’t about dolphins but all zoos animals. I may agree that the standards for killer whales may not meet the ‘5 freedoms’, due to the diseases, distress by bad social groupings, and small overall area. This might be impossible to overcome. As we’re just now realizing, many current elephant habitats in zoos are inadequate, but I think it’s relatively simple to meet their needs. Their biggest issue in captivity is foot disease-related issues, and they simply need more space and exercise to ward this off. So again it depends on the species. Most big cats live longer in captivity. As for their quality of life, I would need evidence to support that a big cat would prefer the competition of the ‘wild’ as this seems to violate ‘freedom from distress’. Wild animals are not free, they are forced into a system in which failure means death. Yes, animals may run away given the opportunity, but this is basic instinct, not a conscious choice. It is no different from a small child wandering off into danger.

            Most captive animals I believe have more ‘freedom’ as they have freedom from being hungry and needing to work to maintain their territory. They do not possess the same ideological sensitivity to the idea of a ‘cage’ like humans, and those animals in expansive sanctuaries probably have no idea what one is. Yet, it’s a double edged sword. Too much comfort may lead to boredom and inadequate exercise. That is the same issue for us modernized humans, yet I have no desire to re-enter a primitive hunter-gatherer existence. I like the grocery store, as un-stimulating as it might be. Would like to see more studies done on cortisol levels, like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eIsbOchpxA&list=FLb1-ZZ2LG-yg9WdZRydEtPQ

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