Think zoos are unethical

The zoo

Bernd Ladwig

To person

is Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin. [email protected]

Zoos and aquariums are popular. The author of this text also went to a zoo more than once with his growing son. But perhaps this was not morally justifiable, and the writer, who knew better, was just weak-willed. After all, zoos display captured animals. Many zoo animals cannot behave as they would in their natural habitats. The killing of healthy animals because they are "superfluous" according to breeding programs, for example, is part of the reality of today's zoos. This raises ethical questions: The keeping of zoo animals and their support through visits to the zoo require moral justification. Disadvantages for the animals such as imprisonment and killing must be covered by sufficiently good reasons. Whether there are such reasons is a basic question of zoo ethics.

I would like to concentrate on facilities that, firstly, meet scientific standards and, secondly, not only pursue recreational or entertainment purposes. A zoo meets scientific standards if it employs specialists who know the animals' needs and abilities and who can respond to them in an appropriate medical manner. If the zoo is a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), it will also commit to additional goals: The four-pillar concept, which goes back to the Swiss zoo director Heini Hediger, provides that zoos in addition to Recreation also serves (awareness) education, research and species protection. Methodologically, I want to assume that a zoo will seriously follow all of the tasks set out in the four-pillar concept. Very few will deny that education, research, species protection and recreation are morally presentable purposes. Should these purposes be less easy to pursue without zoos, we would pay a price for their abolition which would have to be weighed against the claims of the animals kept.

What are animal rights?

The prevailing opinion in jurisprudence is that animals have no subjective rights. [1] But this is supposed to be about the moral evaluation of zoos, and animals could have rights in a moral sense. By a moral right I understand a valid claim of an individual that is covered by generally and impartially acceptable grounds for justification. Anyone who disregards such a claim is doing something wrong by doing an injustice to a very specific individual.

Even if animals do not know and cannot say what is due to them, they could still have rights according to their interests. [2] Some of the interests that are so important to us that we want to see them protected by human rights, we share with many other animals that are capable of feeling and experiencing. After all, we are not only rational beings capable of speaking and morality, but also bodily existent, finite creatures capable of suffering and in need of attachment. But if animals are so similar to us in some morally significant respects, wouldn't it be arbitrary if we paid less attention to them or ignored them at all because they are not our biological conspecifics?

Certainly, rights include obligations, and animals cannot respect the rights of others. But the view that only those who can obey legal obligations can also have rights is not convincing, even with a view to human rights. Even small children or people with severe dementia are sometimes unable to observe the rights of others. It is only necessary that goods are at stake for them that are important enough to oblige moral actors to observe them. They must be able to make out whether and how moral actors consider them with a view to their needs, abilities and preferences. But that also applies to many animals.

For our legal obligations, however, not only the fundamental interests of other individuals are relevant, but also their relationships with moral actors. These must also be able to meet legal obligations in a reasonable manner. Special duties could also result from special contexts. [3] Zoos form a special context of responsibility because they control the living conditions of animals profoundly and comprehensively. Most animals could not live well or even survive without regular human attention. At the same time, the human owners have options for responding to the needs, abilities and preferences of zoo animals, which they do not have compared to most wild animals. Nevertheless, it could be that we are not allowed to subject the animals to such control because they have a right to freedom from detention in zoos. [4]

It is questionable, however, whether animals have real liberty rights. [5] Liberal philosophers like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin argue that we do not have a right to freedom as such. [6] Only basic freedoms such as the freedom of conscience, the choice of profession or sexual orientation enjoy special legal protection. They are almost indispensable for the possibility of a self-determined lifestyle, guided by one's own ideas of success and also open to corrections. Most other animals, however, do not have the necessary ability to form and direct their own will through their own deliberation. They cannot represent what they do and do not intersubjectively and consequently cannot accept normative responsibility. At most, a few highly developed animals such as great apes, whales or corvids may be capable of a rudimentary form of self-determination. An autonomy-related understanding of freedom rights could therefore justify the demand for such animals to be abolished in zoo enclosures, dolphinariums or cages.

But autonomy is not the only relevant fundamental value for moral rights, as we can see again with regard to human rights. We view torture as hideous not only because it directly or indirectly jeopardizes our ability to be autonomous, but also because fear, horror and severe pain are intrinsically bad states. However, many other animals can also suffer from fear, horror and severe pain. Generally speaking, the best conception of moral rights is based on a pluralistic understanding of morally significant interests. Autonomy is not the only rights-related concern; Body-bound wellbeing is another. It is not enough for animals to be in passive states such as well-nourished, physical integrity and freedom from pain. You can also suffer from boredom, lack of exercise, and lack of stimulating tasks. For sociable animals, self-sought social contacts are also relevant, as are opportunities for social aversion and social retreat. Even if they do not have any real freedom, certain freedoms are important for their wellbeing.

Defenders of zoo animal husbandry could argue that an animal born in a zoo cannot miss freedom that it has never known. Care for the animals must therefore only include that we do not cause them unnecessary harm. We don't have to give them opportunities to develop their skills that would improve their lives. But those who argue in this way overlook, firstly, that animals can suffer from a lack of activity even if they do not know what they are missing out on. A polar bear born in captivity may also develop abnormal behavior because it cannot move adequately. Second, the understanding of possible harm on which the argument is based is abbreviated. It only takes into account harm from suffering, but not from deprivation as well.

Damage through deprivation occurs when a person withholds from an animal for which he is responsible for no compelling reason a good that is part of the animal's decent life. A simple example is the moral duty of dog owners to give their animals regular exercise in the open air if they do not specifically want something else. That would be a basic good and not a luxury good for the animal even if it did not suffer from being constantly locked in, in the apartment or in the kennel. A special form of deprivation damage is killing. It is also not only normally an evil for the victim because the victim wanted to decide autonomously over his or her future life. It is also because death deprived it of the possibility of further experiences. This deprivation argument in turn applies to all animals that can experience something as good or bad.

Do zoos harm the interests of animals?

We should keep this multidimensional picture in mind when we ask ourselves whether animal welfare is violated by animal husbandry. Nor should we assume that a disadvantage in one respect can necessarily be offset by an advantage in another. A sociable animal, for example, needs regular food as well as well-structured social relationships. An animal that likes to run must be able to move freely and freely even if it is protected from predators in the zoo, which repeatedly caused it to flee in its natural habitat.

But because the vast majority of animals do not have an autonomy-related right to freedom, we can fundamentally assess zoos in a differentiated manner. First of all, we should assume that the animals are born in the zoo and are not torn out of their natural habitats. Stolen animals could feel fear of death during transport, suffer serious injuries or even die. If they are sociable, the relatives left behind will suffer from social loss, provided they have not been killed. None of this could be justified, apart from protecting animals from life-threatening emergencies. [7] Second, we should assume that zoos adhere to scientific standards. Professionally managed zoos know the needs and abilities of animals and can respond to them medically. The idea that solitary reptiles who do not enjoy walking could have a better life in zoos than in the wild is at least not absurd; the same could apply to mammals living in a fixed position such as wild rabbits or lazy animals such as sloths.

More developed animals place greater demands on keeping that would satisfy all of their needs. On the other hand, they have a broad repertoire of behavior. [8] You can adapt to different, even artificial, environments. Any such adaptation requires, however, sufficiently large, climatically appropriate, appealing and varied enclosures. The animals must have scope for free movement and demanding activities, form groups appropriate to their social nature and also be able to avoid one another. In many zoos, however, captured (mammal) animals show behavioral problems. [9] If we know which environments animals of a particular species are optimized for, and then notice pathological behavior patterns in captive members of the species, we should conclude that captivity is not good for them. We should therefore avoid animals such as tigers, polar bears or elephants continue to be born in captivity.

Observance of all requirements and basic components of a good life is a necessary condition for the legitimate keeping of wild animals. Since these animals could in principle also exist and thrive in the wild, animal ethicist David DeGrazia also suggests a comparative criterion. He argues that we would harm animals avoidably if they had to live worse in captivity than in the wild. This speaks for a principle with two necessary conditions: "Care for the basic physical and psychological needs of the zoo animal and ensure that it has a life comparable to that in the wild." [10]

Keeping some animals captive could satisfy both of these conditions. Wild boars, for example, can live up to 30 years in enclosures under human care. Hardly any wild boar reaches this age in the wild. This has to do with, but not exclusively, hunting by humans. In captivity, the animals are protected from the vicissitudes of the weather, they can find food safely and receive medical care. These advantages could potentially outweigh the disadvantages of husbandry that still exist.

In contrast, the imprisonment of great apes offers clear examples of non-compensable disadvantages. Chimpanzees, for example, live in groups of around 50 individuals with alternating small group formation. They inhabit forest areas with an average size of twelve square kilometers or savannahs with a size of 120 to 560 square kilometers. These are areas with the area of ​​entire communities or even large cities. Again, the argument that we could deprive the monkeys of freedom if we provided them safely to compensate would also not be admissible. Chimpanzees are among the few animals that may even be capable of autonomy.

Whenever possible, we should release wild animals that cannot live comparably well in captivity. However, this solution is unlikely to be available in many cases. An animal that was born in captivity, has got used to human care, or has become sick, may not be able to survive in the wild. It is also possible that humans have destroyed the habitats of the animals or that, with the best of intentions, they cannot protect wild animals from poachers. However, if reintroduction is normatively not an option, keeping in enclosures or game parks designed as close to nature as possible comes into consideration as the second-best solution. Such a solution, in turn, did not violate DeGrazia's criterion: The animals could not have a better life in the wild because they probably could not even survive in it. However, we should not continue to breed such animals without the realistic prospect of later release.

The four goals of modern zoos

The previous consideration has focused on the consequences of keeping the animals in captivity. From an animal law perspective, this is imperative, because encroachments on legal interests require particularly strict justification. [11] However, it would be wrong to consider all rights to be absolutely inviolable, as is the case with the prohibition of torture. The view that rights should only be weighed against other rights is also exaggerated. In any case, only very important, morally relevant aspects come into question to justify the violation of legal interests. Interference with animal rights would also have to be necessary, which would not be the case if we had more lenient means.

The four-pillar concept names four purposes of zoos: recreation, education, research and conservation. Recreation is important for people and also relevant in terms of human rights. But people don't exactly have to go to the zoo for this purpose. Even without a zoo, they would have enough opportunities for recreation.

As for the educational value of zoos, zoo critics like Markus Wild point out that it is at best doubtful and that we have good alternatives. [12] The value is doubtful because we only see the animals in substitute environments. In the worst case, the educational effect of a zoo is that visitors consider it normal for large wild animals to run away behind bars, panes of glass or ditches. [13] And if you want to know how an elephant or tiger behaves in its actual biotope, you can book photo safaris, watch documentaries or choose virtual access such as digital animations. One might object that no film or live animation can replace the impression that a roaring lion, viewed up close, makes while feeding. But how great would the educational added value of such an impression have to be to justify locking the lion up for a lifetime?

Research is also an important asset that is even relevant in terms of human rights, but again it cannot be seen why zoos should be indispensable for this. Research on and with zoo animals is necessary, certainly for the self-referential purpose of "finding out how to keep animals in the zoo". [14] But this is precisely why this purpose cannot justify keeping zoo animals in disputed cases. At best, this could be scientifically valuable or informative research for (animal or human) medical purposes that would not be possible or would not be possible outside of zoos.

Whether there is such a research remains open here.A possible positive example are the comparative experiments with human children and great apes by the research team led by the anthropologist Michael Tomasello in Pongoland, the great ape enclosure of the Leipzig zoo. [15] The advantage of zoo animals is obviously that people can get close to them particularly well under controlled conditions. This may justify a non-suffering and death-causing research with animals that are already living under human care. But it does not justify continuing zoological garden breeding programs for animals that, like chimpanzees, cannot live properly in such gardens.

Probably the most important argument for the moral indispensability of zoos is the protection of species. There are two aspects to be distinguished here, for each of which defenders of zoos have found powerful images. First of all, the zoo is supposed to be an "ark" Ex situProtect species if this in situ, i.e. in the natural habitats of the endangered species, is not initially possible. However, the declared goal remains the later release. If this is not possible at all according to human judgment, the zoo animals could nevertheless, according to the second picture, represent their species that have disappeared in the wild as "ambassadors".

First of all, it should be noted that the moral intuition in favor of species protection is strong, but the possibility of its justification is unclear. This is true in any case if one demands a normative individualistic justification in the sense of the idea of ​​moral rights. After all, species are not natural individuals with interests of their own. They therefore have no moral rights of their own, but are only indirectly relevant for the protection and realization of the rights of individual animals - or people. If you consider this, the image of zoo animals as ambassadors should in any case fade: Does the keeping of wild animals in zoos really have a moral intrinsic value if the species they represent have played out their ecological roles in natural habitats once and for all? Did we want to preserve Amur tigers only in and for zoos when their species definitely has no chance of survival in the wild?

It is more likely that zoos are serving a morally good cause if they use breeding programs to save species with a prospect of reintroduction from extinction, as they did with the California condor and Przewalski's horse. However, these popular examples shouldn't detract from the poor overall track record. So far, zoos have not been able to preserve even 50 animal species that were or are extinct in their natural habitats through breeding programs; and not even half of them were successfully released into the wild. [16] Against this balance sheet - and not against an alien ideal - the moral costs of the breeding programs for individual animals should be weighed. These costs include not only imprisonment, but also killing. In the course of breeding programs, "surplus" animals are inevitably created that no other zoo can or will accept. [17] One of the main problems is that zoos need comparatively few males for breeding, but almost as many males as females are born. [18]

The association of zoo veterinarians is fighting for the legal recognition of a "biological indication" for the killing of animals. It would affect healthy animals that are not needed or unsuitable for breeding. The doctors would like to place "in individual cases the protection of species (population protection) over the protection of individual life protection". [19] But apart from the fundamental objection that not species, but only individuals have moral rights that speak in favor of exactly the opposite weighting, the empirical suggestion that the indication only affects individual cases is also wrong. It is estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 animals per year become victims of population management in the zoos that are members of the EAZA alone. [20]

The zoo veterinarians parallel the killing in the course of breeding programs with the "natural stock control" in the wild. Just as nature ensures the health and genetic diversity of species through lack of food, cold, diseases, predators and rival conspecifics, so people in zoos have to make the selection. [21] But this argument is an escape from the normative responsibility for the existence of zoo animals. The zoos are responsible for the birth of animals through breeding programs, knowing full well that neither they nor other institutions could properly house all these creatures. It is not a norm-blind nature that condemns animals to an early death, but human actors. And these pursue purposes that are not those of the killed animals themselves. That would differentiate the biological indication, which is not yet recognized under German law, from the medical indication, which the law accepts: killing an animal is reasonable if the animal could survive, above all, agonizing. In contrast, killing based on biological indications would not be in the legally protected interest of the victim himself, but would follow a perfectionist idea of ​​species protection. The VZT would like to see a "selection of healthy, species-specific, strong and genetically valuable animals". [22]

However, zoos not only kill "surplus" animals, but also specially bred "food animals" such as mice, rabbits, goats and larger ungulates. [23] In fact, apart from the vision of affordable in vitro meat, there is no way of keeping carnivores in zoos without killing other animals. One might call this tragic. But at the root of the tragedy lies our decision to recreate natural conditions between animals in zoos.


Animals have rights that strictly limit the possibility of legitimate keeping in zoos, aquariums or wildlife parks. Firstly, we have to consider all of the animals' needs and, secondly, ensure that they have a good life comparable to that in the wild. According to these two criteria, we should in any case no longer breed large, enthusiastic and demanding animals such as tigers, polar bears, elephants and great apes in order to display them in zoos. Likewise, we would have to close the dolphinariums that keep intelligent marine mammals with a great urge to move and complex social life captive. Even if recreation, education, research and species protection are not morally irrelevant, they do not justify disregard for legal interests of animals. Nor should we continue to perpetuate responsibility for the nutrition of carnivorous animals. Animals that we would not have to feed with meat then come into consideration for keeping and display. If we offer them advantages that outweigh the disadvantages of imprisonment in all relevant respects, they will not suffer any violation of their rights. Well-managed wildlife parks may provide examples of such permitted zoos.