Following a visit to Dublin Zoo a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about my concerns about the educational messages that zoos deliver. The blog was met with both praise from those that share my view and criticism from those that don't. As a campaigner, this comes as no surprise; I work on this issue on a daily basis and am aware that the subject of zoos is a divisive one. What I perhaps was surprised by was the extent to which those that disagreed with the blog quickly developed a very strong opinion about me and my wider beliefs. The issue of zoos and educational value quickly disappeared from discussion to be replaced with speculative assertions about how misguided the perceived beliefs of those that oppose captivity are (and by extension, how their views on captivity should be dismissed as nonsense).
A number of debates ensued which invariably ended with me (and those that share my views) being described as a "fundamentalist", "blind", "ignorant", "uneducated" or just plain "wrong". Many of the points being discussed were consolidated in a blog published a few days ago which I can only assume was written (at least in part) in direct response to my original piece as the title chosen (What anti-zoo people taught me) is a play on the title of my earlier piece (What the zoo taught me). However, the blog was not a direct response to mine but turned the argument away from the zoos themselves and towards the people that speak out against the zoo industry.
Given that the piece highlighted ten particular points, I felt it might be helpful for the debate to respond to them in turn. Obviously I can only respond on my behalf and I recognise that the opinions of the author of the original piece may be different to those of others who support the zoo industry but I would be interested to hear the views of any other "anti-zoo people" (or indeed "pro-zoo people"). If you think I am way off the mark, let me know in the comments section. If you want to add anything, let me know and I can perhaps incorporate them into this, or a future post.
The numbered points are the headings used in ‘What anti-zoo people taught me' and highlight what the author calls "10 broad generalizations of anti-zoo people logic that I've seen repeated over and over on various blogs, Facebook pages, etc. across the internet".
1. All zoos are created equal.
From an animal welfare perspective, I don't believe that all zoos are created equal. I can recognise that animal welfare provision in zoos varies dramatically dependent on the establishment. However, from an ethical perspective, the argument in favour of holding animals captive in order to pursue our own agenda (however laudable that agenda might be) is problematic. It is a complex issue which, in essence, is philosophical and rooted in animal rights theory. But that it is philosophical in essence does not make it a case of emotion, imagination or dogma because our understanding of the moral status of animals is directly and inextricably linked to our treatment of them.
At one end of the scale is the view that animals are ours to do as we please with and therefore we have a right to, for example, eat their flesh to sustain ourselves or use their fur to clothe ourselves. At the other end of the scale is that animals are not ours to do as we please with and their lives should be given as much respect and consideration as that which we (as a general rule) give over to our fellow human beings. In the vast middle ground are the views that animals can be used by us if we treat them humanely; with much discussion surrounding what can be considered "humane" in reality. My views sit best with the end of the scale which demands respect for all animals and rejects their use for human gain. This is commonly referred to as the "animal rights" or "abolitionist" stance and includes opposition to the keeping of animals in zoos.
So from a welfare perspective, I do not believe that all zoos are equal. From an ethical perspective, I believe that captivity is unacceptable and, in this sense, all zoos are equal. This discussion will not go away any time soon and should be encouraged but an attempt to understand why people hold the views they do is vital to the debate. In this case, I don't believe that the animal rights (and thus "anti-zoo") position has been properly understood.
2. Sanctuary = Amazeballs! Zoos = Internment Camp
I don't support all sanctuaries but I do support the principle of sanctuaries. The reason that sanctuaries are acceptable to many "anti-zoo" people is that they care for animals that are in captivity as a result of their prior mistreatment, injury or other reason which is beyond the sanctuary's control. So, for example, a sanctuary which rescues ex-pet primates (I use this as an example as I have worked at two sanctuaries which do just that) is taking on individuals who were previously kept in poor conditions and without adequate care. The sanctuary becomes the lesser of two evils but it would be preferable that the sanctuary did not have to exist at all. In addition, and importantly, true sanctuaries do not breed animals and they offer them a home for life.
On the other hand, zoos deliberately breed animals in order that they spend a lifetime in captivity. Animals are also culled when deemed "surplus to requirements". From an animal rights perspective, zoos are perpetuating captivity of animals indefinitely whereas sanctuaries are not. It is for this reason that those that are "anti-zoo" are often "pro-sanctuary". It is recognised that some zoos simply call themselves sanctuaries in order to be associated with the more benign concept and this is problematic. It is partly as a result of this that the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) other similar accreditation bodies have been established in recent years.
3. What I feel is what the animal feels.
In my experience, those working on issues surrounding captivity (both "anti" and "pro") use scientific methods to better understand how animals cope with their captive environments. The presence of stereotypic behaviours is perhaps the most cited indicator of whether or not an animal is coping and there is ample evidence on this issue available to suggest that many animals do not cope with captivity.