AboutZoos, Since 2008


There is a moral argu­ment for keep­ing great apes in zoos

pub­lished 19 Feb­ru­ary 2017 | mod­i­fied 30 May 2019

by Richard Moore

Orangutan at Leipzig ZooI get appre­hen­sive when­ever some­one asks me about my job. I’m a philoso­pher who works on the ques­tion of how lan­guage evolved, I reply. If they probe any fur­ther, I tell them that I work with the great apes at Leipzig zoo. But some peo­ple, I’ve dis­cov­ered, have big prob­lems with zoos.

Plenty of philoso­phers and pri­ma­tol­o­gists agree with them. Even the best zoos force ani­mals to live in con­fined spaces, they say, which means the ani­mals must be bored and stressed from being watched all the time. Other crit­ics claim that zoos are wrong even if the crea­tures aren’t suf­fer­ing, because being held cap­tive for human enter­tain­ment impugns their dig­nity. Such places ‘are for us rather than for ani­mals’, the philoso­pher Dale Jamieson has writ­ten, and ‘they do lit­tle to help the ani­mals we are dri­ving to extinction’.

But I want to defend the value of zoos. Yes, some of them should cer­tainly be closed. We’ve seen those ter­ri­ble videos of soli­tary apes or tigers stalk­ing bar­ren cages in shop­ping malls in Thai­land or China. How­ever, ani­mals have a good qual­ity of life in many zoos, and there’s a strong moral case for why these insti­tu­tions ought to exist. I’ve come to this view after work­ing with great apes, and it might not extend to all species equally. How­ever, since great apes are both cog­ni­tively sophis­ti­cated and human-​like in their behav­iour, they offer a strong test case for eval­u­at­ing the moral­ity of zoos in general.

The research my col­leagues and I con­duct isn’t harm­ful to the ani­mals and, if it goes well, it will help us get a bet­ter grasp on the cog­ni­tive dif­fer­ences between humans and apes. For exam­ple, we did a study with pairs of orang­utans in which we tested their abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate and coop­er­ate to get rewards. We hid a banana pel­let so that one orang­utan could see the food but couldn’t reach it. The other orang­utan could release a slid­ing door and push the pel­let through to her part­ner, but wasn’t able to take it for her­self. They did okay (but not great) when play­ing with me, and they mostly ignored each other when play­ing together. We then per­formed a sim­i­lar set of stud­ies with human two-​year-​olds. Com­pared with the apes, the two-​year-​olds were very good at get­ting the reward (stick­ers) when they played with an adult.

Taken together, these stud­ies tell us some­thing about human evo­lu­tion. Unlike apes, humans are good at pool­ing their tal­ents to achieve what they can’t do alone. It’s not that the apes don’t care about get­ting the food — they got frus­trated with one another when things were going wrong, and one orang­utan in par­tic­u­lar would turn his back and sulk. How­ever, unlike humans, they don’t seem to be able to har­ness this frus­tra­tion to push them­selves to do better.

The value of research aside, there’s an argu­ment for zoos on the grounds of ani­mal wel­fare. In the best zoos, such as Leipzig, great apes live in spa­cious enclo­sures mod­elled on their nat­ural habi­tats, and are looked after by zookeep­ers who care about them deeply. Large jun­gle gyms keep them stim­u­lated and stave off bore­dom; they’re also kept busy with ‘enrich­ment’ puz­zles, which they can unlock with tools to get food. Zoos recog­nised by the two main accred­it­ing bod­ies in Europe and the United States are rig­or­ously vet­ted and required to take part in edu­ca­tion and con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes. And there’s no solid evi­dence that apes liv­ing in well-​designed enclo­sures get stressed or dis­turbed by human observation.

Of course, zoos can’t pro­vide their ani­mals with con­di­tions such as those in an untouched for­est. But for the great apes in cap­tiv­ity, there’s rarely a viable alter­na­tive. There are esti­mated to be more than 4,000 great apes liv­ing in zoos world­wide. Most of the regions where they are found in the wild — orang­utans in Indone­sia, chim­panzees and goril­las in Cen­tral and West Africa, bono­bos in the Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC) — are rav­aged by habi­tat loss, civil war, hunt­ing and dis­ease. As few as 880 remain­ing moun­tain goril­las sur­vive, in two small groups in the east­ern reaches of the DRC, while orang­utan habi­tats have declined 80 per cent in the past 20 years. While some con­ser­va­tion­ists dream of rehom­ing zoo apes in the wild, these van­ish­ing forests mean that it’s rarely fea­si­ble. The orang­utans in Leipzig are cer­tainly bet­ter off than they would be try­ing to sur­vive in forests razed to make way for palm-​oil plantations.

Since zoo apes can­not be returned to their nat­ural envi­ron­ments, spe­cialised sanc­tu­ar­ies are another option. But these require large plots of land that are both safe and unin­hab­ited by exist­ing pop­u­la­tions, and such loca­tions are scarce. As things stand, sanc­tu­ar­ies are already strug­gling to sur­vive because they’re almost exclu­sively depen­dent on char­i­ta­ble dona­tions. And most of them are full. In Africa and Indone­sia, inhab­i­tants are typ­i­cally orphans that have been taken from the for­est by hunters or palm-​oil work­ers, who kill larger apes and kid­nap the babies to sell or keep as pets. Else­where, sanc­tu­ar­ies are over­flow­ing with retired lab apes or res­cued pets. These insti­tu­tions lack the capac­ity to accom­mo­date the thou­sands of apes cur­rently liv­ing in zoos, let alone the money that would be needed to sup­port them.

Given the obsta­cles and the great expense of rehom­ing apes, very few places try to do so. Damian Aspinall of Howletts Wild Ani­mal Park in Eng­land leads one of the few pro­grammes that release goril­las back into the wild, by tak­ing them to a pro­tected reserve in Gabon. His inten­tions are heroic and hope­fully the plan will suc­ceed. Some goril­las have reset­tled well. But the results so far have been mixed; in 2014, five mem­bers of a fam­ily of 11 were found dead within a month of their release. We also don’t really know whether zoo-​born apes pos­sess the skills they need to sur­vive, includ­ing the abil­ity to retrieve dif­fer­ent local foods, and knowl­edge of edi­ble plants. Young apes learn these skills in the wild by watch­ing the knowl­edge­able adults around them — but that’s an oppor­tu­nity that crea­tures in cap­tiv­ity sim­ply don’t have.

Now, all of this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily an eth­i­cal argu­ment for con­tin­u­ing to breed apes in zoos. You might argue that if we can’t save the apes already in cap­tiv­ity, we should at least end breed­ing pro­grammes and let the exist­ing pop­u­la­tions die out. How­ever, cap­tive breed­ing helps pre­serve the genetic diver­sity of endan­gered species. More­over, research shows that vis­it­ing zoos makes peo­ple more likely to sup­port con­ser­va­tion efforts — an effect that’s ampli­fied by more nat­u­ral­is­tic enclo­sures. So first-​person encoun­ters in zoos serve to edu­cate vis­i­tors about the incred­i­ble lives ani­mals lead, and to raise money for wild con­ser­va­tion programmes.

Allow­ing the ape pop­u­la­tions in zoos to wither assumes — with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion — that their cur­rent lives are so bad as to be not worth liv­ing. It also risks inflict­ing harm. Bore­dom is a real risk for zoo ani­mals, and it’s widely believed (although not yet sci­en­tif­i­cally estab­lished) that the pres­ence of infants brings both inter­est and hap­pi­ness to the fam­i­lies. Mixed-​aged groups cre­ate col­lec­tive dynam­ics that more closely resem­ble those in the wild. If we care about the wel­fare of cap­tive apes, we should allow them to breed — at least in con­trolled ways.

One day, the prospect of return­ing cap­tive apes to their nat­ural habi­tats or hous­ing them in well-​funded, spa­cious sanc­tu­ar­ies might be real­is­tic. Cur­rently, it is not. Instead of con­demn­ing zoos, we should ded­i­cate our efforts to sup­port­ing them: to push­ing bad zoos to reform or close; to fund­ing more research into the wel­fare of cap­tive ani­mals; and to encour­ag­ing all zoos to strive to do more for their inhab­i­tants. That way, per­haps, I will no longer need to shy away from telling strangers what I do.Aeon counter - do not remove

This arti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished at Aeon and has been repub­lished under Cre­ative Commons.

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