It's Still Not Happening At the Zoo, Take 2: Does the AZA Really Have "Love and Concern for All Animals"?

This essay was written with Dr. Jessica Pierce.

"The basic, elemental matter that unites The HSUS and the AZA is a love and concern for all animals."

We were surprised to read Wayne Pacelle’s recent blog about the warm collaboration between the HSUS and the AZA. He mentions his attendance at a meeting held last May at the Detroit Zoo called Zoos and Aquariums as Welfare Centres: Ethical Dimensions and Global Commitment on zoo animal welfare. We also were at this meeting, and had a very different impression of what transpired. 

Mr. Pacelle notes "there was nearly unanimous agreement among participants about the value of AZA-accredited zoos and mainstream animal welfare advocates standing together on common-ground issues." In fact, there wasn’t unanimity, with people from different points of view standing shoulder-to-shoulder. There were serious disagreements about a lot of issues (please see: It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain). The “animal people” (those trying to represent the voices of animals held captive in zoos) and the “zoo people” came from very different moral paradigms and while there was some collegiality at the meeting, at times there was a distinctly uncomfortable atmosphere. This is not to say the meeting wasn't valuable, but there were some very sharp and unresolved divisions among the participants.

Mr. Pacelle also writes, "The basic, elemental matter that unites The HSUS and the AZA is a love and concern for all animals." He suggests that under AZA guidance, zoos are ethical and humane institutions. They are not. According to Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria (Australia) and author of a recent book called Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation, "[T]he bulk of zoos in existence today still fall short of meeting the requirements of ethical operations. At best, 3% of zoos are striving to meet ethical standards, with perhaps only a handful meeting all the requirements." (Page 208) For an interview with Ms. Gray please see this essay. Zoos are well-known for humane-washing

Even the best zoos are hard on animals, which is the reason the Detroit animal welfare symposium was organized in the first place. Most zoos are not concerned with "all animals." If they were, captive breeding would be sharply curtailed and ultimately be halted, individuals wouldn't be shipped around as breeding machines, family and other social groups wouldn't routinely be broken up nor would close friendships be torn apart, such as the one between Szenja and Snowflake, two polar bears who were separated after 20 years so that Snowflake could be used to make more captive polar bears at another zoo (Szenja died shortly thereafter), and healthy individuals wouldn't be "zoothanized" when they don't fit into a zoo's breeding program (they are not euthanized or management-euthanized, as zoos claim they are; for more discussion on this topic, please see Note 1). These types of activities are for the zoos and their bottom line, not for the animals themselves.

Clearly, a "love and concern for all animals" is not on the agenda of many zoos, and it's important to face up to the fact that there is an incredible amount of pain, suffering, and death among the residents of numerous zoos. It's interesting to note that in an on-going survey centering on the question "Should we keep animals in zoos?" 66% of respondents say "no" and 34% say "yes." And, zoos have lost favor with a quarter of Americans

Frankly, some of the above suggestions didn't go over very well with some people representing zoos. While some zoo advocates were willing to discuss them with us and with others, some simply blew them off as if they were delusional and utterly irrelevant. Their attitude was that is was perfectly okay to keep animals in cages and that there was no need for further discussion. There also was no "unanimous agreement" about a question that didn't really get addressed very much at all, namely, that whether it is ethical to keep animals in cages. Note also that the so-called "unanimous agreement" didn't take into consideration the opinions of the animals themselves. Aren't they the main stakeholders in this entire debate about zoos? People also differed on the question of whether zoos have a legitimate role in education or conservation. 

At the Detroit meeting, at other gatherings, and in numerous publications, there were, and there remain, profound disagreements centering on the moral issues involved with holding animals in captive settings, and we shouldn’t ignore these fundamental concerns. Zooed animals, like companion animals, want and need more than they usually get from us. We need a major revolution of heart that focuses on the plight of zooed animals. These beings need all the help they can get, and claiming it's just fine to keep them in cages of all shapes and sizes avoids the question of whether we should be doing this in the first place. 

Some more details on the case of Marius, a young healthy giraffe who was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo, and killing healthy individuals in zoos

Note 1:  Killing healthy individuals seems to be much more of a problem in zoos outside of the United States. We can’t find any data for zoos in the United States, but for zoos in Europe it’s been estimated by Dr. Lesley Dickie, executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), “that somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 animals are "management-euthanised" in European zoos in any given year.

The “poster child” for killing healthy individuals is Marius, a young and healthy giraffe who was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo, because he didn't fit into the zoo's breeding program. At the same zoo, four lions were also later killed for similar reasons. We have to say that we were shocked when Simon Tonge, Executive Director of the UK's Whitley Conservation Trust, claimed during his presentation at the Detroit meeting that Bengt Holst, the zoo's scientific director who wrote off killing Marius as business as usual, is a hero. It’s also interesting to note that when given the chance to weigh in on whether or not Marius should have been killed, Ms. Gray wrote in her interview, “I agree that there is a difference between a death that is in the interest of the individual (euthanasia) and killing which terminates a healthy life. I challenge readers to think about the issues in the wicked questions section, including the death of Marius, and develop their own arguments. I have deliberately not given simple answers to what are complex issues. Many arguments can be mounted. I would hope that students of ethics can refine not only their personal view but also the plausible arguments to the contrary.” In all honesty, when I (MB) interviewed Ms. Gray, I thought that the case of Marius was a clear-cut example of when not to kill a zooed animal who was healthy and offered another home. For more on this topic please see Zoos Shall Not Kill Healthy Animals: A Moral Imperative.

In contrast, in an interview about her new book called Captive, world-renowned photographer, Jo-Anne McArthur, wrote about the killing of Marius, “Oh dear. It’s awful, isn’t it? If zoos claim to care about the individuals, why would they kill Marius? Killing someone shows you don’t give a stuff about them as an individual. And yet, it’s ‘funny’, zoos do a lot of marketing of their new babies, giving them a name, ‘Come see so-and-so!’ etc. Zoos profit off this personalization of animals, and claim they care so much about the animals in their custody. With Marius and the thousands of other ‘surplus’ animals, killing them tells another story. It says ‘we don’t care at all about any of the individuals here at the zoo.’ I know a lot of zoo staff and I know that they care very deeply about the animals incarcerated there, so what’s going on? Who are these ‘conservation experts’ making the decision to kill the zooed animals? Well, we met a lot of them (you and I) at the recent Detroit Zoo symposium on animal welfare, and they did indeed refer to the Copenhagen zoo's scientific director as a hero. A lot of people clapped.”

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.