The Lion Weeps Tonight: Wild Animal Captivity

By Ryan Murphy

Many people are skeptical about wild animal captivity. Even in a large, well-maintained zoo where the animals are fed, given medical care, and kept safe from predation, people get the sense that something is wrong with keeping wild animals outside the wild. Why?

Let’s look at a few options. Wild animals come from the wild; getting a hippopotamus to the Bronx or Nebraska involves, at some point in that animal’s lineage, an abduction, presumably a painful and frightening one. It also often involves unscrupulous characters or corrupt, sometimes colonial governments that facilitate that abduction. While this is all too common, much of it is of the past; modern Western zoos get their animals from breeding programs, often generations old, or as the confiscated or donated remains of illicit animal trafficking. The unease associated with animal captivity is not that of knowledge of a crime long ago, but of one being perpetrated before the spectator.

Perhaps the most obvious ongoing issue with captivity is that it limits the animal’s freedom. I would not want to live with my choices as constrained as a zoo animal’s choices are. While this is a more plausible candidate for the source of the discomfort, this worry does not stand up to scrutiny. Freedom cannot be its own reward for an animal without a concept of freedom; it loses nothing by being unfree if it still gets the advantages of freedom. Most of those advantages are provided by well-equipped zoos; they are safe, they have food, they can mate and form appropriate social bonds.

However, the animals are often deprived in a less tangible way. While given security, satiety, or society, they lack the opportunity to pursue them in the same way as their wild counterparts. Now, much like freedom, the good of pursuit is likely too abstract for it to be of independent value to animals. Also like the case of freedom, this does not mean that pursuit is of no value. Because zoos are supplying the ends of pursuit, any missing goods associated with it have to do with the pursuit process. 

Speaking in general terms, wild animals pursue their goods by exercising their capacities. The gibbon swings, the aardvark searches, the elephant remembers— animals in the wild have to use their aptitudes to get what they need and want. The same is not true in captivity where human caregivers keep animals from needing to forage, flee, or fight. However, though a product of animal’s unfreedom, this deprivation should not be conflated with unfreedom; a prisoner could be stretched to the limit of her mental and physical capacities. Zoo animals aren’t.

More or less literally, animals do not get enough exercise in zoos. At the physical level, this can have deleterious health effects, most of which are more than compensated for by medical care, safety, and a nutritious diet. By contrast, nothing seems to be making up for the lack of mental exercise in zoos. Not needing to search, navigate, or respond to problems, to say nothing of the comparative dearth of novel stimuli, would mean the zoo animals need far less going on upstairs. In fact, we see evidence of this in the smaller brain sizes of domesticated animals as compared to their wild counterparts.

 What is the experience of not having one’s mental capacity’s put to use? Sometimes, we call this rest or relaxation, but life is opposed to eternal rest. What happens when the vacation lasts too long? Boredom. Zoo animals are bored, and we bore them. More in the frame of the argument, we deprive them of the good, something between fulfillment and entertainment, of using one’s mental abilities. The way we can tell this is a good is how downcast animals, including humans, become when not given stimulation. In extreme cases, animals, including humans in solitary confinement, develop “stereotyped behaviors” which is a veterinary term used to describe repetitive and abnormal motions of the limbs and head, often in a swinging motion.

We impose boredom on at least some zoo animals. This is perhaps the central harm to those adapted to extensively use their mental capacities, like many predators and solitary herbivores. It is responsible for the unease we feel at seeing them in captivity; we can see this in noting how much stronger our aversion is to animals in boring, barren cages as opposed to more naturalistic habitats. It is beyond the scope of this argument to establish how wrong this may be, but note that, if someone were to wish perpetual boredom on you, this would be more curse than blessing. Given that the other candidates for the wrongness of wild animal captivity were found lacking, even this indeterminate wrong could be the gravest of those essential to operating zoos.

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