The Morality of Zoos

I never used to think about the morality of zoos. I went to the San Diego Zoo once as a child, and I loved seeing all the exotic animals up close. It was such a different experience than watching them on the Discovery channel. More often, my family would drive around animal parks, which were much larger expanses of land where the animals could roam around and intermingle. They were still surrounded by a fence and received food and medical care from the park rangers, but they were not partitioned into cells, and there were no bars or concrete in sight. Visitors' cars travelled around an elevated road outside the fence, such that the visual effect was that of peering down into a rolling savanna contained inside a giant land basin. Only recently did I awaken to the fact that some people object to the existence of zoos. Reading a recent CNN article got me thinking about the issue again.

When we imprison a person who has been accused or convicted of a crime, society at large does not object to his being deprived of freedom, it being somehow in the name of justice. Yet when we imprison a wild animal, it may be for any number of reasons:

  • It may be an interesting and/or rare specimen.
  • It may have ventured into human territory.
  • Human territory may have expanded to include territory in which it lives.
  • Humans may view it or certain of its body parts as harvestable commodities.

Judging the morality of any of these reasons is difficult, as morality regarding non-human life does not follow the same conventions which form the ethics regarding human life. I presume this is because we consider ourselves superior to other life forms and therefore not subject to the same rules we impose on them, or else we are driven by the instinct to exert as much control over our environment as possible.

The two concepts that humans seem to grasp when everything else is awash in moral ambiguity, "Survival of the Fittest" and "He who has the power dictates the rules," are governed by no moral code but simply observable fact. As one of the most dominant species on the planet, we have the luxury of being able to dictate the rules for not only ourselves but many other organisms as well. We are free to say, "We shall confine animals for our own benefit." Whether it is truly in our best interests to do so is unclear. Does it harm us to profit from the suffering of another creature, and if so, does that harm ultimately outweigh the profit?

Try to ponder this before reaching the zoo's ticket window, please. You're holding up the line. As for me, I'll be at the aquarium.