In defence of keeping (some) animals in captivity

As a Zoology graduate, I had a surprising experience when visiting Chicago’s Lincoln Park zoo this summer: I came across an animal that I was completely unfamiliar with. Was it a furry cow? A stocky deer? The sign informed me that it was a Sichuan takin, or a “large goat antelope” from the Tibetan plateau. Discovering the existence of a group of mammals that I had never come across in my 21 years on the planet – not to mention three years at university – illustrated the important educational role of zoos more clearly than any scholarly evaluation. In an opinion piece for BBC Wildlife magazine, Chris Packham endorsed zoos as places of learning – before calling for them to “cut (most of) the ‘captive breeding for release’ crap”.

My first Sichuan takin, at Lincoln Park Zoo, 2015. Credit to Kathy Darragh.
My first Sichuan takin, at Lincoln Park Zoo, 2015. Credit to Kathy Darragh.

I wonder what he would say about the Bali starling. This beautiful bird went extinct in the wild about 10 years ago but has since been reintroduced through conservation initiatives (such as the Balinese Begawan Foundation’s Bali Starling Conservation Project) supported by stock and expertise from the international zoo community. The British and Irish Association for Zoos and Aquaria includes the Bali starling in their list of the top 10 birds benefitting most from zoos, and BCM will get the chance to visit a supporting institution, Waddesdon Manor Aviary, next term.

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A Bali starling at Bristol Zoo, 2012. Credit to Ben Westcott.

Since our lecture regarding Bali starling conservation, I’ve been reflecting on a few issues relating to animals in captivity, including captive breeding for conservation, the news about SeaWorld and the application of ethics.

The fate of the world’s rarest duck rests very heavily on captive breeding. The Madagascan pochard was assumed extinct since the last sighting in 1991, but was rediscovered in 2006: just 13 individuals on a single lake. Shortly afterwards, conservationists brought in some eggs for captive breeding with the aim of creating a local ‘safety net’ population – which now numbers 75. The collaborating organisations, including the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (which houses wildfowl collections at some of its reserves) and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Jersey Zoo), have shared their avicultural expertise with conservationists from Asity Madagascar to enhance the effectiveness of this in situ conservation.

A similar programme has already brought resounding success for California’s Channel Islands fox, which was downlisted 3 categories from Critically Endangered to Near Threatened in 2013 as a result of in situ captive breeding following guidelines developed at Santa Barbara Zoo. These examples highlight the three ways in which zoos can be important conservation assets:

  • species can go extinct in the wild but not be lost forever due to zoo stock
  • zoo staff gain skills which can be applied directly to in situ conservation
  • zoo animals can inform the conservation of their wild relatives through research into best practice.

For these reasons I argue that many zoos can justify their existence through captive breeding – even if they do not hold endangered species.

However, Chris Packham is right to implore zoos to critically “phase out unsuitable species”. He was especially referring to cetaceans, which have been in the news recently with the announcement that SeaWorld San Diego will phase out its orca display. I am certainly not alone in the view that holding such large and intelligent animals in aquaria for our entertainment is morally wrong: in a response article Philip Hoare declared that ‘keeping orcas captive demeans us as humans’, while visitor numbers to SeaWorld parks have plummeted since the release of ‘Blackfish’ in 2013. Although SeaWorld plants to keep its orcas (in a “more natural setting”), their claim to avoid wild capture and the California state prohibition of captive breeding may ensure that these are the last orcas imprisoned in San Diego.

SeaWorld. Released under Creative Commons CC0.
SeaWorld. Released under Creative Commons CC0.

This should also be a discussion point in the UK, since ‘Dolphin Cove’ attractions have been proposed for the Turks and Caicos Islands, one of our Overseas Territories. While the Islands’ Governor, with a mind to tourism revenue, recently amended the law to allow confinement of dolphins for display, the former Director of the Department of Environment and Marine Affairs is worried that this “moral equivalent of slavery” will erode their image as an environmentally-friendly holiday destination. We should hold the government to account on its “international obligations for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the Overseas Territories”.

At a recent meeting of the Oxford University Animal Ethics Society, I was surprised to find that some members would not condone holding a wild animal in captivity under any circumstances, since they saw this as a violation of its individual rights. I agree that it evidently harms cetaceans to keep them in tiny aquaria and force them to perform for our entertainment, but I also believe that we have a duty to preserve species (especially if they have been threatened through our actions). If we were to find a remaining population of the Yangtze river dolphin, I would unreservedly support bringing the last individuals into a suitably large and enriched enclosure for captive breeding. As a conservation student in favour of zoos, I think a key avenue of conservation science research should be their improvement. After all, in the words of Gerald Durrell: “What would have happened if Florence Nightingale had decided to shut down hospitals rather than work in them?”.

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