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Ethical Treatment of Animals (July 2015): Zoos, Aquaria, Circuses, and Other Exhibits of Live Animals

By Walter Hogan and Eric Owen

Zoos, Aquaria, Circuses, and Other Exhibits of Live Animals

Exotic wild animals long have been captured, confined, and exhibited for the amusement of spectators.  Some animals captured in the wild also have been required to perform for human audiences.  Susan Nance’s Entertaining Elephants takes a modern, animal rights-informed perspective on what can be inferred from the historical record about the lives of circus elephants between 1800 and 1940.  These intelligent and highly social animals were treated abysmally, and even the best-intentioned keepers could not adequately provide for their needs.  David Kirby’s Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity describes some of the negative consequences of keeping these large, intelligent, and social animals confined in tiny, dreary facilities and making them perform for paying audiences.  A passionate argument against the institution of zoos is made by Derrick Jensen in Thought to Exist in the Wild.  Accompanying the text are beautiful photographs of dispirited zoo animals by Karen Tweedy-Homes.  Jensen dismantles the metaphor of the “Ark” often claimed by modern zoos, pointing out that zoos are breeding only a tiny fraction of endangered species; that captive-bred offspring are no longer wild creatures; and that zoos spend far more on marketing than on animal care.  Journalist Peter Laufer’s No Animals Were Harmed takes readers on a tour of many less prominent animal recreation venues, including those involving cockfighting, canned hunting, and roadside attractions.   In his presentations of these varied settings, the author repeatedly invites readers to judge when animal use becomes abuse.

Irus Braverman’s Zooland: The Institution of Captivity arrives at a more nuanced perspective.  Braverman, a legal scholar and geographer, immersed herself in the zoo community, conducting many interviews of ordinary zoo staff, as well as some interviews of zoo administrators and animal rights activists.  Braverman relates that zoo staff are dismayed to find themselves the target of animal rights activists, just as zoos are evolving from purely entertainment venues to assume education and conservation priorities.  Jesse Donahue and Erik Trump’s The Politics of Zoos is another balanced portrait.  Donahue and Trump see the criticism by animal advocates as important in bringing about improvements in zoo animal welfare, though, of course, such improvements do not satisfy animal rights activists who want to eliminate zoos altogether.  Both books describe the massive efforts of the zoo community to coordinate captive breeding plans for numerous species, and the occasional conflicts between species breeding goals and the public’s attachment to popular local zoo residents that are to be relocated for breeding purposes.  Lastly, Zoo Animal Welfare by Terry Maple and Bonnie Perdue eschews politics and simply describes successful zoo practices and features that can meet the institution’s recreational, educational, and conservation goals, while also providing good homes for captive animals.

Works Cited