i January 15, 2014




For many years ISAR has argued that Zoological Societies are an abomination, and should not be supported by individuals, taxpayers, organizations, or anyone else. There is much to be said against the continued existence of zoos, and there are many articles and some books that make a convincing case for their closure. (Among the latter is Peter Batten’s Living Trophies.) Some, but by no means all, of those arguments are:

* Zoo animals are often acquired from dealers who, in turn, have obtained them by illegal and brutal means.

* They are transported to their destinations, often over great distances, in a primitive manner with little, if any, regard to what kind of treatment their species requires.

* They are subject to attacks by vandals, and even psychopaths.

* They are often held in sterile cells or cages, suffering the debilitating effects of solitary confinement.

* They receive inadequate nutrition eating unpalatable synthetic food and have inadequate medical care — and suffer illness and disease because of zoos’ financial constraints and zookeepers’ indifference.

* They are traded like baseball cards among zoos and other animal exhibitors, to satisfy perceived display needs.

* They are cross-bred, creating animals called “tigons” or “ligers,” that are, Frankenstein-like, neither tigers or lions.

* They are denied the life dictated by their genes and nature.

These are but a few of the many good reasons zoos should cease to exist, and each of them have been elaborated at great length elsewhere. (How that is to be done is the subject of another essay.)

But the most fundamental objection to zoos, understood and expressed by only a small segment of today’s animal rights movement, is that zoos are an immoral enterprise because they exploit and abuse living creatures for the entertainment of the crowd, and in so doing so cause and perpetuate immeasurable suffering.

Zoos are an outrageous affront to the nature and dignity of the animals imprisoned there. The humans who gawk at zoo inhabitants are co-conspirators in the crime perpetrated against the captive animals.

Why, then, do they exist?

Geordie Duckler has written incisively at 3 Animal Law 189 that:

Zoo animals are currently regarded as objects by the state and federal courts and are perceived as manifesting the legal attributes of amusement parks. The few tort [civil wrong] liability cases directly involving zoos tend to view them as markets rather than as preserves; the park animals are viewed as dangerous recreational machinery more akin to roller coasters or Ferris wheels than to living creatures. Courts typically treat zoo keepers and owners as mechanics and manual laborers responsible for the maintenance of these dangerous instrumentalities. Disputes concerning the possession, sale and care of exotic animals, as well as the administration of the habitats in which such animals are housed, have also been treated by the courts in terms of control of materials for public exhibit and entertainment.

Note the words that we have italicized, chosen carefully by Duckler to describe captive animals imprisoned in zoos: objects, machinery, instrumentalities, materials.

In other words, zoo animals, though living creatures, are considered to be nothing more than inanimate objects.

Consider the reality of that perspective. Primates, large cats, the magnificent elephants are no different from chairs, cars, yarn.

How, one should ask, is this possible conceptually? How can animals, that breathe, eat, drink, sleep, walk, climb, run, copulate, fear, nurture, reproduce, be considered mere inanimate objects?

Putting aside bloody biblical texts, Greco-Roman barbarity, and the influential anti-animal views of Thomas Aquinas, the father of current prevailing attitudes about animals was renowned Christian philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes. He held that animals were automatons — literally! Decartes asserted that lacking a Christian “soul,” they possessed no consciousness. Lacking a consciousness, he concluded, they experienced neither pleasure nor pain.

Decartes’s belief was a convenient one because it allowed him to rationalize the dissection of unanesthetized living creatures — all in the name of advancing the knowledge of anatomy.

If “advancing knowledge” as an excuse sounds familiar, let’s look at some of the major excuses for the existence of zoos today.

Zoos supposedly “teach people about animals” — as the captive creatures pace interminably in cages, often in solitary confinement, or inhabit the same indoor/outdoor enclosure for life while humans at best throw them Cracker Jacks and at worst firecrackers.

Zoos allegedly provide scientists an opportunity to study the prisoners — while they no longer act as their genes and instinct drive them, neither seeking food nor roaming through natural habitats.

Zoos presumably support breeding programs, especially of endangered species, both as an end in itself and to use the animals as barter with other zoos.

Even if these and other “practical” rationalizations for the existence of zoos were defensible, and they are not, none of them should be allowed to trump the fact that zoos are an immoral enterprise because they exploit and abuse living creatures for the entertainment of the crowd, and in doing so cause and perpetuate immeasurable suffering.

It is in the name of moral principle that zoos should be abolished, for the benefit of the captive “living trophies.”

If one wants to help animals, this way is among the easiest: Boycott zoos, and tell everyone you know to do the same.

And tell them why.