Animals should not be entertainment

A trainer was killed by an orca at Sea World in Orlando. This sort of thing, while tragic, is also inevitable if humans interact closely with wild predators who are displayed for public entertainment.

There are several reasons commonly given for confining animals in zoos and aquariums:

1.  Education of the public, not only teaching them about animals but also promoting conservation.

2.  Scientific research on the biology of captive animals, sometimes with an eye to helping save them in the wild.

3.  Breeding endangered animals so they can be reintroduced into the wild.

4.  Providing the last refuge for a species that will inevitably go extinct.

5.  Entertainment for the public, which makes profits for the exhibitors.

Not all of these reasons should be accepted uncritically.  How many of the public really learn a lot about biology, as opposed to being entertained, by going to a zoo? And does that knowledge translate into new impetus for conservation in the wild?

And how much do we really learn about the behavior of wild animals from studying them in captivity?  Maybe some, but most captive species are not being studied in this way, and even those studies often concentrate on zoo-related questions: what kind of diet keeps a captive animal in good condition?  In a hilarious essay on zoos, H. L. Mencken made this point:

A college professor studying the habits of the giraffe, for example, and confining his observations to specimens in zoos, would inevitably come to the conclusion that the giraffe is a sedentary and melancholy beast, standing immovable for hours at a time and employing an Italian to feed him hay and cabbages.

Against these benefits, even if real and not the product of zoo hype, we should weigh the misery and unhappiness of captive animals, especially those animals that, we think, are capable of conscious suffering.  To me, at least, this is a serious factor.  What gives humans the right to extract an animal from its environment—an environment to which it is adapted and in which it presumably knows how to make a living—and turn it into a sort of sideshow exhibit?  This becomes especially serious when the animals, like elephants and lions, are social, and can’t be kept in captivity with a decent-sized social group. Mencken again:

Of the abominable cruelties practised in zoos it is unnecessary to make mention. Even assuming that all the keepers are men of delicate natures and ardent zoophiles (which is about as safe as assuming that the keepers of a prison are all sentimentalists, and weep for the sorrows of their charges), it must be plain that the work they do involves an endless war upon the native instincts of the animals, and that they must thus inflict the most abominable tortures every day. What could be a sadder sight than a tiger in a cage, save it be a forest monkey climbing despairingly up a barked stump, or an eagle chained to its roost? How can man be benefitted and made better by robbing the seal of its arctic ice, the hippopotamus of its soft wallow, the buffalo of its open range, the lion of its kingship, the birds of their air?

And if your response is that, well, animals don’t look as if they’re suffering, I’d say that in some cases they do. In my lifetime of visiting zoos and aquariums, I’ve seen tons of repetitive, to-and-fro movement in cages and tanks, movement that is usually seen by biologists as pathological.  I once saw a seal doing this in a small pool in Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. I complained to the management, but they acted as if I were nuts.  And if Martian zoologists were to observe the behavior of inmates of a Federal prison, they might well conclude that those inmates were happy, well taken care of, and, indeed, might really prefer to be in the prison rather than outside.

Like inmates, captive animals don’t get that choice. They’re lifers.

Oh, and on the downside there is also the mortality of humans who tend these animals. We saw what happened at Sea World, and that beast had already killed two people.   Until some zoos started adopting a “no contact with the animals” policy for large, unpredictable mammals, the most dangerous job in America was that of an elephant keeper.

As a biologist who cares about animal well being, I rank the motives above, in decreasing order of importance, 3, (4, 1), 2, 5.

And here is my opinion:  the “benefits” of keeping some mammals in captivity are outweighed by the suffering that captivity imposes on those mammals.   (And yes, I know that many zoo animals, like orcas and lions, are bred in captivity, but that doesn’t solve the problem of putting a genome evolved to live in natural environments into what is, in effect, an animal prison.) Let’s stop putting orcas, dolphins, elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, lions, chimps and the like on public display.  If the public wants to see them, isn’t it better to see them behaving naturally, in videos shot in the wild?

The most disgusting form of mammal captivity is the kind conducted by organizations like Sea World.  In the interests of filling their coffers, they put marine mammals, evolved to range for hundreds of miles across open waters, into confined spaces.  Worse—they teach them tricks and make people pay to see those tricks. (An adult ticket to Sea World in Orlando costs $78.95!)  They may pay lip service to conservation, or education, but let’s face it: they’re there to make money.  What other point is there to making animals do tricks before large paying audiences?  If you want to engage the animals, there are other ways.

Humans were once displayed in zoos, but thankfully that practice has stopped.  Humans from other nations and cultures are not entertainment.  Neither are lions, elephants, orcas, and dolphins. Those who keep and display such animals for profit are contemptible.


  1. James
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    You’ll probably be swamped with additional reasons, but one that makes sense to me is a place for severely injured animals that will never make it in the wild.

    • Selena
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      Yes, we should help injured animals, but after the treatment they should not be expected to earn their living by performing circus tricks.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        Brilliant. So let me ask you: who is going to pay for it? Do you really think the government is going to pay for every injured animal we find for the rest of its life? We are not talking only food (which is a lot for highly active half-ton animal), but also housing, staff, medical expenses (which will be considerable for an injured marine mammal, they almost never have just one thing wrong with them), and so on. That is never going to happen. So where is the money to support these animals going to come from? Wealthy donors? Those are few and far between, and there is a lot of causes they can give their money to. That leaves one thing: visitors. And performances by marine mammals is a very effective way to draw visitors.

        There is also the issue with the injured animals that get released. They need food, medicine, veterinary visits, transportation, housing, multiple people monitoring them 24 hours a day, and clean water. Where is the money for that going to come from?

        So yeah, it would be nice if we lived in an ideal world where every injured marine mammal we find can be sent to a resort where it can live the rest of its life doing whatever it wants. But unfortunately we live in the real world, and the money to take care of these creatures has to come from somewhere. This is the best anyone has come up with. If you don’t like it, then put your money where your mouth is and donate enough money to these organizations that they don’t have to do this anymore. Or would you rather we just kill any animal we can’t release?

        Now I am not saying that places like sea world are a good idea, I am talking about dedicated non-profit animal rescue and rehabilitation facilities like Mote Marine Laboratory.

      • Selena
        Posted February 27, 2010 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        Well, I post a comment, I must admit it’s a very simplistic one, and a kitty pounces and tears me into shreds. Please accept my apology if in my haste I’ve stepped on your tail.

        Seriously, I have a great respect for the work of non-profit animal rescue and rehabilitation centres, and I do support them in any way I’m able to. The dedication of the volunteers that work there is admirable indeed.

        Would it not be too much to ask if animals are to be used for entertaining purposes could that possibly be managed in a way that wouldn’t involve endangering the animal handlers? Shouldn’t their safety be the paramount?
        I believe large predators such as killer whales shouldn’t be engaged in such practices for obvious reasons.

        Someone here mentioned snake handling. Well, that’s a good idea as snakes are generally misunderstood creatures, and mutual understanding should be beneficial to both people and snakes. It could save lives. Don’t you think so?

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted February 27, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        What makes you think the animal handlers are in danger? This isn’t sea world, they don’t get in the tank with the animals (not the permanent ones, at least).

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      When treating wild animals for injuries there is always a concern that they will grow too attached to the humans, expect to be cared for, and not return to the wild as they should. If you have a raptor for example, the bird might keep coming back after being released and not only expecting to be fed but getting aggressive (like seagulls since silly people always feed them) and attacking people. If you treat a large animal like the North American brown bear and it keeps coming back, the animal would have to be shot.

  2. Dilaceratus
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Compassion for the suffering of other beings need not be irrational, and science and scientists don’t benefit from being stereotyped as disinterested, cold technicians. It is encourahing to see prominent atheist scientists publicly taking this thoughtful position on animal welfare, taking a strongly ethical viewpoint without wandering into militant PeTA or ELF territory.

  3. litchik
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I used to take my kids to zoos, even though I was ambivalent about holding the animals in captivity. Then one day I asked a zoo keeper what had happened to a young giraffe’s ear. The answer: stressed out mom giraffe had chewed it off.

    I can’t really believe that closely watched, loud captivity is the best way to breed endangered animals. And while I do value education, I also think we could do more to help habitats if we spent money with the communities where the habitats are endangered.

    At any rate, the death of this trainer and the captivity of the orcas are both tragedies. We should learn from the one to stop the other.


    • James Brown
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      I am working for the BBC in London,on a global discussion show called Word Have Your Say. We are looking for people with strong opinions on animals in captivity and I think you could be a good caller for our show. The programme goes out live at 1800 GMT, please email me if interested and provide a telephone number, many thanks, James.

  4. Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link. I didn’t know this: “During the Renaissance, the Medicis developed a large menagerie in the Vatican. In the 16th century, Cardinal Hippolytus Medici had a collection of people of different races as well as exotic animals. He is reported as having a troup of ‘Barbarians’, speaking over twenty languages and there were also Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks and Africans.”

    My opinion of the Catholic Church has once again slipped into exponentially unretrievable territory.

  5. Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    This is how my wife feels. Personally: I can say that I was astonished at actually standing and watching the monkeys: “gee…they really are like us…how can anyone doubt the “common ancestor” theory”.

    When I see zebras I am struck by how much they look like “painted horses” (niche filling). Seeing these things in person really drives them home in a way that video does not.

    But at the same time…yeah, sadly I have to agree to the “cruelty” point.

    I think that this type of thing is better:

    Wildlife Prairie Park

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Yeah, but is it worth keeping bunches of wild primates in cages just so you can get that feeling of common ancestry? Couldn’t you get it nearly as easily from videos?

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        “but is it worth keeping bunches of wild primates in cages just so you can get that feeling of common ancestry? ”

        Sigh…I’d have to say “no”.


  6. Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I’m still amazed that this kind of tragedy is not a lot more common. Large predators do not make safe pets — they can kill a human without meaning to, and after all we are made of meat (and smell like it).

    I like zoos, and I think they often do a great job educating the public and sometimes supporting research, but I’ve seen a lot of very pitiful-looking animals in them, too.

    Jerry raises some good points.

  7. Barry
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    If you want the ultimate story on captive animal abuse you should Google the account of the 1916 execution of a circus elephant who killed her trainer in Tennessee. Convicted of “murder” and sentenced by a judge to hang; they carried out the execution with a steel cable, and a construction crane mounted on a railroad car. No doubt the same mentality exists in places today, and you will hear people recommending that the whale be killed.

  8. Selena
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I agree with Dr Coyne. Animals should not be entertainment unless they are in the nature videos hosted by Sir David Attenborough.

  9. spurge
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    That H. L. MENCKEN essay was written quite a long time ago.

    Zoo’s are much different now than they were even 30 years ago let alone almost 100.

    Using that essay was less than fair to today’s zoo’s.

    Sea World is certainly not a zoo and I would not trust anything that they say.

  10. Steve C
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Many of these animals would surely go into the wild and kill other animals, in more often than not eating them alive. For someone concerned about ethics, why should an animal’s psychological well-being override the inevitable destruction and pain they’ll be driven by their natures to unleash once released?

    And on that note, maybe zoos aren’t the place to concentrate your fire if your goal is to minimize suffering in the animal kingdom…there are a whole slew of predators one could argue ought to be hunted to extinction that would further this goal much more effectively.

    “Those who keep and display such animals for profit are contemptible.”

    That last line is revealing. Why should profit be anything but a neutral fact? What’s so intrinsically bad about profit? It’s as if you think the suffering of animals is kind of bad, but man, the fact that PEOPLE are making a PROFIT – that closes the case.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      It is hard not to heap contempt on such an argument but I’ll try.

      You ask what is wrong with doing something for profit? Let me see… Profit is a selfish motive. Profit seeking (all else being equal) is inrinsically selfish.

      There are other possible reasons to display animals. I believe I read at least 5 possible motivations recently. I can’t seem to remember where, though… Oh what, that’s right, at the top of this page.

      Four of those reasons were tradeoffs that involved benefitting the species of the animal in captivity, whereas the profit motive for Sea World investors does no such thing. If showing orcas didn’t produce a profit, I’ve no doubt SW would stop showing them.

      So, profit is not neutral. It is a very strong incentive. And incentives can motivate bad behavior as well as good. I believe that in this case, Jerry argues that a selfish incentive motivated a tragedy for the trainer and a terrible situation for many of these animals around the world.

      Any other questions?

      • Steve C
        Posted February 28, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        “Profit is a selfish motive. Profit seeking (all else being equal) is inrinsically selfish.”

        I don’t see why natural animal torture ought to be any less of an outrage than that instigated by humans, especially if the animal-on-animal torture is potentially controllable by humans.

        People have all sorts of complex motives for how they act. Take the profit out and people will seek prominence in the community or power. If you truly care about animal well-being I don’t see why motives ought to be anything but irrelevant.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Isn’t the point that profiting at another’s pain contemptible?

      (In this case, the “other” is an animal, but the moral principle still holds.)

      Most of us make a living at profiting at something, but as long as we aren’t hurting others in the process it’s not morally wrong.

      • Steve C
        Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        “Isn’t the point that profiting at another’s pain contemptible?”

        Yes, I don’t think anyone would disagree.

        The zoo question is an interesting case of what it takes to make people morally outraged.

        For instance unless you’re a vegan, you’re funding a whole slew of practices around animals much worse than what goes on in a zoo. I would guess that it’s not much of a topic here because you shop for food in a grocery store – the store and food distribution system act as a buffer, your moral sense doesn’t give it equal weight because the torture isn’t occurring right in front of you.

        And I guess you’re also saying that it’s not animal suffering that concerns you, it’s that people are making that happen. The magic of the “natural” makes suffering ok though.

        I’ll go ahead and throw out a guilty white liberal accusation: something about the combination of corporations profiting from some thing, where the thing is conveniently viewable by you, and especially where you participate in paying for the thing – that makes people feel bad, guilty. The overall justice of the situation is not a concern, what people want is the shortest possible path to making themselves feel better. Or displaying their outrage to others in the community to score points.

        My Nikes are made by a union shop somewhere? Phew, don’t have to worry about poor people anymore. Zoos are gone? Phew, don’t have to think about animal welfare anymore.

    • mattb
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Well, you’ll never convince everyone. I think it is contemptible with or without profit. So is chaining elephants and beating them with metal prods for a circus act. It’s stupid and dangerous too. Along with things like sticking your head in a lion’s mouth and keep chimpanzees for pets. When a lion tamer has his head swallowed and eaten, I never feel sorry for the guy.

      • Steve C
        Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        Agreed. Circuses in particular are pretty bad offenders.

    • Andy Kaye
      Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      There is certainly a difference between human-interference and natural order. Yes, in the wild, animals will kill and eat other animals. They’re supposed to, they have to survive after all. And what, exactly, do you think they are fed in captivity? At some point, all those gallons of fish (in the case of Orcas) they eat in a day were alive, just as they would have been in the wild.
      I’m not saying I completely agree with this article, I don’t. I certainly think there are situations in which captivity can be useful (I particularly think the issue of re-population by breeding in captivity is underplayed above.) I just think your argument has flaws. If I’ve misunderstood, feel free to correct me.

  11. mattb
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Several years ago I went to the National Zoo in DC and then a couple years ago I took my niece and nephew to the Baltimore Zoo. Both experiences were boring and sad. It really isn’t even entertaining. And the “ape houses” will make you cry.

    I loved the Mencken article. ” I enjoy hangings, particularly of converts to the evangelical faiths.” My kind of guy. He was brutal.

    • Artikcat
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      So they did in the South, not so long ago- I mean a lot of hanging-

  12. Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Well having once been an elephant keeper in a (comparatively humane and well-managed) zoo, I agree. The longer I worked with the elephants, the more convinced I became that we just couldn’t offer them anything that compensated them for the crappy confined physically inactive lives we forced on them. At least with some animals the 1) safety from predators and 2) medical care seem possibly worth the price (of course this is just fuzzy guesswork), but with phants it just doesn’t.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Are their lives worse than in the wild, with the near-constant threat of predation, disease and starvation?

      I honestly don’t know — I’m just asking for your impression.

      The ultra-cramped conditions are obviously pretty terrible, and at least in the wild they wouldn’t have to face that.

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Well that’s why I say fuzzy guesswork. I think the threat of predation is a good deal lower than it is for most animals because of their size and numbers. They’re not like cats – they’re not happy to just sleep all day. They’re restless, curious, active beasts – and I suppose that’s why the longer I worked with them the more convinced I became that we were giving them a crap bargain.

        Another factor, weirdly, was discovering that in one way even Ringling Brothers does better by them than we did. Circus elephants at least get a good workout when they arrive in town and when they leave. We (the three phant keepers) went downtown to watch them arrive one day, and we were all struck with envy. They go at a run, and the trip is about three miles. Those elephants are all in good shape. Ours were fat. We felt bad.

        Zoo conditions just aren’t very healthy for elephants – they’re used to a lot of walking. They don’t do laps.

      • TheBlackCat
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        For adults, yes, there are few predators. For young, though they are very vulnerable. And environmental hazards as significant in both cases, I believe.

      • Posted February 27, 2010 at 4:40 am | Permalink

        Well the young aren’t as vulnerable as most young are, that’s why I said ‘numbers’ along with size – the young are usually surrounded by a herd, and then even a calf that strays is vulnerable only to big predators.

  13. Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I once saw a seal doing this in a small pool in Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. I complained to the management, but they acted as if I were nuts.

    Well then they were bullshitting you. They know perfectly fucking well that it’s a problem – it’s impossible not to at this point (I assume you didn’t complain to the management in about 1950).

    I once saw a small nocturnal mammal (I forget which one) doing it in a nightmarishly tiny exhibit – just a flat box about the size of a tv screen – in the Nocturnal House at Regent’s Park Zoo in London. I was absolutely shocked – because Regent’s Park has a reputation as a good, modern, humane zoo; I was stunned that they still had animals in exhibits of that kind, displaying their agonized insanity for all to see. I tottered away, and then saw a keeper – I talked to him and he knew all about it. It wasn’t his idea to keep animals in that condition.

    And spare a thought for the animals that are fed to the exhibit animals. No one gives a flying fuck about them – not even at supposedly humane zoos. They’re just kept in nasty little boxes, with nothing to do, until they’re killed and fed to the snakes and owls. Even the keepers don’t give a flying fuck about them – which always mystified me when I was a keeper.

  14. Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I think when it comes to zoos, the problems lie with the specific practices and with the attitudes of the workers, not with the concept of a zoo itself. While I agree with Jerry (and many of the previous commenters here) on the issue of animal suffering, he misses the mark on education. Many zoos–especially many of the larger institutions–have substantial in-house and community outreach programs. For countless people, zoos are the only places they will ever see such a wide variety of live animals. And kids and adults alike are much more likely to be attracted to the study of biology and conservation by interacting with–or even just looking at–live animals than they are learning from a textbook. So perhaps the design and management of zoos need a major overhaul, but to say their education value is negligible and the benefits thus aren’t sufficient to outweigh the costs is naive and does a huge disservice to the efforts of those of us advocating for more involvement by scientists with communities.

    Note that my feelings on this matter don’t extend to places like Sea World that are obviously primarily for entertainment (don’t get me started on circuses).

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Well, there are a number of testable assertions here, and I’m not sure all of them—much less any of them—have been tested. First, do kids who go to zoos really turn out to become biologists or conservationists more often than those who don’t? And if they do, is that because going to the zoos produces this effect, or because those who have biophilia already simply go to zoos more? (That was the situation in my case.) And do we know that actually seeing a live rhino or lion promotes the study of biology more than does a video? Has it been tested?

      All this stuff about education sounds good, but I’m not sure we have the data, though I’d be glad to hear it if we do. And even then you have to weigh those benefits against the torture of a caged elephant or lion.

      I did not say anywhere that their educational value is “negligible,” by the way. I said that it might be outweighed by animal suffering. Is it not worth considering whether confining an elephant into a small enclosure might outweigh the marginal effect that elephant has on turning young Sally into a biologist? And whether she might be just as inclined to become a biologist by looking at a large and more humane enclosure full of jerboas?

      I’d like to take a survey of kids before and after they go to zoos, asking them questions about the stuff on the cage labels. I suspect they’d be far less “educated” than we’d like to think. Face it, many families go to zoos for the entertainment, not the education. I once followed a group of parents and their kids around the Shedd Aquarium, and almost none of them read the labels saying what the fish were (much less learning about where the fish lived and what they did).

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        I cross-posted with Jerry.

        I bet zoo education departments have collected some data! They’re always very keen to justify their existence…

        Anyway I second the thought that whatever educational benefits there are, some animals just shouldn’t be in captivity.

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        “I’d like to take a survey of kids before and after they go to zoos, asking them questions about the stuff on the cage labels. ” Why not actually look? It’s easy to pop on Google Scholar and see what’s been done. There are numerous studies that show zoos and their educational programs do make an impact, on kids an adults. Like this one, this one, this one, and this one (pdf). There were many other ones, if I’d actually bothered to hunt down the articles themselves. All suggest positive learning occurs at zoos. Moreover, the last one notes:
        “The less educated and less knowledgeable visitors appeared to benefit more from the visit in terms of positive attitude change since they increased their favorable ratings as a result of the visit. This is an encouraging result since there is always danger of “preaching to the choir,” or communicating only with those who already possess the “right” attitudes. This study suggests that the zoo may have a favorable impact on the audience that needs the most persuasion.”

      • mattb
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        It’s the quality of education. Sure kids learn something. They leave the zoo or aquarium saying they saw a this and a that, and animals are cool, and we should save the planet, and we should recycle. Then everyone feels good because these kids are going to “care” about the future of the planet. I saw Jack Hannah defending the importance of zoos earlier today. The fact that zoos are considered so “vital” sums up the problem.

      • Steve C
        Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        “First, do kids who go to zoos really turn out to become biologists or conservationists more often than those who don’t?”

        You’re right that that would be testable. Less testable but perhaps more important might be an early awareness of animals in general, which one could argue makes one more amenable to Singer-like arguments later in life. Maybe you’re helping lay the groundwork for a mass shift in popular sentiment on subjects like farming techniques or veal or fois gras, etc.

        One could guess that a general lack of exposure to animals would lead to a kind of autism on these subjects – you grow up not having much first-hand exposure to animals and therefore these subjects just don’t seem all that important compared to, say, human poverty. Nothing I’m saying is very testable, though, except via surveys.

        We’ve taken my daughter to zoos and farms and I’m pretty convinced that it’s markedly increased her interest in animals. She clearly feels empathy for them (I mean, puts herself in their shoes). But if I had to guess I’d say the farm visits and our cat has the most to do with all that.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Yeh – the educational value is real. But I think zoos need to be very selective about which animals they include.

      Mind you, zoos are well aware of all this, at least the ones I’m familiar with. It was discussed constantly at Woodland Park. But at the same time, practice does not always measure up to principle – as with the food animals.

  15. Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Everyone seems to be glossing over the point about injured or otherwise unreleaseable animals. Most zoos and aquariums don’t require such creatures “to earn their living by performing circus tricks.” The first example that comes to mind is injured sea turtles at a place like Mote Marine Lab, which is both a research facility and an aquarium. I worked with a river otter once at a different aquarium that thought people were his family; yes, he was neurotic, but that wasn’t the zoo’s fault – it was the family that found him orphaned as a baby and decided to raise him like he was a dog. The zoo worked with him, introduced him to other otters, and slowly he became less and less stressed out. He became a very prolific stud, helping the network of zoos and aquariums understand how river otters regulate fertility to aid a captive breeding program.

    My point is firstly that not all animals are cruelly kept. Some, shocking as this might sound, actually benefit from being taken in by zoos or aquariums. Furthermore, it seems that many of the commenters severely underestimate what people gain from these facilities. “Couldn’t you get it nearly as easily from videos?” The answer, simply, is no – not even close. Have you seen the looks of wonder and fascination on a child’s face when they see animals at a zoo? I have. There is nothing like it. I would bring small gators out that the kids could actually touch the tail of, and let me tell you, I’ve never seen a child so overjoyed and intrigued as when given the option to touch an alligator, to feel its leathery skin. And all the while Id tell them more about the animals. I know they learned things – I could hear them run back to their parents telling them all of the little facts I’d just told them. No Discovery channel program compares, no matter how amazing it is. There’s something about seeing something in person – touching something, really experiencing it – that moves people in a way that no video can. Zoos and aquariums are a large part of the reason that I became a conservation biologist.

    Secondly, even if they were all suffering, we can’t just release them all. They don’t have the skills to survive, nor can we teach those to them. Even if we did, what would become of these creatures that are so habituated to being around people? There are towns in Africa that have enough problems with elephants that attack or destroy crops – imagine if we added a couple hundred elephants that aren’t even remotely scared of people! What, exactly, should we do with all of the animals currently in captivity? Just kill them so that they stop suffering? Release them to a certain and quick death?

    • TheBlackCat
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I was also very shocked about the video comment. How can anyone honestly say that seeing something on TV is even remotely comparable to seeing it in person? I can’t disagree that there are ethical problems keeping animals in captivity, but I don’t think “they can see it on TV” is a good argument. There is simply no comparison between seeing something on TV and seeing it in person.

      • MGG
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

        I’ll have to agree with that one. Plus not all video is created equal. I spend a lot of time correcting things people ‘learned’ from video.

        I also take snakes out to show a lot, and I can’t count how many people have left me less afraid of snakes, having a better understanding of why they act the way they do and why they’re important to have around.

  16. Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Worse—they teach them tricks and make people pay to see those tricks.

    Is there something inherently wrong in teaching Orcas tricks? Do they suffer from it? Or do they enjoy it, like dogs clearly do?

  17. ChrisZ
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    How about confining mammals on farms for the purpose of slaughtering and eating them? I ask this not to be snarky, but as a seriously conflicted meat eater.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      I’m mostly OK with the ethics of most sorts of traditional farming, what’s nowadays called “free range”. The animals generally have a much easier life, in better health, than their wild cousins, and they have a quicker, less painful death.

      It’s not like it’s a picnic out there in the wild, either.

      However, cooping animals up in tiny cages in squalid conditions just seems cruel.

      • MadScientist
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately, given the human population density, keeping animals in horrible conditions seems to be a necessary evil at this stage. I wouldn’t mind having a few dozen chickens, a few pigs, a few cows, a few goats – but I’d have to move pretty far from a city to get that. Even though chickens don’t really need all that much space to do well, most cities I’ve been in will not allow me to have chickens (not even hens). People whine about all the clucking (or if you have a rooster, the damned crowing) but they’re quite happy to have loud parties most nights of the week.

        • M.Skyweir
          Posted March 3, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          “given the human population density, keeping animals in horrible conditions seems to be a necessary evil”

          Actually it is an UNnecessary evil. Given the population density, we really should be shifting to vegetarian/vegan diets. Raising animals for food is wasteful and harmful to the environment (in addition to being cruel to the animals). Check out the article in Feb 2009 Scientific American, “How Meat Contributes to Global Warming”. Most of the calories fed to domestic animals for food is lost. A pound of beef requires ~15 pounds of grain to produce and contributes 57 times as much greenhouse gases as producing a pound of potatoes. Meat production contributes 14-22 percent of the world’s CO2 emission.

          It would be better to grow food for humans directly instead of feeding it to other animals first. We could feed a lot more people while decreasing the amount of CO2 emitted and reducing the pressure to cut down tropical rain forests to obtain more farmland.

      • Steve C
        Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        “It’s not like it’s a picnic out there in the wild, either.”

        Yeah quite an understatement. Being eaten alive is your best choice usually, most starve to death, and I think I can safely guess that evolution has made that an excruciatingly terrible experience in every species.

  18. Becca Stareyes
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I’d say that there’s some difference between small animals and large social animals like orcas and lions. It’s easier to give a small animal, or even a small group of animals, enough space and activity to keep it busy and content, rather than looking for some type of stimulus after it gets fed.

    (For that matter some of the large solitary cats would be better choices than lions, if only because they are more critically endangered and need the population reserves and/or captive breeding. So there’s more benefit to keeping one than a lion — and I’d certainly rather see one or two big cats (or small cats) in a large enough space and with keepers devoted to keeping it/them active and psychologically healthy, than a cat house full of pacing tigers.)

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      You’ll need an awful lot of space for big cats; they have an enormous range in the wild. If they want to play games like ‘tag’ (well, the kittehs more than the adults), they need a pretty big space. I don’t know what they’d do to replace their stalking and hunting habits though. In short, space for endangered kittehs probably make best sense as a cordoned area of a large game reserve where the local fauna can be controlled somewhat (a few herd of antelope, zebra, etc for the captive kittehs to hunt on their own, but no natural enemies like lions). I haven’t seen a zoo yet with large enough areas anything like a big cat’s natural range – not to mention zoos aren’t big enough to support the cats’ natural food, so they need to be fed by humans rather than hunt. Zoos sounds like a dubious way at best to do animal conservation on many species though there will doubtless be some animals which a zoo’s resources are capable of sustaining.

  19. Kele Cable
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I had an experience similar to yours when I saw the polar bears in an exhibit at a small zoo in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I had been going there for years and had noticed the polar bears doing the same 10-15 second routine over and over and over again. As a kid, I thought nothing of it; I probably thought they were having fun jumping into the water. When I got older though I realized how absolutely depressing this was. It _was_ cruel. I haven’t gone since and refuse to do so.

    The best example of a “zoo” I have come across is the Minnesota Raptor Center located at the University of Minnesota. They take in any injured raptors and rehabilitate them and the public can go and see the animals while they recover. The benefits are on both sides: The public is both entertained AND educated, and the raptors are rehabilitated and unless they are permanently injured, publicly released into the wild with great applause and happiness.

    That’s what a zoo should be like.

  20. SeanK
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Visiting the Zoo has always made me sad. Seeing animals locked in cages is not entertaining to me. The Zoo in my city has Tigers and other large cats locked up in cages that are way too small. I feel bad for them.

    I would much rather see animals in a nature preserve or on a viewing safari (not to kill them of course). This way you still get the same awe of seeing them in real life but aren’t inflicting unnecessary cruelty on the animals.

    For me, points 3 and 4 are the only reasons to have animals in captivity. There are other ways to educate the public. It’s not like it was in the past where people didn’t have access to television and the Internet, so maybe they couldn’t see what these animals looked like, but there’s no excuse now. I can easily download a video of a whale and see it in it’s natural environment.

    • Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Do you really think seeing a video is the same as seeing something in person? Because I know it’s not for me. Watching Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t give me the same sick feeling in my stomach that seeing a real person bleeding profusely does. Watching an autopsy on CSI or Bones doesn’t arouse the same emotions that seeing a real, dead person would for me. While educational videos are great, the fact is people are far more moved by something they experience in person, and not all of us can afford trips to Africa to go out on safaris.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Umm. . . you have to weigh all this against the suffering of captive large mammals. That was my point. We don’t torture frogs in biology class any more, even though students learned some stuff by pithing frogs. The substitutes may be inferior, but they involve less torture of animals.

        It’s a trade-off. Ditto for the “educational” benefits of zoos. Yes, students may learn some from seeing a captive lion, but they might learn as much from seeing a captive jerboa.

      • Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        And if all zoos did was teach kids a little bit about animals, I’d agree with you. But zoos and aquariums do much more. They contribute to conservation both directly, by being involved in captive breeding programs and providing data on animal behavior, and indirectly, by financially supporting other conservation organizations and inspiring their patrons to do the same. I think that the sum total of their benefits, especially when they exhibit animals that they have rehabilitated and that cannot be released, do outweigh the costs. There might be case examples against this – specific exhibits that are unnecessarily small, for example, and those places need to be redone or shut down.

        While you called what SeaWorld does, for example, “lip service,” the fact is that they have contributed tens of millions of dollars to conservation efforts (outside of their own rehabilitation, funding, and conservation programs, which also cost millions), including to organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and the National Wildlife Federation. I wish I could pay that kind of ‘lip service’ to conservation and education! I’m not saying that SeaWorld is a saint, or an example of how to do large animals in captivity, but they aren’t entirely evil, either, and many zoos and aquariums are much better than they are.

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Animals should not be entertainment, they should be dinner.

    • Jason
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      you’re an animal- who should you be dinner for? orcas?

  22. Josef Uyeda
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I understand the sentiment of not wanting to confine wild animals and use them as entertainment. However, clearly this had to occur at some point for all of our domesticated animals, and clearly it was not without dangers (and still is; dogs kill a lot more people each year than orcas). I can imagine just about every argument being made on this post and in discussions across the web being made against domesticating wolves or cats, yet few would advocate we ban people from keeping the domesticated descendants as pets. In fact, I see it as a problem we have domesticated so few animals. With so few animals, we draw on our small repertoire of existing domestics to overpopulate the earth with homogenous diversity. I for one, would love to be eating Elk, Bison and Deer over cows, pigs and chickens; and I would have preferred having descendants of Tasmanian Tigers competing with the Domestic dog market rather than the situation we have now. Seaworld may be an abuse of wild animals and may be doing nothing toward “domestication” of the orcas (certainly their breeding program is demonstrably not favoring more friendly whales!), and it is questionable as to whether whales are a good candidate for domestication. But to say that wild animals should never be domesticated is extreme and inconsistent for anybody who keeps pets (or eats meat). It’s a difficult process, but clearly one that is beneficial and useful for both the domesticated organisms and for ourselves. Furthermore, we share our planet with other intelligent organisms like Orcas. I think Jerry left off of his list the moral obligation to explore the depth of these organisms intelligence and work toward improving our ability to communicate with them. Dogs have a far higher ability to communicate and understand humans than wild wolves do, and an animal as an intelligent as an Orca could have an even more profound selected response. I think this is important and while Seaworld has it’s faults, it’s probably about the only institution that could actually further this goal.

  23. Artikcat
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Largely forgotten in the discussion are: 1. the status and use of primates and animals at large, in research. 2. Animals as “pets”-being subject to reproductive mutilation and eutanasic “compassionate” practices and 3. The human presence as an invasive species, as exemplied in extremis, by the oddly tragic case-and end, as main course- of “bear man Treadwell”.

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink


      1. What’s wrong with animal research? I’m surprized you haven’t mentioned “vivisection” since people who complain about animal research seem to have this notion that all animal research is vivisection.

      2. Many humans just don’t like to see animals suffer; it’s no fun for a pet owner to kill off their friend. As for the genital mutilation, the alternative is for the animals to breed wantonly and to have numerous wild animals hanging around humans and creating a need to hunt and kill those animals.

      3. Calling something an “invasive species” is ridiculous. Every plant, animal, fungus, and so on naturally spreads. Species introduced by humans in regions previously uninhabited are often called “invasive” but that’s no less ridiculous. In time, other acts of nature may spread such things. Humans just do it far more efficiently. The world is not a static panacea and people need to lose this silly notion of the purity of the local flora and fauna. That’s not to say that humans shouldn’t try to be more careful to avoid destroying existing ecosystems, but the spread of creatures at the expense of other creatures is simply a part of nature.

      • Notagod
        Posted February 27, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        Have you studied the effects of invasive species? The problems can be devastating, the effects of human transported species invasion is far different from naturally transported species. Human transported invasive species are like sneaking up on natural selection and stabbing it in the back (its the christian thing to do.)

  24. Hempenstein
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I went hunting for a story I once heard about the King of Norway in exile in London during WWII and the zoo – didn’t find that, but this fascinating footnote turned up (see Menagerie heading):

    the account of the Ravens below that is interesting too, and serves as a segue to this further footnote:

  25. Neil
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Of course animals can be human entertainment. Bird watching is a form of entertainment by animals. The issue is whether animals should be kept in captivity in order to provide entertainment. A case can be made that they should not, but it is hardly the greatest of moral crimes we humans commit against our animal cousins.

    • Steve C
      Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      well said

  26. mk
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps we close the zoos and use some of the animals for a Pleistocene rewilding of the Americas. I always thought that was a cool idea, if fantastical.

  27. MadScientist
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I guess I’ll have to stop watching plays or TV shows then.

    Wild animals are largely unpredictable; they may be OK with you most of the time, but the rare occasions when they aren’t are never pleasant. Even dogs have their moods. I find it strange that on the one hand people have the impression that dolphins and orcas are always friendly with humans and on the other hand that snakes are evil nasty things that only want to kill you. I just ignore snakes; none have ever done me any harm (not even some of the most venomous on the books). I’m paranoid about large animals like bears (and pack animals like dogs), but wild dog packs have always avoided me and the 3 or 4 bears I’ve seen in the wild couldn’t care less what I was up to (though I wouldn’t push my luck trying to get to know bears). So – why do people get the impression that so many animals are domesticable like dogs (or even the delusion that dogs are not dangerous – house pets kill people pretty much every year) and the similarly false impression that some wild animals are a much greater threat than they really are?

  28. Liam
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Doc Coyne writes: “Humans were once displayed in zoos, but thankfully that practice has stopped.”

    Yes, that was called Eugenics, among other things – the predecessor – sorry, the handmaiden to Darwinian thought. (But that was just a misunderstanding).

    Doc Coyne repudiates: “Humans from other nations and cultures are not entertainment.”

    Is Jim Carrey entertainment? Just asking. Confused about your ‘line in the sand’ proposition.

    Doc C: “Neither are lions, elephants, orcas, and dolphins. Those who keep and display such animals for profit are contemptible.”

    Wowzers! You tell ’em! Whoever you’re telling off, that is. Nobody apparently. I mean, you could write a letter to someone.. but why bother? Just post it here and let your readers stroke the ‘ol ego…

    Back to the ‘save the animals’ campaign:

    Are you a vegetarian? I’m just wondering if you participate in the factory farming industry, which stuffs millions of sensing, sensitive animals with recycled ‘foodstuffs’ of varieties too terrible to tell (oh, you know – rendered road-kill, factory waste, recycled newspaper, plastic pellets…).

    So, you know, do you help the chainsaws of consumer happiness saw through the still breathing carcasses of large mammals, so you can chow down?

    Just wond’rin!



  29. SLC
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    OT but is Prof. Coyne going to comment on Chris Mooneys’ winning a Templeton Fellowship?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      I echo what P.Z. said.

  30. Artikcat
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    1. No less ridiculous to take ridiculous implicit ironies literatim
    2. And no lesser ridiculous to name the world a “static panacea” (sic). What the …?

    • Artikcat
      Posted February 26, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      I meant this ridiculous post to be a reply to madscientist in N. 23. Ridiculous.

  31. SaintStephen
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen tons of repetitive, to-and-fro movement in cages and tanks, movement that is usually seen by biologists as pathological.

    Go to the Tucson, Arizona zoo and you’ll see a demented polar bear that is, IMO, insane from captivity. It repeats the exact same patterns of movement every few minutes. I was greatly saddened to see the spectacle. In fact, the entire zoo seemed filled with unhappy animals. I left with very mixed feelings.

    Hopefully the Internet and advanced virtual reality techniques will spell the beginning of the end for zoo exhibits. The negatives vastly outweigh the positives, methinks.

  32. Jason
    Posted February 26, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne: Note how easy it is to unwittingly perpetuate the human/animal distinction, as you have done here. Humans are animals, of course. I realize it’s cumbersome, but you should really try to use the term “non-human animal” if that’s what you mean.

    But that brings me to another point: doi you really believe that no animals should be used for entertainment? Or perhaps you meant to say tertrapods… vertebrates… vertebrates+cephalopods… bilaterians….?

  33. TR
    Posted February 27, 2010 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand this automatic assumption that it is cruel to make Animals perform tricks. Personally, I evolved as a pack predator in the African Savanah, as did everyone else posting here. Right now the thing I enjoy doing most is performing for people, as a musician. I don’t think it’s any violation of my true nature to be performing in front of people instead of killing antelope with hand axes. Frankly I’d love to have the sort of performance opportunities that Orcas have: huge appreciative crowds, steady work, and health insurance. It’s better than the gigs I’m playing now.

  34. Carl
    Posted February 27, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I used to go to zoos and look and observe the animals there but then after thinking about how they are caged up all the time and not in their natural habitat I stopped going. I learned a lot more about the animals and us through research and reading evolutionary books which are very much more informative and you are not supporting the showmanship and cruelty of caged animals.

  35. Notagod
    Posted February 27, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Humans need to stop thinking of themselves as a pinnacle and instead think of themselves as a part of all life. Native americans are an example of a culture that had/have a close approximation of the correct relational view.

    • MadScientist
      Posted February 28, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink

      Ah, the “noble savage”. Native Americans are examples of cultures (there are still several distinct ones that survived the plague of whities) who struggled to dominate nature. When some discovered the rifle, buffalo populations sure fell quickly. Suffering from preventable diseases, bad teeth, and chewing on deer hides to make my teepee are not my idea of being part of nature.

      • Notagod
        Posted February 28, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        I didn’t intend to imply that native americans had a perfect culture. However, their relationship to other lifeforms was/is more mature and closer to reality than the whities culture. Native american cultures weren’t/aren’t into dominating nature but, respecting nature.

        You must not be aware of the whities plan of killing all the bison thus, starving and controlling the native americans. And you don’t think the whities suffered from tooth decay and preventable diseases?

        I don’t see the challenge in dominating other species. Was the person that killed the last dodo bird afraid of being licked to death or what? However, I do see an interesting challenge in living in cooperation with other species.

  36. Posted February 27, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I have to admit: I linked to this blog post and got a less than pleased visitor who, as far as I can tell, hasn’t responded on this thread.

  37. Jason
    Posted February 27, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an entirely different reason they should not be kept in aquariums. They might escape.

  38. Posted March 2, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Absolutely agreed, animals are not for entertainment.They are living beings like us, feel pain and sorrow just like as,you should behave towards them as to other people, and they will be thankful.

  39. Posted May 14, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    The fact that this isn’t the first time it’s happened is reason enough to validate the opinion.

    I don’t care how many “enrichment” measures are taken to ensure quality of life for wild animals in captivity – they are WILD and should stay that way.

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  1. […] of Zoos Jerry Coyne wrote an emotional, powerful post questioning the morality of institutions that keep animals captive… (e. g., zoos, Sea World and its competitors, for example). I should point out that in this post, he […]

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