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.