Readers here will know that I’m not a big fan of putting animals, especially big ones, in captivity for people to gawk at. All too often the real reasons are at odds with the professed reasons, and the suffering of large, sentient animals in confined quarters does not, to me, justify the meager research results that come from most zoos and aquaria. By all means have facilities to breed endangered species for release, and it’s possible, I suppose, to keep animals like small reptiles or amphibians in captivity without their suffering. But I’ve seen too many animals driven neurotic by captivity to retain much enthusiasm for zoos, or any enthusiasm for places like Sea World. (It’s worse when the animals are large-free roaming sea mammals that have to do tricks to bring in the cash.)
So I’m encouraged by several recent developments on the zoo-and-aquarium front.
First, according to the Environmental News Service, on May 17 India banned the captivity of dolphins for public entertainment everywhere in the country:
The statement issued by B.S. Bonal, the member secretary of the Central Zoo Authority of India, acknowledges that cetaceans in general do not survive well in captivity, saying, “Confinement in captivity can seriously compromise the welfare and survival of all types of cetaceans by altering their behaviour and causing extreme distress.”
Noting that India’s national aquatic animal, the Ganges River dolphin, as well as the snubfin dolphin are listed in Schedule-I and all cetacean species are listed in Schedule II part I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the ministry said it is important to protect these endangered species from captivity and exploitation.
“Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose,” the ministry said.
From the land of “spiritual” enlightenment, this is true moral and biological enlightenment. Can you imagine Sea World saying something like this? But now India needs to recognize that sentience and intelligence in animals occurs a sliding scale, and is not disjunct at primates and cetaceans. We need to recognize that other species have the capacity to suffer as well. India’s zoos (I’ve been to a few, and will never go again) are some of the cruelest and saddest places in the world, and if India’s government is serious about morality, stress, and suffering, they should ban those as well.
The people of Italy have weighed in on this issue, too, with an announcement yesterday that the overwhelming majority of Italians oppose captivity for dolphins. From Born Free:
An IPSOS survey has revealed that 96% of Italians want to see an end to the keeping of dolphins in captivity, with 81% admitting that they believe dolphins to be ‘happier’ in the wild.
On 4th July, recognised as the ‘World Day opposing the captivity of dolphins’, the Born Free Foundation and likeminded animal protection organisations, FAADA (Spain) and LAV and Marevivo (Italy) launched a campaign to end the exploitation of dolphins in captivity in Italy.
“In Italy, the dolphins in captivity provide no benefit to public education or species conservation, the key requirements of the Italian and European zoo law, instead they are forced to perform demeaning tricks to music and are housed in unnatural, cramped conditions to provide ‘entertainment’,” said LAV and Marevivo. “This exploitation of these highly intelligent animals must end.”
LAV and Marevivo have presented their investigation of Italian dolphinaria to the Minister of the Environment, Andrea Orlando, asking him to investigate the identified violations with Italian law.
LAV and Marevivo have recently joined a growing number of European NGOs to call for an end to the keeping of dolphins and whales (collectively known as cetaceans) in captivity in Europe. Focusing on the effects that captivity imposes on the welfare and survival of the dolphins, the consortium of NGOs has launched the public-focus campaign film, SOS DOLPHINS, to raise greater awareness and call for a phasing-out of the industry.
In the European Union there are a total of 33 dolphinaria, displaying a reported 290 cetaceans of six different species. Spain has the largest number, with 11 dolphinaria, whilst Italy has a total of 5 dolphinaria keeping 24 bottlenose dolphins and one Risso’s dolphin.
This follows a survey in Spain in which more than 90% of its citizens opposed captivity for cetaceans, and 87% thought these animals were happier in the wild. You can read about the campaign in that country here.
Finally, as reported by lots of venues and the Mother Nature Network, Costa Rica—one of the most environmentally conscious countries on Earth—is poised to close its two government-run zoos.The Costa Rican government has announced a plan to close the country’s two public zoos next year and release some of the resident animals back into the wild, although the foundation that runs the two facilities disagrees with the plan. Affected would be Simon Bolivar Zoo in San Jose and the nearby Santa Ana Conservation Center.The country’s Environment and Energy Minister Rene Castro said at a press conference last week that the decision to close the zoos came from “a change of environmental conscience among Costa Ricans.” The country recently banned sport hunting (although illegal poaching remains a problem), and it banned animals in circuses back in 2002.At the press conference, Deputy Environment Minister Ana Lorena Guevara said the animals that cannot be returned to the wild will be handed over to animal rescue organizations. If that doesn’t work out, she said the government will find a place for some of them in other conservation zones.. . . A spokesperson for Fundazoo, the foundation that runs the two zoos, told the Associated Press that it has asked a court to block the planned closure and says its contract to run the facilities runs through the year 2024.
This trend is, I hope, part of the arc of increasing morality described in Steve Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature. It’s time we stopped putting animals in prison for our entertainment. And yes, it’s largely entertainment, not education. A zoo official once told me that despite their efforts to put up signs describing the animals and their biology, visitors spent about two second looking at each sign, just trying to verify what the animal was. The rest was gawking. And yes, maybe a few people have become biologists, or supported conservation, by going to zoos, but we have to balance that against the immense suffering that capture and captivity produces in wild beasts. If we really want to balance “well being,” we have to take into account the well being of our evolutionary cousins.
There are some valid reasons for captivity, first among them to preserve endangered species and increase their number—but with the goal of returning them to the wild. That, of course, requires that we preserve natural habitat as well: the homes of wild animals and plants.
What right does one species of highly cerebralized primates have to destroy every other species and its habitat?