Looking at Individual Interests Beyond Species Conservation in Zoos

August 9 2021

Anne Clay

Nénette, a fifty-two-year-old orangutan, sits passively in her enclosure at the Ménagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, France, observing the many visitors who stare back at her through the exhibit window. Born in 1969 in the rainforests of Borneo, she entered a life of captivity at three years old. One of the last orangutans in European zoos to have come directly from the wild, she has attracted popularity over the years as one of the Ménagerie’s biggest animal stars (Bourgeois, 2020). A 2010 documentary directed by Nicolas Philbert perhaps best shows snippets of the elderly primate’s day-to-day life. Throughout the film, the camera is entirely focused on her as the subject, observed and objectified by the many guests who come stare at her. One can hear comments from the audience commiserating about how lonely she must feel without her ‘husband’ or joking about how her living space is small because of high rent rates in Paris (Philibert, 2010). Ironically, as the object of the visitor’s gaze, Nénette herself becomes invisible, disguised by human projections of their own lives. People do not seem to see the orangutan in front of them, much less perceive the subjective experience of the individual whose presence is expected to incite deep emotions regarding the disappearing rainforests of Borneo where she was born (Milstein, 2009; Servais, 1999).


Yet, zoos present a strong justification for Nénette’s role in captivity: the conservation of her wild counterparts for generations to come. As prominent conservationist William Temple Hornaday(Hornaday, 1913) once wrote, “the wild things of this earth are not ours to do with as we please. They have been given to us in trust, and we must account for them to the generation which will come after us and audit their accounts” (Hornaday, 1913). As a taxidermist in 1886, he undertook an expedition to Montana to collect specimens of American bison. Estimated in the millions before 1870, bison populations that once blackened the horizons of the Great Plains had dwindled to less than a few hundred individuals in the short span of a decade. Shocked by the sudden disappearance of a species so emblematic to the wild American frontier, Hornaday became invested in its preservation, not through the inanimate display of taxidermed bodies in a museum, but rather through captive breeding of living individuals for future reintroductions. He returned from his expedition with a live bison calf to Washington D.C., founding the Smithsonian’s National Zoo (Barrow, 2009).


Hornaday’s efforts mark the beginning of a conservation mission now central to modern zoological parks. By the mid nineteenth century, zoos had taken on the role of “millennial arks,” organizing captive breeding programs, that, much like the biblical story of Noah and the great flood, aimed to preserve lineages of animal species for future generations. If one day, the wild animals we hold dear and close to our hearts were to disappear, zoo animals could help reestablish these species in the distant future (Fa et al., 2011; Soulé et al., 1986). Already, captive breeding efforts led by zoos have directly contributed to saving several wild animals from extinction, famously including, among others, the California condor, the golden lion tamarin, the Prezwalski horse, the Arabian oryx, and the black footed ferret (Boyd & Houpt, 1994; Cohn, 1999; Dobson & Lyles, 2000; Kierulff et al., 2012; Lecturer & Booth, 2003; Ostrowski et al., 1998). Saving species, however, can come at a costly price to an animal’s welfare. To maintain populations in captivity, animals are translocated, manipulated, and sometimes euthanized for management purposes (Fa et al., 2011; Pals Svendsen & Muus Larsen, 2015). Such invasive actions are also used to maintain natural conditions in an otherwise artificial environment, prioritizing the welfare of the group over one individual (Learmonth, 2019). As public institutions, zoos sometimes struggle to balance conservation priorities with their ethical obligations to offer individual animals a good quality of life. Captivity often comes with invasive tradeoffs to individual animals, restricting their choices and freedom to allow people to see them in close proximity (Bennett, 2019; Bostock, 2014; Keulartz, 2015; Norton, 1995; Regan, 1995).


Throughout their tumultuous and controversial history, zoological parks have undertaken many forms—from royal princely menageries to cabinets of scientific curiosities, to amusement parks, and finally to modern conservation institutions dedicated to preserving disappearing fauna (Baratay, 2002; Rothfels, 2002). Pouillard (2019) points out that the effort zoos make to center on collective species rather than on the individuals that represent them risks erasing the individual and replacing him or her with a species. In each evolutionary phase of the institution, individual animals have represented the wild species or ecosystems they came from rather than themselves. In the present, modern zoos justify managing the lives of animals in captivity as necessary to combat the ever so dire extinction crisis we face in the 21st century. For zoos, these individuals represent powerful ambassadors to their species, and components of a genetic lineages that must be conserved for future generations (Fa et al., 2011; Kaufman et al., 2018). But is it worth restricting the liberty and bodily integrity of wild animals to preserve the biosphere? In using animal individuals instrumentally to gain revenue and create connections with broad audiences for environmental education, can animals be intrinsically valued as individuals within the zoo, beyond being part of a species? Many anti-zoo animal rights advocates certainly disagree, arguing that the captive context of the zoo is unable to adequately provide for the interests of animals meant to be in the wild (Bostock, 2014; Tyson, 2018).


However, modern zoos do recognize the ethical responsibilities they have towards giving the animals they care for the best possible quality of life using evidence-based welfare practices that promote choices, provide control, and positive welfare experiences. At the same time, they believe in their potential to be powerful agents against extinction in an imperfect world where habitats and species continue to disappear because of human actions (Clayton et al., 2009, 2011). Rising recognition of animal emotions and subjective experiences is increasingly supported by the ethological and animal welfare sciences and the animal rights discourses are rising in importance as well (Bekoff, 2006; Marchant-Forde, 2015). Current animal welfare practices in zoos focus on understanding the emotional states of animals to adhere to their interests and empower them through providing opportunities to, among other things, choose which conspecifics to interact with, what to eat, and whether to hide or remain in public view (Allard & Bashaw, 2018; Maple & Perdue, 2013). Though captivity does restrict individual animals’ freedom, it is clear that modern zoos work to restitute some form of autonomy to the animals they care for. The question is to know if it is possible to adequately adhere to individual animal interests within an artificial context where individual animals fundamentally represent ‘other’ collective populations and species in the wild.


This month’s upcoming roundtable, “Addressing Individual Animal Interests within the Zoo Context,” hosted by the Global Research Network and organized by the Animals & Biodiversity Think Tank will discuss whether and in what ways captive individual animal interests can be sufficiently addressed within the zoo, especially when managing tradeoffs between individual animal welfare and species conservation reveals ethical dilemmas that are often difficult to address in practice (Palmer, 2010). To understand these issues, it is important to examine how non-human zoo individuals are framed within the zoo context, how their subjective experiences are perceived by others, and how these interests can be addressed through evidence-based scientific knowledge. Finally, questions of personhood, agency, individual rights are becoming more and more relevant in light of ethological studies that highlight individual animal interests, emotions, and experiences. Zoos must adjust their ethical framework to fully include consideration of these in order to bolster the effectiveness of their institutions as places working to foster care and compassion for the environment (Gray, 2017; Minteer & Collins, 2013).


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