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Debate: Zoos

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Background and Context of Debate:

The claim that animals have ‘rights’ was first put forward by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in the 1970s and has been the subject of heated and emotional debates ever since. There are many contexts in which the question of ‘animal rights’ comes up. Should we farm animals? If so by what techniques? Should we eat animals? Should we hunt and fish them? Is it morally acceptable to use animals as sources of entertainment in the context of zoos, circuses, horse racing etc.? Often the same organisations that campaign on environmental issues (e.g. Greenpeace) are also concerned for the welfare of animals: both sets of concerns derive from a commitment to the value of Nature and the Earth. The question of animal rights might well come up in a debate on biodiversity, and is one with so many political and social implications that it is also worth having in its own right. This debate is about the ethical principles at issue; the separate debates on biodiversity, vegetarianism, zoos, blood sports, and animal experimentation deal with more of the concrete details.

Argument #1


Animals belong in their natural habitat in the wild. It is a breach of their natural rights to take them by force into captivity for our own purposes.


Animals do not have rights. In any case, zoos, as we will see below, exist to protect endangered species and to help us understand and protect our animal cousins more successfully. One of the reasons animals are taken into captivity in zoos is because they are under threat if they stay in their natural habitat (see point 4).

Argument #2


Whatever the good intentions of zoo-keepers, animals in zoos suffer. They are inevitably confined in unnaturally small spaces, and are kept from the public by cages and bars. They suffer psychological distress, often displayed by abnormal or self-destructive behaviour. Aquatic animals do not have enough water, birds are prevented from flying away by having their wings clipped and being kept in aviaries.


There have in the past been many bad zoos and cruel zookeepers. It is imperative that these are reformed and weeded out. Good zoos in which animals are well fed and well looked after in spacious surroundings are becoming the norm and should be encouraged. Zoos can exist without cruelty to animals, however, and so the fact that there are animal welfare problems with some zoos does not meant that all zoos should be shut down.

Argument #3


Adults and children visiting zoos will be given the subliminal message that it is OK to use animals for our own ends, however it impinges on their freedom or quality of life; thus zoos will encourage poor treatment of animals more generally. People do not go to zoos for educational reasons they simply go to be entertained and diverted by weird and wonderful creatures seen as objects of beauty or entertainment. As a form of education the zoo is deficient: the only way to understand an animal properly is to see it in its natural environment – the zoo gives a totally artificial and misleading view of the animal by isolating it from its ecosystem.


Zoos nowadays are not marketed as places of entertainment - they are places of education. Most modern zoos have their main emphasis on conservation and education - the reason that so many schools take children to zoos is to teach them about nature, the environment, endangered species, and conservation. Far from encouraging bad treatment of animals, zoos provide a direct experience of other species that will increase ecological awareness.

Argument #4


There are two problems with the claim that zoos are beneficial because they help to conserve endangered species. First, they do not have a very high success rate – many species are going extinct each week despite the good intentions of some zoos. This is partly because a very small captive community of a species is more prone to inter-breeding and birth defects. Secondly, captive breeding to try to stave off extinction need not take place in the context of a zoo, where the public come to look at captive animals and (often) see them perform tricks. Captive breeding programmes should be undertaken in large nature reserves, not within the confines of a zoo.


One of the main functions of zoos is to breed endangered animals in captivity. If natural or human factors have made a species' own habitat a threatening environment then human intervention can preserve that species where it would certainly go extinct if there were no intervention. There are certainly problems with trying to conserve endangered species in this way but it is right that we should at least try to conserve them. And as long as animals are treated well in zoos there is no reason why conservation, education, and cruelty-free entertainment should not all be combined in a zoo. There is also, of course, a valid role for breeding in different environments such as large nature reserves.

Argument #5


As above, research into animals (when it respects their rights and is not cruel or harmful) may be valuable, but it does not need to happen in the context of confinement and human entertainment. Also, the only way really to understand other species is to study them in their natural habitat and see how they interact socially and with other species of flora and fauna.


As above we should take a 'both-and' approach rather than an 'either-or' approach. Animals can and should be studied in the wild but they can be studied more closely, more rigorously, and over a more sustained period of time in captivity. Both sorts of study are valuable and, as in point 4, there is no reason why this should not be done in the context of a cruelty-free zoo as well as in other contexts.



  • This House Would Not go to the Zoo
  • This House Condemns Zoos
  • This House Believes that Animals Belong in their Natural Habitat
  • This House Believes that Animals are 'Born Free' and Should Stay That Way

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