Sunday, June 1, 2014

Are Zoos Morally Okay?

Over the years zoos have successfully repositioned themselves to be educational and research institutions affiliated with the environmental conservation movement. This is a far cry from their original incarnation as a more carnivalesque freakshow designed to trigger awe, wonder, and even fear.

With the animal rights movement and an increased concern for animal welfare, zoos are put in an awkward position. Imprisoning animals and depriving them of their capability to flourish in settings with limited human interaction is clearly an increasingly challenging thing to justify. Offsetting this morally questionable dimension of zoos are the potential upsides. Now of course, to hardcore animal rights advocates, no amount of social benefit makes zoos morally justifiable. But let's take a look.

Most often you'll hear arguments about protecting endangered species. I'm not too familiar with the effectiveness of zoos in this regard, but it seems unlikely this point is all that effective in the light of massive structural forces like economic growth, habitat destruction, etc. And the types of animals that are deemed worthy of zoo protection aren't necessarily those that are most crucial from an ecological integrity perspective. My suspicion is that much of the conservationist rhetoric surrounding zoos is a marketing strategy designed to maintain the institutional and historic inertia of zoos.

The educational mission of zoos is the strongest argument for a social benefit potentially large enough to offset their moral problems. Showing young children in a directly-experiential way that there exists a larger world out there is a great way to build up cosmopolitan and environmentalist ethics.  Whether the cheapness of air travel, the growth of information on the internet, and the explosion in popularity of nature-themed entertainment like Planet Earth makes this benefit of zoos more replaceable and thus zoos less morally justifiable is an open question.

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