2. Ethical Implications of Nonhuman Exhibition
The ethical issues with exhibition of nonhuman animals and an argument that exhibition of animals is intrinsically cruel and exploitative.
- Because the moral philosophy is by now at least over 2,439 years old, this page will not get into the weeds with various pedagogies and arguments. Rather we will enter this discussion with a set of base assumptions, which are by now backed by objective science.
1. Nonhuman animals feel pain and have emotions.
2. Nonhuman animals are deprived of their normal ranges and interspecies interactions, including hunter-prey interactions in a captive environment.
3. Zoos and exhibition environments are poor at teaching conservation and natural behaviors.
4. Nonhuman animals have emotional and psychological needs beyond being kept physically well.
The war over the ethics of exploitation in an exhibition environment has been largely waged over large brained mammals with whom humans have an intense imagined bond. For example, orcas at sea world, elephants kept alone at various zoos, and primates.
To summarize the arguments for exhibition, Zoos and other big—named exhibitors argue that:
1. We must breed and keep animals in captivity because we’re killing their habitats and wild bodies, so if we don’t, then there won’t be any left anyway.
2. We teach people about conservation and the fact that we’re killing their habitats and wild bodies, so if we don’t, then people won’t know what’s happening out in the world.
3. People can’t see them in the wild, so this is their only chance!
4. We teach people about their natural behaviors, so if we don’t, then people won’t know what they do out in the world.
Each various argument has been proven incorrect over time. For example, one study showed that Zoos and other animal exhibitions not only failed to teach humans about conservation, but actively confused them about the animals’ natural behaviors. Sarah Louise Spooner, Eric Allen Jensen, Louise Tracey & Andrew Robert Marshall (2021) Evaluating the effectiveness of live animal shows at delivering information to zoo audiences, International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 11:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/21548455.2020.1851424.
Further, the arguments by the zoos and exhibitors are based on the fundamentally selfish premise that humans have a right to be voyeurs in the lives of nonhumans. Harkening back to the days of not-so-long-ago when humans kept other humans in zoos and live exhibitions, implying that some humans have the right to stare at others in order to gawk has, and always will be, the primary motivation for attending voyeuristic exhibitions. Further, arguing that because humans are the massive force behind habitat destruction and a mass extinction event is a poor excuse for rounding up all the animals and putting them in concrete jail cells. I will offer three well known examples on how zoos and exhibits are intrinsically and indelibly cruel and exploitative.
Corky is a captured orca from the waters if British Columbia, originally part of the Northern Resident Orca population. She was only three years old when she was traumatically removed from her mother, with whom she would have spent the rest of her life. Corky's first calf was left unfed and died at 18 days old of pneumonia and brain damage. Her second calf was also unnursed and died at 11 days old. She then soon conceived another calf, and her "trainers" attempted to teach her how to care for a calf. She also died.
Corky's fourth calf was longest lived, but she also died very young.
Despite Corky's inability to mother, which may have been due to not having a mother herself, small tank size, mental illness, or other disposition, was forced to have several more calves that were mostly miscarriages, stillbirths, or died within days of birth. In 1987 at Sea World San Diego, corky had her last stillborn calf. None of her calves lived longer than two months.
The reproductive exploitation and abuse that Corky suffered at the hands of "trainers" is a direct result of the exhibition and zoo model. The zoos must have more animals to "conserve" so that often means impregnating nonhumans against their will. The lives of the calves are the other victims in this model, as their lives were not valued.
Reproductive violence is an intrinsic staple of the exhibition and zoo system.
Martha is commonly thought to be the last living passenger pigeon. She died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. When she died, the zookeepers froze her body and shipped her to the Smithsonian. She is now stuffed and preserved, to be observed even in death. Passenger Pigeons were once the most numerous animal in North America, having flocks of birds in the billions. They were driven to extinction at the hands of humans who attacked their nesting sites and inflicted unimaginable cruelty upon them. The human cruelty on passenger pigeons is a subject worth an entire scholarship. Martha was kept in a cage despite the fact that passenger pigeons would fly hundreds of miles. Their name means "wandering wanderer." She was kept with two males, but unable to breed because captivity left them in too unnatural of an environment and too stressed to engage in normal behaviors. Martha, the last of her kind, died alone in a small cage with lines of humans going out the door to stare at her.
To stare at what we had done.
Ironically, also at the Cincinatti Zoo but seperated by a hundred years, Bibi the hippo gave birth in a cement room. Cement walls. Cement floors.
Sharing this example is somewhat personal, I cried when it came up on social media. I had a baby boy this year too, and the sight of a mother nuzzling her baby in the cement room in which she was forced to give birth was startling and tragic. While I gave birth a standard-American-fare hospital with my husband by me and my daughter safe at home, this mother could scarcely have given birth in a more bleak environment.
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