Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Mortality as Morality

August 14th, 2009 · 4 Comments

ZooMortalityWe’ve yet to fully sort out our feelings about zoos. On the one hand, we obviously love us some exotic animals, especially those who occasionally turn on Man. (Yes, we’re macabre like that.) But the concept of captivity makes us more than a wee bit uncomfortable; we’ll never forget our last trip to the Bronx Zoo, when we glimpsed deep sadness in the eyes of a silverback gorilla—a gorilla whose young offspring, by contrast, had not yet become resigned to their fate.

But since there’s no scientific way to measure the happiness of zoo animals, those who wish to debate the topic must settle instead for looking at mortality figures. Anti-zooists, for example, have recently been pointing to this recent study on elephant survivorship:

We analyzed data from over 4500 elephants to show that animals in European zoos have about half the median life span of conspecifics in protected populations in range countries. This discrepancy is clearest in Asian elephants; unlike African elephants in zoos, this species’ infant mortality is very high (for example, twice that seen in Burmese timber camps), and its adult survivorship in zoos has not improved significantly in recent years…We suggest stress and/or obesity as likely causes of zoo elephants’ compromised survivorship.

But many zoo operators counter those claims, with Malaysia’s principal zoo estimating its animal mortality rate at a measly four percent. That’s a bit higher than the nation’s infant mortality rate, but still a fair bit better than what’s typical in America’s finest zoos—not to mention many wild habitats, where predation and disease take a sizeable toll.

Is it possible that the morality of zoos depends somewhat on the species in captivity? Could a zoo environment be deemed immoral for elephants, but moral for hippos based on their wildly differing survivorship rates? It’s a question worth asking, at least until we figure out a more reliable way to gauge what the animals think of living in manmade environments.


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Oliver

    It’s a sticky wicket, to be sure. But I think the drawbacks of captivity also have to be weighed against the benefits that come from bringing people, especially children, into close proximity with animals. Seeing animals up close and personal in a zoo stimulates an emotional response that makes people far more willing to support protective measures for those animals than if they’re simply told some animal they’ve never seen and have no emotional connection to need their support. Of course, this all presupposes that the zoo has the proper facilities and does not inflict needless cruelty beyond the experience of captivity itself.

  • scottstev

    You must see “The Cove” when it comes out. The main subject is a former dolphin trainer who is adamant that dolphins and whales are not compatible with captivity. I was persuaded by his argument as he he seemed to limit the argument to aquatic mammals.

    Leaving aside that argument. The method that the harvesters in the Japanese Village in question use to capture and butcher dolphins for captivity and meat is absolutely barbaric.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll def. be revisiting this topic in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. I’m particularly interested in whether intelligence should be factored into the morality calculus–that is, should more intelligent animals (e.g. primates) not be held in captivity, since they are so aware of their circumstances. But, of course, we then run into the problem of how we assess intelligence–something we can’t even really do in humans, let alone our furry friends.

  • Mortality as Morality, Cont’d

    […] days ago, we questioned whether it might be immoral to keep certain animals captive in zoos. Our hunch is that a species’ ability to thrive in a zoo is based not only on its physical […]