Zoos, Circuses & Theme Parks: Should We Cage Animals for Our Entertainment?

Is it ethical to keep wild animals in captivity?  Animal rights advocates have convinced many people to reconsider their attitudes. Students explore the issue through two readings and discussion questions.   

Reading 1:

Should Animals Be Entertainers?

Is it ethical to keep in captivity animals that are normally found in the wild? In recent years, the debate around this question has been heating up, with animal rights advocates convincing an increasing percentage of the public to reconsider its attitudes about zoos, circuses, and theme parks featuring water animals. In the summer of 2016, after a long campaign by animal rights groups, Barnum and Bailey's announced that it would be retiring its elephant performers. Similarly, the marine mammal park SeaWorld announced that it would be phasing out the use of orcas (or killer whales) as performing animals.

In 2013, SeaWorld came under fire for its killer whale program after the release of the documentary Blackfish. The film raised questions about the ethics and safety of holding captive orcas for entertainment. Orcas, which are considered to be among the most intelligent species on Earth and are believed to be capable of complex emotions, are prone to extreme psychological stress as a result of life in captivity and the rigorous training required to perform for audiences. In a January 25, 2013, article for the Los Angeles Times, reporter Amy Kaufman discussed the documentary's argument:

[Samantha] Berg, now 44, is one of eight former park employees who appear in "Blackfish," a documentary that received a strong reception when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month and was quickly acquired by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the movie examines whales in captivity and one in particular, Tilikum — an orca that has killed three people, including veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

The film...explores the psychology of Tilikum, who was born in the wild near Iceland in 1983, captured and sent to a marine park near Vancouver before coming to SeaWorld in Orlando. Separated from his family, he was bullied by other whales as a calf in captivity. Older female whales raked his skin constantly, and Tilikum ("friend" in Chinook) was kept in a small, dark tank for more than 14 hours at a time — factors the movie suggests may have contributed to his aggression later....

Berg said she came to realize she told numerous things to park-goers that were not true — including that whales live longer in captivity than in the wild. (Orcas can live as long as 80 years in the wild, according to the Vancouver Aquarium.) When she was hired, she was also unaware of Tilikum's dangerous history or that orcas had injured dozens of trainers over the years.

In response to Blackfish, SeaWorld launched a multi-million dollar public relations campaign to address claims made by the documentary. SeaWorld claimed that its animals were "healthy and passionately cared for" and that seeing them perform left visitors "inspired and enriched by their experience with killer whales" and "more aware of the need to preserve the world around [these animals]." Nevertheless, the impact of the film on SeaWorld's bottom line was significant, as the parks reported reduced attendance and lost revenue. Ultimately, in 2016, SeaWorld announced that it would stop using orcas at all of its locations by 2019.

In a similar move, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced in January 2016 that it would end its use of elephants as performers. Animal rights activists had long argued that keeping elephants in captivity was cruel, since in the wild, the species forms strong familial bonds that are broken in captivity. Further, elephants are accustomed to having vast open spaces in which to roam. While Barnum & Bailey contested the claims of critics, arguing that it treated its elephants humanely, it ultimately bowed to changing public attitudes about seeing animals used for entertainment. As Sandra Pedicini wrote in a March 5, 2015 article, for the Orlando Sentinel, the actions of both SeaWorld and Barnum & Bailey reflect a change in attitude:

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announcement Thursday that it will retire its performing elephants is part of a trend of entertainment companies rethinking their use of animals.

Though they still draw crowds, animals can be a liability. They bring unpredictability and, increasingly, controversy.

"Everybody who deals with animals is very concerned about the precedent that's being set with SeaWorld and killer whales," said Jim Hill, an industry blogger and editor of JimHillMedia.com. "Everyone's quietly sitting back hoping ... 'they [animal-welfare activists] won't come after us.'"...

Americans' attitudes toward animals have changed through the years, theme-park industry experts said. People view them more as companions and pay more attention to their treatment in circuses, zoos and theme parks. Thanks to cable stations such as Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, seeing wild animals in person isn't as exciting now, said Scott Smith, assistant hospitality professor at the University of South Carolina....

Disney's Animal Kingdom, the only Central Florida zoological facility that still keeps elephants, would not comment on Ringling's announcement but said it has not made any changes to its animal exhibits.

Although seeing large animals perform for human entertainment was long considered a thrilling spectacle, it is a practice that is increasingly regarded as inhumane.

For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, how are public attitudes about animal performers such as orca whales and elephants changing?
  3. In response to critics, SeaWorld argued that seeing shows with whales as performers inspired audiences to contribute to conservation efforts that benefit wildlife. Do you think that this argument justifies using captive animals as performers?
  4. What do you think? Should animals normally found in the wild be used for circuses and marine theme parks? Explain your position.



Reading 2:
Is it Time to Rethink Zoos?

In May 2016, a young boy at the Cincinnati Zoo climbed into the enclosure that was home to the Western lowland gorilla, Harambe. Zoo workers were compelled to shoot and kill the gorilla in order to save the boy. While killing Harambe was widely seen as justified, his death has ignited a debate about the place of zoos in our society.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a well-known animal rights organization, staunchly opposes zoos. PETA argues that zoos contribute to unhealthy attitudes toward animal life, and that enclosures for captive animals restrict their instinctive, natural behavior. The organization's public statement on zoos reads:

PETA opposes zoos because cages and cramped enclosures at zoos deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs. The zoo community regards the animals it keeps as commodities, and animals are regularly bought, sold, borrowed, and traded without any regard for established relationships. Zoos breed animals because the presence of babies draws zoo visitors and boosts revenue. But the animals’ fate is often bleak once they outgrow their "cuteness." And some zoos still import animals from the wild.

In general, zoos and wildlife parks preclude or severely restrict natural behavior, such as flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging, foraging, digging, exploring, and selecting a partner. The physical and mental frustrations of captivity often lead to abnormal, neurotic, and even self-destructive behavior, such as incessant pacing, swaying, head-bobbing, bar-biting, and self-mutilation....

Proponents of zoos like to claim that zoos protect species from extinction—seemingly a noble goal. However, wild-animal parks and zoos almost always favor large and charismatic animals who draw large crowds of visitors, but they neglect less popular species that also need to be protected. Most animals in zoos are not endangered, and while confining animals to zoos keeps them alive, it does nothing to protect wild populations and their habitats.

Returning captive-bred animals to the wild is, in most cases, impossible because animals who are reared in zoos are denied the opportunity to learn survival skills, can transmit diseases to their wild counterparts, and often have no natural habitat left to return to because of human encroachment. Breeding programs simply produce cute baby animals to attract zoo patrons and generate revenue, creating a surplus of unwanted adult animals. As a result, zoos often become extremely crowded, and older animals may be "warehoused" behind the scenes or shuffled off to shabby roadside zoos, animal dealers, or auctions.

Defenders of zoos argue that these institutions are critical to the protection of endangered species, allowing millions of people to see animals up close and to develop an appreciation for the importance of protecting them. As zookeeper and frequent TV guest Jack Hanna argued in a May 15, 2015, article for TIME, opponents of zoos can underestimate the challenges to animals living in the "wild." Hanna wrote:

More than 175 million people visit zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) each year. Zoos and aquariums play a critical role in the survival of endangered species and allow people from all walks of life to experience and learn about the animal world. Animals in zoos are ambassadors to their cousins in the wild—they educate people about the importance of wildlife. After a visit to the zoo—listening, seeing, smelling— people often leave with a newfound understanding and compassion for wildlife.

AZA accreditation requires excellence in animal care and welfare, conservation, education and scientific studies. There are more than 200 accredited institutions, and in 2013, they donated nearly $160 million to support about 2,450 conservation projects in more than 120 countries. Species such as the black-footed ferret, California condor, Mexican wolf, scimitar-horned oryx, and Przewalski’s horses have overcome near-extinction in part because of zoos’ commitment to conservation.

Critics say the only place animals belong is in the wild, but those boundaries are shrinking each day. Having traveled the world, the only places I consider truly "wild" are Antarctica, parts of the Amazon and some places in Africa. Even in Africa, the "wild" places tend to be national parks with guarded boundaries. Animals face many challenges, including habitat loss, poaching, severe weather, and war. The "wild" is not necessarily the idyllic place people imagine. Poaching has decimated the northern white rhino population—the last known male has his own personal 24-hour security to ensure he isn’t poached for his horn....

Every aquarium and zoo I work with believes its mission includes raising awareness about the challenges faced by animals around the world. We know animals have the power to touch our hearts, and when this happens, it opens the door to education that can inspire people to participate in protecting animals and conserving their environments.

For people on both sides of the debate about zoos, the tragedy in Ohio raised difficult questions. The death of Harambe led New York Times science and environmental writer Andrew C. Revkin to wonder in a June 2, 2016, article about the moral costs of keeping in captivity animals capable of complex thought and emotions, like gorillas. Revkin wrote:

There are plenty of arguments in favor of [gorilla] exhibits, which engage urban audiences with an extraordinary species and educate people about the threats gorillas face from deforestation, disease and poaching. They also sustain a pool of genetic diversity for a species that is considered critically endangered and at risk of extinction in the wild.

But I’ve also come to see substantial merit in the emerging concept of nonhuman personhood....

As a result, I’ve become convinced that it’s time for a fresh look at zoos....

Captive apes don’t all die from a gunshot; but almost all die having never really experienced what it is to be a gorilla. Harambe was born in a zoo in Brownsville, Texas.

This issue was compellingly explored in Scientific American this week by Marc Bekoff, who studies animals’ behavior and awareness and is a proponent of what he calls "compassionate conservation":

"While some might say Harambe had a ‘good life’ in the zoo, it doesn’t come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, one might argue that the animal people were seeing was not really a true western lowland  gorilla, surely not an ambassador for his species."

[Bekoff] calls for an end to captive breeding of gorillas and an eventual shift from zoos to sanctuaries, with money saved going to conservation of species in the wild.

For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are some of PETA's arguments for opposing zoos?
  3. How do zoo defenders like Jack Hanna respond?
  4. Zoo defenders contend that their institutions raise millions of dollars for conservation and habitat protection for wild animals. What do you think of this argument?
  5. How do you think that seeing animals in captivity affects our perceptions about animal life? Do you think that these encounters are positive or do they distort our understanding of how animals naturally live and behave? Explain your position.