Ethics, Animals, and Private Zoos

Caged Tiger
Image by Harlequeen via Flickr

You probably read or watched something last week about the tragic events in Ohio involving a suicide and the release of 50 wild animals which resulted in 48 of the animals being shot and killed.

This is a sad story for many reasons. In the midst of the debates over ownership of exotic animals and the actions of the local police, there is the tragedy of  Mr. Thompson’s suicide. This post is not about Mr. Thompson and it is not my place to comment on his life and death. At the same time,I want to point out that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 34,000 people committed suicide in 2007 and experts believe for every suicide death there are 11 attempted suicides. About the same number of people die from breast cancer or prostate cancer each year. Mental illnesses need the same public recognition, support for affordable, effective treatment, and fundraising for research as breast cancer or prostate cancer.

This post is about ownership of non domesticated animals.  There is much to ponder and much  to think  about. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are approximately 3200 tigers remaining in the wild but there are probably almost 5000 tigers in the US in “backyard captivity”.   The exotic animal trade with it’s effect on local habitats and economies and it’s potential to spread animal disease.  Why do people of all levels of economic status around the world engage in it? There are ethical and social issues surrounding private zoos- Do they serve a public purpose? Is personal interest and pleasure reason enough for a private zoo to exist? What about individual rights and the responsibilities of animal owner ship?  Are some animals too dangerous for individuals to have? Or with proper safety measures is any animal acceptable? We could make this list much longer. You can begin to learn more herehere, and here.

The relationships between animals and humans are complex and multifaceted. Honestly any of us who have pets have them for multiple reasons and some of those reasons are more healthy and life giving than others. Never the less ownership of wild animals is wrong. Primarily because it is impossible to care for the animals’ health-physically and emotionally. Non domesticated animals are meant to live freely in the wild. Captivity violates their very nature.

Ownership of non domesticated animals says some important things about human nature.  People who have exotic animals will tell you they love their animals.  So will people who horde animals. I don’t doubt their statement, I do wonder about their definition of love.  But mixed up with the feelings of love and respect and awe, are issues of power. Power over animals. Power over big, dangerous animals.

Why would someone have multiple big cat or any other exotic species? Because they are beautiful, awe inspiring animals? No doubt. Because they are powerful and dangerous animals? Perhaps. Because of what it says about you, that you can control and are not afraid of a big dangerous animal? Perhaps. Because owning a big cat makes you different than other people? Perhaps.

There is much to think about, but it comes down to a basic question. Not a simple question but a fundamental question. How shall we live on this earth? Do we endeavor to live with kindness toward each other and other creatures? Is power over others, human and animal the most important end? How important is our personal satisfaction compared to that of our neighbors? Or that of people in other nations? Or that of animals?

How shall we live on this earth? For Christians our answer is found in the words of the prophet Micah,

“He [God] has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

5 thoughts on “Ethics, Animals, and Private Zoos

  1. I imagine that some readers may do as I – read and be ready to react with something about the Ohio event or about owning exotic animals. But I caught myself, and paused to read, re-read, and thin about the question you pose in the third paragraph from the end.

    A few posts you asked, “Why are we here?” … With that in mind, the extended question is “How do you accomplish our role?”

    One of the ways is to educate, thus a role for the public zoo – but that is far from the selfish nature of personal satisfaction.

    1. It seems to me, that particularly in complex issues it is helpful to go back to the “big questions” to help clear some of the underbrush away and so that’s why I asked, How should we live? and Why are we here?

      as to public zoos- For a long time I really loved going to zoos because I loved seeing the animals. And they do good work in education and preservation of endangered species, no doubt. Increasingly I wonder if, especially the educational component, justifies the captivity of the animals.Particularly the animals that have large home ranges and complex societies. I’m not sure there is a humane way to have elephants and large cats and primates, for example, in captivity. I’m not sure our education is sufficient justification for their captivity.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. I would add Sea World to the mix as well. The orca whale migrates thousands of miles a year and it is kept in a confined area. Yes, lots of good research but at what expense, as you so well state.

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