Controversy erupted last month when Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla, was shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo after a young child fell into the animal’s enclosure. While most of the debate has been over whether Harambe should’ve been killed, his death raises another question: Do gorillas even belong in zoos?
“Our primary concern ought to be the well-being of gorillas,” Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist told The New York Times. “But zoos are constructed the other way around: The primary concern is that humans can see the gorillas.”
Is such confinement cruel to animals? Or do zoos have benefits that justify the restrictions? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.
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If you have any kind of moral imagination, zoos can be depressing places.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not one of those folks who believe animals have rights equal to humans. I eat beef and chicken regularly. And I think the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to kill Harambe, while unfortunate, was probably the correct one. Forced to choose between a human and an animal, I'll save the human every time.
But valuing human life above animal life doesn’t mean it’s correct to be cavalier about animal life, either. (Most people agree with this; think about the shock and anger you’ve felt when hearing stories about dogs or horses being treated cruelly or with neglect.) And zoos, despite what I am certain are good intentions among the people who run them, often value the quality of an animal’s life too little.
As the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals points out on its website: “In the wild, elephants walk up to 30 miles each day, bears are active for up to 18 hours a day exploring their home ranges for up to hundreds of miles, and tigers and lions love running and climbing and will roam many miles to hunt.” In zoos, though, those animals don’t have miles to roam; their existences are contained to just a few feet.
Think about how you’d feel if you were forced to spend the entirety of your life in, say, an office cubicle. You’d probably get antsy, then depressed. Why would animals be any happier?
Zoos justify such captivity by saying they have an educational mission, but that actually makes the captivity even more misguided: Seeing an animal in a cage is not the same as understanding it or how it interacts with its ecosystem in the wild. Not even close.
This is not a suggestion to immediately shutter the zoos and let elephants, gorillas, tigers and more back into nature: The evidence suggests the animals probably wouldn’t survive long. But the moral costs of confining such animals increasingly outweigh the benefits. Harambe’s death is only an obvious, recent example.
Harambe’s death was an extraordinary — and tragic — event. “We have never had to kill a dangerous animal in the middle of an emergency situation,” Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard told reporters the day after Harambe was shot. “The zoo’s been here 143 years, so that’s saying a lot.”
Obviously, zookeepers are not in the business of shooting down extremely endangered species. It’s precisely to avoid that sort of outcome that zoos hold onto gorillas and other rare species in the first place. Left in the wild, they’d face encroaching human habitat and poachers, among other dangers.
Fact is, captive breeding programs such as Cincinnati’s are the reason the western lowland gorilla isn’t extinct already. Over the decades, captive breeding programs across the United States have saved several critically endangered species, including the red wolf and the California condor.
Cincinnati’s captive breeding program has roots in the late 19th century. Believe it or not, the Ohio zoo was the first to successfully breed California sea lions — which, if you know anything about the first-rate aquaria in Long Beach and Monterrey, is quite a distinction.
What’s more, several U.S. zoos — including San Diego’s, Cincinnati’s and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park — maintain “frozen zoos” that store eggs and sperm from thousands and thousands of species, some endangered, some not.
So let’s not get carried away and throw out more than a century of progress and improvement in the zoological sciences over the death of one gorilla.
To speak of the “moral costs” of maintaining zoos is to flirt with the fallacy of anthropomorphism. People have always had a knack for attributing human traits to our non-human friends.
Even that is an example of anthropomorphism: Animals cannot be our “friends” because animals are not our equals. Aristotle wrote of the highest form of friendship as the “friendship of virtue.” Animals know nothing of virtue. Humans and animals both may kill their young, but only humans know it’s wrong to do so.
Humans also know we have a duty to be good stewards of nature. Saving and preserving generations of animals is very much part of good stewardship. Let the zoos continue to do their good work.
Ben Boychuk (email@example.com) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.