The Morality of Zoos

The word zoo is a fairly broad term. Zoos are most commonly thought of as an attraction rather than a means for education. More importantly, they are rarely associated with the survival of the human race. While zoos are a form of entertainment for the public and a taxable industry for the government; most of them do in fact research the animals they have in their captivity. This research can be beneficial and life saving for humans and if it were not for this testing, we would not have many key vaccines that we have today. For the sake of this paper the term zoo can be applied to all animals in captivity.
This includes those for entertainment, medical testing, and rehabilitation/protection. Tom Reagan wrote on if zoos are morally defensible, but included all of the previously listed forms of captivity under the title of “zoo”. He argues that zoos are immoral because of rights based principles; however, he fails to see the implications of assuming that animals have equal rights to humans. Although his conclusion is false, it is morally wrong and unnecessary to keep an animal in captivity purely for public amusement and financial gain. Reagan presents two views in proving the immorality of zoos.
First is the utilitarian standpoint which claims that the suffering of animals being in captivity far outweighs the suffering of humans had the animals not been in captivity. The second view is the rights based principle, which is that animals have rights and should not be in captivity. He sides with the latter of the two theories, deciding that the utilitarian view fails to asses all of the components of human suffering without zoos. He claims that animals morally have rights to freedom and respect thus making it immoral for humans to take this away from them.

The real hitch in his theory though, is how he proposes the moral rights of animals. He claims that they have rights because of their awareness to their existence and therefore knowledge of suffering and pleasure. However, although animals are aware, they are not conscious of cause and effect. They don’t see the morality behind suffering, they just instinctually avoid it. To ascertain that they have the same rationalization powers as humans do on deciding if their actions are causing pleasure or pain, is to give their awareness too much credit.
A good paper to prove this point, is Carl Cohen’s Do Animals Have Rights? In it he responds to Regan’s theory that animals have rights. Cohen decides that Regan’s biggest error is associating two different versions of the broadly used term “inherent value” to formulate his conclusion. Regan claims that because animals have inherent value they are moral agents and should not be used in a fashion that makes them less important than humans. However, Cohen says that just because they have inherent value it does not mean they are moral beings.
Surely because they feel pain it is immoral to cause them to suffer needlessly but this does not give them the same rights as humans. Animals live in an amoral world without respect or knowledge of other living thing’s rights. Since they are unaware of morals and rights, it seems absurd to hold them to the same moral standard as humans. It would appear then that when deciding on the moral legitimacy of zoos, it would be correct to separate human rights from the natural laws that animals live by. The natural world is based on survival.
Animals kill other animals to survive and out of instinct. House cats torture their prey before killing it, and bears eat their prey alive. Animals act without the knowledge of other living beings having a right to life because it is not a matter of rationalization for them. They do not see the suffering of other animals as a moral issue because they are incapable of grasping such a concept. Because we as humans do have the ability to rationalize we also have the responsibility to avoid causing harm and suffering to other living things.
However, humans need to survive too, and if it means keeping animals for medical testing then this should not be looked at any differently than a wolf attacking a human so as to not starve. Animals already use other animals as tools for survival; and if this is the case as it is in medical testing, then captivity should be allowed. Same goes for animal rehabilitation and protection from extinction. Although wildlife preserves are more ideal for most animals in this case, even a small enclosure zoo could be in that particular animal’s best interest concerning its health.
Small enclosures and preserves can also give humans lots on insight into the daily routines of animals so as to better protect them from extinction. What is inhumane and immoral however, is using zoos for monetary gain and personal entertainment. Through evolution some animals have become accustomed to human interaction and unnatural surroundings. Those that are not, however, should not be put in captivity for no reason. That’s why we have house pets.

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