a blog about philosophy in public affairs

The COVID-19 crisis: what should we do about the zoos?


Brown bear, Germany, 2016. Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to reassess what we value, what kinds of communities we want to live in, and how we spend our money. The financial pressures caused by repeated lockdowns and rising unemployment means that many businesses and other organisations will not survive without targeted support. And, with so many in need of financial assistance, many of us are faced with the question of who we should help.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the plight of zoos and aquaria has frequently made the news. These organisations are uniquely vulnerable because they have very high overheads that cannot be avoided when paying customers are no longer allowed to visit. At the very minimum, the animals in their care must be fed, the enclosures must be appropriately heated, lit, and regularly cleaned, and healthcare must be provided. Providing adequate care to those in captivity is expensive. For example, Colchester Zoo (UK) has stated that it costs over half a million pounds per month to care for the 10,000 animals captive at their facility.

I imagine that few people will be unmoved by the looming tragedy of zoos who, unable to feed all the animals in their care, might be forced to kill some animals to reduce costs and perhaps even to feed them to others. Indeed, some zoos have been incredibly successful at garnering public support by crafting a narrative that casts zoo animals in the role of the hidden victims of the COVID-19 crisis. Dublin Zoo, for instance, issued a public plea for help in November of last year and raised €1m in twelve hours – by December the zoo had amassed more than €2.7 million in charitable donations. Similarly, fundraisers have managed to secure around £3 million for Chester Zoo (UK). In addition, to public goodwill, many governments have pledged funds to support zoos and aquaria through these turbulent times.

Even with vaccines being rolled out around the globe, zoos and aquaria will continue to face financial collapse until visitor numbers return to those enjoyed in pre-pandemic times. And, until that point comes, most zoos will continue to solicit donations from the public. While it is undoubtedly true that the financial collapse of zoos poses a threat to the animals in their care, the narrative around the crisis is very misleading. Animals didn’t just happen to be captive in zoos and aquaria. We put them there. So, before we put our hands in our pockets it’s worth thinking about whether the practice of keeping animals in zoos for human entertainment is one that we want to endorse and preserve.

Young boy taunting a jaguar at a zoo in France. France, 2016. Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

Philosophers (see here and here for examples) who are concerned about our treatment of other animals have long argued that zoos and aquaria harm their captives. Some widely acknowledged problems include loneliness, stress, and the killing of surplus animals. It’s also difficult for animals to flourish in small enclosures if they would usually enjoy vast expanses of terrain in the wild. And it’s not just that the enclosures are small: artificial habitats rarely promote flourishing, especially for those animals who come from climes entirely foreign to the place of their captivity. What’s more, animals in zoos are forced into social (and mating) relationships that they might not choose, and valuable relationships are frequently disrupted by animals being moved between zoos. And, since zoos make their money from animals being visible, there is little opportunity to avoid the constant gaze of humans; some animals may even be forced to perform for the public. The list of problems goes on. And while not all these harms occur everywhere, all the time, or to all animals, keeping animals in zoos is arguably inherently unjust. This is because doing what’s best for individual animals is secondary to zoos’ primary goal of promoting customer satisfaction and increasing customer numbers.

Germany, 2016. Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

None of this is to say that we, as individuals and communities, should do nothing to support the animals currently threatened by the financial collapse of the zoos where they are captive. To allow these animals to be killed or starved would only add to the moral abuses they have already suffered. However, instead of making donations and providing no-strings funding, financial support should be made conditional on the transformation of zoos and aquaria into not-for-profit sanctuaries. To avoid some of the harms associated with zoos, these sanctuaries would be fully funded by the government and not open to the public. And, since our ultimate goal should be to phase out unnecessary captivity, these sanctuaries must only be regarded as a temporary measure – places designed with the sole purpose of allowing animals formerly kept in zoos to live out their days in peace.

When so many organisations and people need financial assistance at the moment, zoos and aquaria ought not – because they are unjust – be the recipients of our unconditional donations. Instead, we must support political campaigns, sign petitions, and lobby our government representatives to facilitate the gradual closure of zoos and the creation of not-for-profit sanctuaries where animals who cannot be returned to the wild can live out their remaining days.

The ideas expressed here are more fully developed in a co-authored paper with Kristin Voigt (McGill University). That paper can be accessed here.

Angie Pepper is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton. Angie works on issues to do with the rights of nonhuman animals and what we owe to them as a matter of interspecies justice. Her recent work focuses on the normative significance of nonhuman animal agency; in other words, she is interested in what other animals do and why it matters morally, socially, and politically.


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1 Comment

  1. The federal government does not fund zoos. However, their conservation centres do receive government funds and during the MCO, faced no issues feeding animals or paying salaries. For conservationists, the Covid-19 crisis exposed the fragility of the funding model of zoos and therefore, their ability to care for the animals.

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