While proponents of captivity look at the potential zoos have to serve the public, opponents put a much greater emphasis on the interests of the individual animals, focusing more so on the question of whether or not zoos are morally right. Beyond just the matter of animal welfare, animal rights advocates oppose all forms of captivity regardless of how humane or responsible the facilities may be, with one of their best arguments being that zoos, along with putting the wellbeing of the animals at risk, compromise the rights of the animals.
A prominent concern opponents bring up is that depriving animals of their freedom decreases their quality of life. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has stated that zoos “preclude or severely restrict natural behavior such as flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging, foraging, digging, exploring, and selecting a partner.” Though some species may be able to tolerate these conditions, for others “the physical and mental frustrations of captivity often lead to abnormal, neurotic, and even self-destructive behavior.” For example, in some of the more extreme cases, birds have been observed plucking their own feather and primates throwing feces and eating their own vomit, behaviors typically not seen in the wild. Ultimately, given the negative effects of captivity, animal rights activists argue that animals should not be forced to suffer at the hands of humans.
Additionally, many opponents claim that keeping animals in captivity is no more than treating them as property, a major violation of their rights as living beings. PETA, a leader in the animal rights movement, has criticized zoos saying, “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.” Many species, like elephants for example, are known to form long lastly bonds of friendship, that are essential to their wellbeing, something opponents claim zoos either disregard or do not put first, because they are more focused on serving their own agenda. Ultimately, PETA asserts that zoos operate with the main goal of making money, which is why baby animals are continuously bred to attract more visitors. This results in surplus animals and, because zoos only have so much space and need to maintain a certain amount of genetic diversity, “older animals may be “warehoused” behind the scenes or shuffled off to shabby roadside zoos, animal dealers, or auctions.” Fundamentally, opponents claim, zoos exploit animals for profit, putting their happiness and dignity on the backburner.
Some believe that certain animals should have legal rights and protections, including the right to liberty. This for the most part applies to species that have been scientifically proven to be highly intelligent, including great apes, elephants, and cetaceans. The organization The Nonhuman Rights Project has stated, “These are complex animals who have deep emotions, understand each other’s minds, live in complicated societies, transmit culture, use sophisticated communication, solve difficult problems, and even mourn the loss of their loved ones.” Therefore they claim these animals should be able to attain “person” status rather than just being considered “things” or “property”, meaning would they have the right to not suffer in captivity. One chimpanzee named Cecilia, from a zoo in Argentina, whom The Association of Professional Layers for Animals Rights (AFADA) deemed was “unlawfully confined without companionship”, was this month ruled by a judge to be released from the zoo and transferred to a sanctuary. In this case the animal was legally considered a “nonhuman person” and recognized to have some basic rights, with the judge stating that the species has the right to “development and life in their natural habitat.”
For the most part, the argument that animals deserve rights and liberty appeals to human empathy. From this perspective, captive animals should not be viewed as tools needed to accomplish some goal, whether it be entertainment and profit, or education and conservation. Furthermore, animal rights advocates would argue that an animal is an individual being, rather than simply part of a greater population, species, or ecosystem, challenging us to focus not on humans or populations in the wild, but on the actual animals inhabiting zoos and being directly affected.