Zoos & Aquariums: Getting in Touch with Nature through Others’ Captivity

Since the 2013 documentary Blackfish, about Seaworld and the controversy over an orca it held, many of us are familiar with the ethics of keeping cetaceans in captivity. The public outrage inspired by the documentary was so great that many of the world’s aquariums are reevaluating how they do business. Most recently, the Vancouver Aquarium announced that it will no longer keep cetaceans—whales, dolphins, and porpoises—at its facilities. John Nightingale, the aquarium’s president, said in a blog post that the decision was predominantly influenced by public pressure: “It had become a local hot topic, to the point where it was just hijacking everything else.”

While great news, it appears that the aquarium made the decision to end its cetacean program only because it became weary of dealing with the “distraction” of legal issues and negative public opinion—not for the best interest of cetaceans, stating “it’s time to get on with it.”

Last spring the Vancouver Park Board unanimously voted to ban new cetaceans at the aquarium. The board’s decision was a reaction to the deaths of two belugas, a mother and calf, at the facility due to unknown toxins in the water. Since then, two of the three remaining cetaceans at the aquarium have died, inciting outrage from the public.

The Vancouver Aquarium disagreed with the Park Board’s decision and instigated a tense B.C. Supreme Court battle over the issue. The aquarium challenged the Park Board’s ban on the grounds that it overstepped its authority, engaged in an unfair process, created unacceptably vague bylaws, and that they are prohibiting the aquarium’s freedom to express its viewpoint on the ethics of keeping cetaceans in captivity.

But when considering what species to liberate from captivity, why stop at cetaceans? What about octopuses? What about elephants and primates in zoos? And finally, what about extending concern to other animals that we may not perceive as intelligent?

No artificial environment can replace natural habitat and autonomy. Zoos and aquariums are commercial enterprises concerned with profit and pleasing customers first, and the health and happiness of the nonhumans kept in captivity second. In many countries, zoos and aquariums provide the bare minimum to successfully house and put captives on display. Some countries, like the Unites States, have feel-good nonprofits like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that accredits facilities for providing “appropriate” and “aesthetic” environments for their “collection” and the public. But ultimately, the AZA is a pro-captivity organization that grants accreditation based on extremely limited animal welfare laws.

One investigation found that in a span of thirty years, fewer than half of captive marine mammals reached the industry’s projected life expectancies, and found that about one quarter of the animals died before reaching one year of age. Michael Hutchins, a director at AZA during the time of the investigation, responded, “The number of people in the public that are exposed to these animals and know about them that wouldn’t otherwise pay any attention to them whatsoever, I think you can make the argument that they are true ambassadors…So you have to weigh that against the cost to individuals.”

It is flawed logic to hold captive individual beings accountable for their entire species. Due to the zoo and aquarium’s inability to replicate natural habitats and social structures, the loss of their autonomy, and being frequently shipped around the country, captive animals show sign of stress and self-destructive behavior that does not occur naturally. As a result, when we see them in zoos or aquariums, our perception of them is significantly distorted.

So what do we really learn when we visit these “ambassadors” in zoos and aquariums?  Most of us are captivated by animals, predominantly because they’ve disappeared from our lives. We have a desire to watch other animals whether that be on the TV from our couches, traveling to other countries to watch them in their natural habitats, or going to zoos and aquariums. We perceive zoos as providing us with a way to escape urban life and to “get back to nature” but they are wholly unnatural institutions.

Ultimately, the very nature of zoos and aquariums contradicts their message. How can we ever truly appreciate, respect, and learn about other animals when we take away their autonomy and see them as objects to be collected for our entertainment and viewing purposes? It is a shame that our desire to connect with other animals does not allow us to empathize with them.