The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation

Cover with image of 5 month old mandrill, Mandrillus sphinx (photo by Joel Sartore). Image: CSIRO Publishing

Cover with image of 5 month old mandrill, Mandrillus sphinx (photo by Joel Sartore). Image: CSIRO Publishing

‘Zoo’. Oops, did I just say a bad word? Zoos are places of captivity, four walls (sometimes a roof) and metal bars, right? No animal should ever live there. Or, are they a refuge, a place for rehabilitation, research and conservation? Perhaps an animal (or species in general) could benefit from a zoo? Jenny Gray’s book Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation asks us to question our conventional understanding of zoos (well-run zoos, that is!), highlighting not just the conservation efforts they undertake, but also our own philosophies as to how and why we should care for an animal’s mental and physical wellbeing as we would our own.

Gray begins by tracing the history of zoos, detailing the shift from the private menageries of the rich and powerful of antiquity, the public gardens of the late 1700s filled with exotic creatures (hence ‘zoological gardens’ i.e. ‘zoo’) and finally, to the modern-day zoos that feature in many of the world’s major cities. One constant has remained, however: the lingering, almost instinctive imagery of imprisonment that comes to mind when people hear the word ‘zoo’. Unfortunately, it is this bias which can influence people’s understanding of what a modern-day zoo is and how it functions. Being careful not to paint all zoos with the same brush, Gray clearly defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed. By taking your hand, walking you through the history of zoos and the evolution of our philosophies regarding animal rights and welfare, Gray is able to relieve you of any preconceived notions of what a zoo is or might be, and opens your mind to the ethical considerations and dilemmas zoos must face.

Fighting Extinction campaign logo. Image: Zoos Victoria

Fighting Extinction campaign logo. Image: Zoos Victoria

Fully aware of what a modern zoo is and how it functions, Gray prepares you for what constitutes the bulk of the book. Throughout the next few chapters, the reader is introduced to a variety of ethical philosophies central to defining a well-run and compassionate zoo. Although philosophy can seem daunting, Gray cleverly builds up this section in complexity, allowing you first to understand the basic principles of animal welfare and rights through concepts like the Five Freedoms (freedom from hunger or thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express natural behaviours, freedom from fear or distress).

The real crux of the book delves (not too deeply but quite succinctly) into the complexities around ethical behaviour in general, in particular consequentialism (how the value or righteousness of an act is judged by its outcome), virtue theory (largely concerned with the character of people - are we creating ‘better’ people?), and environmental ethics (understanding that nature’s value isn’t limited by its value to humans and that all life is central to the value of nature). Gray presents a well-measured balance of rational arguments when addressing each of these ethical philosophies in the context of zoos, their operations, and conservation in general. Credit is freely given where due and in cases where Gray disagrees, arguments are confidently and soundly rebutted. To this end, Gray is able to gently place you well inside the camp of ‘zoos can really be a modern-day ark’. Importantly, by this stage, you are well on your way to understanding the basics of key ethical philosophies which empower you to make your own, well-informed decisions.

 Gray defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed. Image: Elmira G. on Unsplash

 Gray defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed. Image: Elmira G. on Unsplash

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is what a ‘wicked problem’ is – problems where solutions don’t come easily, are neither right nor wrong, and often result in some form of negative consequence. Many of us remember the case of Harambe, the gorilla that was shot dead to protect a child who’d fallen into the enclosure at Cincinatti Zoo in 2016. Opening with this well-known story, Gray introduces several, real-life ‘wicked problems’ (my favourite part of the book!), asking us to consider what we would do were we a zoo. Now armed with a sufficient understanding of zoos, ethics, and animal welfare, you get to choose the outcome. Suffice to say, these wicked problems provide a genuinely great kick-starter for opening dialogue at a dinner party. Ultimately, the purpose of this section of the book is to experience the process well-run zoos undertake and the raft of possible consequences they must consider. No longer heartless menageries, zoos must balance the weight of outcomes for the animals in question and ourselves. Ask yourself, what would you do?

My only criticism of the book is that although aquariums are initially included in the strict definition of a zoo, aquatic examples are limited in their reference. In later parts of the book, I felt as though the concept of aquarium was divorced from that of a zoo. Many examples of animal treatment in the book are limited to ‘terrestrial’ zoos and although not dismissive of aquatic examples entirely, often the focus is on marine mammals (i.e. whales and dolphins). Being a marine biologist, I feel that this minor issue with the book is reflective of our relatively limited understanding of marine life (particularly fish) and our comparative distance in affections for them – for many, fish lack the cute and cuddly factor. Personally, I would have liked to see a little more focus on animal welfare in the context of aquariums, but this by no means detracts from the great value and insight the book provides.

How can we ensure that Australian zoos remain places of refuge for both native and non-native species? Image: Cris Saur on Unsplash

How can we ensure that Australian zoos remain places of refuge for both native and non-native species? Image: Cris Saur on Unsplash

Gray is undoubtedly a leader in conservation, in both its theoretical and practical application. The book makes a strong case for rebranding zoos as ‘arks’, a place of refuge and an important tool in aiding conservation efforts. As I read the book, I not only became increasingly appreciative of ‘compassionate conservation’ and how such treatment aids the wellbeing of an animal, but importantly, I found myself reflecting on my own actions towards those I care for, human and animal alike, inside and outside the zoo.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
- Mahatma Ghandi

You can purchase your copy of Zoo Ethics from CSIRO Publishing.


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Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.


Banner image by Ian McGrory, unsplash.com.