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In our ever more crowded world, it is sad fact that less and less room is available for wild animals. And yet, animals provide us with a unique perspective on life—one that goes beyond the merely human. Imagine the time, way back, when all animals were free and wild. But ever since humans first settled down and began to live in houses, they have captured animals. True, many of these, such as dogs, cats and farm animals, have become domesticated and don't know any different. They live symbiotically with humans and perhaps have little inkling of their past lives. But a dog or cat raised in the absence of people reverts to its wild ways, as we know from the problem of feral dogs and cats in towns and cities.

The lesson here is that animals are inherently wild, adapted to their unique niche, and our relationship with them is one of give and take. We cannot keep animals in our habitat and expect them to conform to our idea of good behavior. In fact, to keep an animal in captivity contradicts its instinct and is bound to create psychological and behavioral problems unless special effort is made to accommodate the animal and to give it as close as possible to the stimuli, diet and socialization it would experience in nature.

This may not be a reason to never keep animals in captivity. Some people advocate that any use of animals is inappropriate and unnecessary. Others view this position as extreme and suggest that under certain circumstances animals can and should be used to suit human purposes. After all, we keep animals as pets, but who really benefits—the person or their pet? Both of course! But other cases are not so clear-cut. Many people are vegetarian because they have ethical objections to conditions in which the animals are kept. These objections are often based on the conditions in which the animals are processed in slaughterhouses prior to being sold. Some people object to the treating of animals as just commodities to be bought and sold.

In the following discussion, I review the main issues concerning the use of captive animals. For some this is an emotive issue and people tend to feel strongly one way or the other, but I will try to present the facts as I see them and will rely on the reader to make up his or her own mind.

Animals are kept in confined areas, in captivity, for a number of reasons. Some are mentioned above. In cases of domesticated animals, they have been bred to accept their limited surroundings. For the most part pets and domesticated animals probably are not distressed unless they are mistreated by lack of care, food or medical treatment. Most developed countries have laws to prevent this, and such laws are usually well-enforced. (Regrettably, this is not generally the case for in developing countries.) Whether or not it is "right" to use animals for food is an endless debate, which we shall not go into here. In any case, it is also debatable whether animals bred for food or as pets are actually "captive." The problem is most acute when animals which have lived in the wild are kept in enclosures.

Pets aside, the main reasons wild animals are kept captive are for display to the public, such as in zoos or wildlife parks. Even large wildlife reserves effectively limit the natural migration patterns of animals, although in large areas they can at least perform most of their natural behaviors. Some people argue that zoos are unnecessary exploitation of animals for mere amusement and in some cases this may indeed be the case. However, most modern zoos aspire to a quite different ethic. Although they still encourage visitors, indeed depend on the public for funding (through admission fees), many zoos advocate education and conservation. In terms of education, the emphasis is on providing information about the natural history of the animals and on the status of wild populations. This approach ties in with conservation, in which the display promotes interest in the animals and encourages the public to advocate for appropriate legislation and enforcement. More directly, many zoos participate in captive breeding programs with a view to returning animals to the wild and to supplying animals domestically to discourage trade in wild-caught animals. These programs often provide valuable information about the life cycle and natural history (diet, behavior, etc.) of a species that helps other zoos and, perhaps more importantly, can assist conservation efforts for wild populations. In some cases, zoos are the last refuge for endangered animals and may provide the only hope for the long term survival of the species. A zoo may focus on keeping a breeding population, or it may undertake cryogenic preservation of reproductive material to be saved for the time when a suitable female is available.

Perhaps the most controversial use of animals is for scientific experimentation. Here too, opinion tends to become polarized, and it can be difficult to take a balanced position. At one extreme there are people who believe that any animal experimentation whatsoever is unethical and cannot be justified. The opposite extreme is to permit any experiment whatsoever, but most scientists would have reservations about this. The position against any animal experiments would deny scientists the opportunities to investigate the biological basis of many human diseases. These scientists would argue that it is unethical to not pursue the opportunity to discover cures and therapies for humans who are sick and suffering. Ultimately it is up to individuals to draw the line and to encourage debate so that these difficult questions can be discussed openly and rationally. One examples of animal experiments that have provided benefits include using primates to research vaccines for AIDS and other illnesses. According to the organization Understanding Animal Research in Medicine, mice and rats make up over 80% of animals used in research. Less than 1% of research animals are cats, dogs and monkeys. There have also been abuses. Use of animals for testing cosmetics seems hard to justify from an ethical standpoint. "Vivisection" is the term applied to experiments that cause the animals to suffer. Plenty of websites cover this topic.

Animals are used in a multitude of ways. Ever since the first dog crept to a campfire for warmth or food scraps, people have used animals. In many cases, such as pets, the relationship is mutually beneficial. In other cases it's not so clearcut. In agriculture, animals are raised for the sole purpose of fulfilling a human need, usually for food. Sometimes, as in meat or poultry production, the animal dies. In other cases, such as dairy or egg production, the animal lives out its life, although the animals are usually slaughtered after they have passed the peak of production. There is no doubt that a humane approach to use of animals is morally desirable. This ideal contrasts with the basic economic need to maximise the return on capital, that is to ensure that the animal is used as efficiently as possible. This directive led to the factory farming sector that dominates agriculture today. However, farmers now realize that maximizing return need not mean the animal suffers because stressed unhappy animals grow slower and are less healthy than well kept animals. Even in factory farms, the trend is toward keeping animals in conditions that, compared to earlier eras,are relatively pleasant. Another pressure, the consumer, is also driving improvements in animal husbandry. People are demanding "free-range" and natural or "organic" produce which commands a high price and hence provides incentives for farmers to raise animals in better conditions than previously.

Another major use of animals is as beasts of burden. Horses, in particular, but also donkeys, mules, cows and even elephants have relieved people of the ordeal of transporting heavy goods. Today, technology has rendered this purpose obsolete for the most part, and it is only in among the poor in developing countries that animals remain an important resource for transportation.

As mentioned animals are also important for education. Their charisma attracts people and prompts curiosity. How many veterinarians, researchers, game wardens, tour guides and zoo workers owe their calling to an early interest in animals? While zoos may not be ideal for the animals, they serve an invaluable function in educating and inspiring people about our natural world. Many people have been inspired to participate in conservation programs after a face-to-face encounter with a beautiful or fascinating creature at a zoo?

Due to their unnatural surroundings captive animals require special care. Besides a suitable diet, they must be given an environment that mimics their original home as closely as possible, or at least provides stimulating and interesting surroundings. This is common practice in zoos and labs in developed countries, but zoos in poorer countries have a lot of catching up to do, as shown by some of the animal pictures in the Jungle Photos galleries which were taken at Leticia Zoo in Colombia. That said, our modern approach is itself relatively recent and based more on keeping the animals alive and healthy for profit and research rather than out of purely humanitarian considerations.

A crucial aspect of modern animal conservation is captive breeding programs. These are carried out to minimize collection of wild animals (which depletes natural populations) or to provide animals to restock diminished wild populations. In addition, it may be cheaper for zoos to breed their own animals rather than buy animals from the wild, especially given the high legal fees to overcome various restrictions on importing rare animals. If too many animals are born, then the excess can be sold off to other zoos. This is unlikely to be unplanned because zoo veterinarians are usually able to control the reproductive cycle of animals, even if it as simple as keeping males and females seperate. Due to the low numbers often involved, breeders keep close record of the stocks, following the lineages and family trees to prevent inbreeding effects. Inbreeding can cause abnormalities in animals, affecting the health of individuals, and potentially jeopardizing the entire captive population. Captive breeding programs may prove to be the only hope to save some endangered animals from total extinction.

In order to conserve dwindling numbers of wild animals, it will be increasingly necessary to keep more and more species in captivity. Of course, the ideal is for animals to be wild and free, able to live their natural lives to the fullest. But as humans expand across the planet, demanding more and more land, less and less is available for animals. We hope there will always be wilderness, but the remaining patches may not be enough to support even a fraction of the diversity of creatures we see today. Conservation programs can serve as modern arks, saving at least the most beautiful and interesting creatures. In this view, we will have to accept the reality of captive animals for their own salvation.


These links cover a range of subjects covered above. Inclusion of these links does not imply that Jungle Photos endorses one view or another.

Humane Society: Issues Facing Wildlife
Louisiana Public Broadcasting: A Zoo View
Animal Science
Born Free: Zoo Check Projects
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (UK): Animal welfare
Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service: Reptiles in Captivity
American Humane Association: Animal Welfare Legislation
Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition
Understanding Animal Research in Medicine
University of Rochester: So Why Does Animal Experimentation Matter?
Wikipedia: Animal testing
American Anti-Vivisection Society

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