Does the educational mission of zoos justify captivity, culling, and public dissection of animals?

CSC 0886 - Giraffe House London Zoo
By FeinFinch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

By Genevieve Cottraux

The issue of keeping animals in captivity was recently in the news with the announcement of the last performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this May.  While many applaud the announcement, as reported in The Humane Herald, the future of the captive animals is in question.  In a related story, The New Yorker featured in its January 16, 2017 issue the shooting and public dissection of a healthy young giraffe named Marius at the Odense Zoo in Denmark last year.  The dissection was held in front of a family audience as part of the zoo’s educational programs.  Marius was chosen for the killing and dissection as “surplus.”  This was not the first such public dissection of an animal at a Danish zoo, and the culling of surplus animals at European zoos is not uncommon.  According to a BBC report in 2014, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 animals are “management-euthanized” on a yearly basis in European zoos.  As to public dissections, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) states, “dissection of animals provides a useful scientific learning experience . . .” and “culling of animals is one of a range of scientifically valid solutions to the long term genetic and demographic sustainability of animal populations in human care.”

In the United States, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) released a statement after the killing of Marius emphasizing that accredited zoos in this country manage animal populations through contraception and planning for adequate space.

This brings up the underlying issue of whether these animals should be in captivity for any purposes, whether entertainment, education, or conservation.  The Humane Party, the first political party in the United States committed to the rights for all animals, includes in its platform the abolishment of property status for all animals and the granting of legal standing and personhood to all animals.  Given that animals are not property and have legal personhood, captivity is not an option.  The suffering captivity causes is immense.  The Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) issued a report on the experiences of surplus captive wildlife that shows that many surplus zoo and aquarium animals end up in exotic pet and hunting ranches, another arena of suffering and death.

The educational and conservation concern can be met in other ways than by keeping animals in captivity.  Zoo Check, a group that campaigns for the protection of wild animals, reports on one alternative to the traditional zoo experience—virtual zoos.  These theme-park style zoos and online zoos provide an “immersive animal experience” through the use of emerging technologies that simulate a zoo experience that is arguably both more entertaining and more educational.  As writer Kathryn Sussman notes in Zoo Check, “The idea behind a virtual zoo is to more effectively pave the way for conservation, education and entertainment while eradicating the ethical problems of real-life zoos.”  There is nothing natural about the traditional zoo experience; technological applications allow us to see and experience animals in their natural habitats.  The income generated serves conservation efforts.  Thus, the educational and conservation concerns can be met even more effectively than traditionally and the suffering of sentient beings eliminated.

The Abolition Amendment, proposed by The Humane Party as an amendment to the United States Constitution, states in Section 1, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude of any animal shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  Captivity of animals is involuntary servitude and has no place in a humane world.