Opinion: Some things are just bad -- captivity is one of them

Jul 5 2019, 4:57 am

Written for Daily Hive by Michael Austin, executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society

Many were shocked when confronted with the recent news of a zoo outside of Montreal being charged with animal cruelty, with animals being stomped and shot to death by the owner, along with terrible conditions and obvious signs of suffering among the animals in the care of St. Edouard’s.

Most of us likely grew up being told of the important work of aquariums and zoos but it’s now beginning to seem as though these places we grew up adoring and respecting are just some of the worst theme parks and tourist attractions in the world. Yes, some facilities do good conservation and rehabilitation work, but the tourism parks are largely not where that is happening, the odd species notwithstanding.

One of the common tropes heard from zoos and aquariums is that the animals live longer and therefore happier lives when brought to our parks and exhibits for display. Captivity preserves life in an artificial setting, reducing an individual animal to something like Giorgio Agamben’s concept of bare life, containing all of the essential properties of a living thing, but which could not be described as living anything resembling a good life.


Humane Society International

Canada has made remarkable strides with recent animal related legislation, with the country overwhelmingly supporting Bill S-203, ending cetacean captivity in the country for entertainment purposes. We’ve accepted that we cannot fulfill the needs of whales and dolphins in captivity, and recent science agrees, chronic stress causes a number of physiological and psychological issues.

It is a myth that captive animals live longer than their wild counterparts, despite being protected from predator-prey relationships or environmental destruction. This is because the very conditions of captivity depress the animal such that she becomes mentally unwell, to varying degrees depending on the animal and the setting, which lowers the immune response as well as creating the conditions for chronic disease. Chronic stress causes birthrates to go down, and improper social settings cause infant mortality to go up, because many animals fail to even know how to care for their young after a life of learned helplessness.


San Diego Zoo/Facebook

This does not factor in weather, the physical conditions of enclosures, or accidents from equipment, staff, and the public. Or those cases where an animal is killed due to surplus and dissected publicly and maybe subsequently fed to another zoo animal. Statistically, animals die younger in captive settings than they do in the wild. Captivity kills, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but only after having deprived the animal of natural and normal living conditions, both physical and social. This ensures that however long this life is preserved, it will be a life that no creature would knowingly choose for itself. 

A group of humpback whales (Five Star Whale Watching)

A group of humpback whales (Five Star Whale Watching)

No rational person would choose to live a life totally alien to their own, and it is naïve to assume any other creature’s happiness based on simply receiving food of some sort and being allowed to exist. This assumes there is no importance in the act of choosing, or anything more worthwhile than base existence. Monotony is no life; animals in captivity display obsessive, compulsive, and stereotypic behaviours, in addition to abnormal behaviours such as cannibalism and self-mutilation in more extreme cases, as seen in animals farmed for food such as pigs and chickens.

Chickens (Bukhanovskyy / Shutterstock)

Chickens (Bukhanovskyy / Shutterstock)

There is a reason that our punishment system is based largely on isolation and deprivation, and it is not because it reduces recidivism or enriches the lives of the prisoners. We know ourselves that to be deprived of freedoms, no matter how minimal, and to be deprived of physical space are bad.

You would not choose to be confined to the equivalent of a small room at best, or at worst a bathtub, for an indefinite period, let alone to be handled and stared at by other animals you could not possibly understand or engage with in any meaningful way.

A life confined is a life of constant anxiety and fear, with only the barest form of animality preserved in order to go on living and being watched.



Some may worry about anthropomorphising animals, or that the above description is a projection of human qualities onto animals that could not experience these emotions.

Higher order animals feel the same emotions as humans and work to maintain social structure and standing, the only difference is we aren’t sure whether any other animals actually know reflectively what they’re feeling.

Human beings, along with dogs and cats, exhibit many of the same behaviours as the unhealthy animals of parks and exhibits after trauma, imprisonment, or due to mental health, with neuroscience and other fields having shown animals to be comparative in terms of emotional and social complexity. 

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Couple with dogs (Shutterstock)

Whether an animal is self-conscious does not factor in to whether or not they experience the world in a meaningful way, or whether they feel joy and pain. Animals, domestic, wild, and captive, can suffer from mental illness just as well as physical illness, though the symptomology will certainly present differently than it would for a human being.

We know from living with dogs and cats that they can suffer from depression or anxiety issues. As someone who managed an animal shelter for years, I can certainly attest to animals requiring both pharmacological as well as behavioural intervention when it comes to psychology. But sometimes the issue is the setting. Why would we assume this not to be the case with dolphins, birds, or apes just because they have access to food and water?

Balinese Monkeys

Balinese Monkeys (Shutterstock)

Our rationality, the capacity to self-reflect, knowingly choose and logically deduce, is a gift, not only to us but other animals as well.

If we have the capacity to know and understand what is best for other animals, we should work to preserve their natural habitats and ways of life, while figuring out how to best live alongside them. If we are able to understand what it means for other animals to live well, we should work to ensure their needs are met, not for our own enjoyment, but for their own enjoyment of life itself.

We can see their suffering, and science tells us this suffering is not a projection, but real pain. It is up to us to determine how we will respond.

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