“Captive animals show young people that animals don’t have the fundamental rights to freedom, privacy to live their own lives”

Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, Globe and Mail, Ethics section

May 6, 2016

The retirement of Ringling Brother’s performing elephants was greeted with approval by many Canadians; but Canadians were disappointed with photos of Justin Beiber posing with his “tiger for hire”. These reports, along with the news of the decision of Sea World to cease breeding captive orca whales, “— suggest a growing public unease about the ethics of capturing or breeding animals purely for entertainment. Elephants, tigers and whales living in the wild roam vast distances, negotiating an infinitely rich physical environment and complex social worlds. The scale of deprivation involved in their captivity – the loneliness, the boredom, the mind-numbing sterility – is terrible to contemplate.”

Hoping that captivity will seem more acceptable to the public, zoos have been prompted to rebrand themselves as “institutions of education” rather than “entertainment”. However, this shift is more about the human experience than it is about the situation for the animals. The realities of social and environmental deprivation still remain as far as the animals are concerned, and the authors opine “—- so-called enriched zoo habitats merely gloss over the realities of rigid control, manipulation and impoverishment, whether or not animals are trained for public performance.”

Ms. Donaldson and Mr. Kymlicka continue: “— the very distinction between entertainment and education is misleading. Circuses, marine parks and zoos are all involved in education. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of education that the industry touts – instilling in children love, respect and awe for wild animals; informing them about “natural” animal behaviour; or raising awareness about threats to animals and their habitats.”

The authors submit that there is a growing field of research that has documented the “hidden curriculum” of the captive animal industry whose real educative function is to divert children’s attention away from empathy for captive animals “— and into an ideology of species superiority and entitlement.” Psychological research has revealed that young children naturally think of animals as “— fully minded and intentional beings, with their own lives to lead.” Children think of animals as objects of love and fascination and recognize them as their friends, neighbours, family members and equals and they don’t need to be educated in this regard.

The Globe and Mail article continues: “Zoo cages and enclosures help to physically shape this human-animal divide. They teach children that animals don’t have a right to freedom or privacy, or indeed any fundamental right to live their own lives. They teach children that the very people celebrated as animal experts and caregivers are the same people who casually divide captive animal families and friendships, kill animals who are ‘surplus to requirements’ and, in some cases, punish animals into behaving ‘naturally’ or performing as desired.”

This “ideological education” starts early in a child’s life at school when the kids raise chicks without the learning what happens to the chicks later when they become adults. Referring to the students’ experiences later in their education in biology class, the authors state: “Research has systematically demonstrated the pedagogical superiority of human alternatives to dissection, the psychological cost to students ‘shamed’ into disrespecting animals and the disproportionate rates of young women and indigenous students opting out of a scientific culture that defines animals as experimental objects rather than living objects. Yet the practice continues as a key component of our ideological education into the human-animal divide.”

The article concludes by informing the reader that numerous studies reveal the failure of zoos and circuses to educate us about animal capabilities, societies or habitat needs. They are much more successful in teaching us to denigrate them.