Some recent philosophical writers, who seem to be fighting a sort of rearguard action on behalf of behaviorism – the refusal to take seriously the reality and important of the animal’s own conscious experience – which has been scientific orthodoxy through much of this century,would probably suggest we were being anthropomorphic in worrying about the animal’s own feelings. Michael Leahy (1991, 92) maintains that the captive animal’s necessary non-realization of its situation, its inability to conceptualize its state, means that there must be quite different from, and nothing like so serious a matter as, human captivity. Another philosopher who thinks our concern for animals misplaced is Peter Carruthers (1992,

Peter Harrison (1991) thinks animals no more able to suffer than plants, because of their lack of inner life. I don’t agree, not least because thinking this way seems so out of line with our recognition – on straightforward scientific grounds, 135 years after The Origin of Species – that we humans are ourselves mammals, primates, indeed probably on genetic grounds strictly apes ( Dawkins 1993,

I believe we can sensibly speak of an animal’s well-being, and not just in the sense we might possibly speak of a plant’s well-being. An animal in a state of well-being presumably feels better, perhaps enjoys itself more, at least suffers less than if it were in a poorer state.


It was all very well for Blake to write that: A robin redbreast in a cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage but he couldn’t know that robins normally live in the wild a mere tenth of their potential life span and have, any year, only a 50% chance of surviving to the next). So captive animals often do live longer than wild ones; for many animals, it must be true that only with human protection have they any chance of dying of (as we say) old age. A robin in a roomy, comfortable aviary like Bacon’s might have a rather good bargain in terms of total pleasure or satisfaction from living. The risks in adult life for large mammals like lions or chimpanzees are probably much less than for small birds or small mammals such as rodents, but there will still be for lions and chimpanzees a high death rate in early years (as there was with humans until the protection offered by modern medicine). Bertram recorded that about 20% of lion cubs survive in the wild to maturity, most cubs dying of starvation.

Not, of course, that the animals know they face short lives, so it doesn’t make their lives miserable, as the theologian B. H. Streeter. notes, in the course of considering the degree of suffering in nature. However, so far as zoos are concerned, it is surely true that many of their animals would, if they had lived in the wild instead, have died young. If we assume that in some cases at least life in a zoo is satisfactory for the animal concerned, and where an animal would have been living no life at all were it not in a zoo, in such cases the comment on their captivity “It seems sad” is inappropriate.

[adinserter block=”4″]

Not that all animals in zoos live to old age or, sadly, can all be allowed to. As the breeding of captive animals improves and approaches the rate of increase in the wild, either birth control or the killing of surplus animals is likely to be necessary. But at least if any animal has to be killed in a zoo it will be a humane death. Death in the wild can be violent, or slow, as from injury or disease.


Take health first in the straightforward sense of freedom from infection or injury. Wild animals are anything but free from such problems. A single individual can be astonishingly heavily parasitized (Rothschild and Clay 1961, 17). Wild animals can be very much worse for wear compared to their protected, medically attended cousins in captivity; for example, a wild lion compared to a zoo or safari park lion.

Many wild animals must be able to cope with their infections, but those who cannot die. If serious ill-health isn’t obvious among wild animals, that is because a seriously unhealthy wild animal is soon a dead one. The middle course open to humans and well-cared-for captive animals is not an option.

Still, mild states of ill-health can cause discomfort without causing death. A successful parasite (biologically) does not kill its host but may cause discomfort or worse. Here the captive animal is better off in that treatment easing minor suffering should be available.

But zoo animals can have their own particular health problems. The stress of being captured and transported can make an animal more liable to serious parasitic infection. Conditions in zoos can aid the spread of parasites, or else necessitate the provision of a dull, sterile environment in order to restrict their spread. Ungulates kept in small paddocks are prone to parasitic infection; cats can be when kept in other than very large enclosures. Until recently, they were thought to require concrete or tiles, easily washed and sterilized – and thus robbed of familiar and carefully deposited smells. It has now been found that deep woodchip litter, in addition to other advantages, prevents parasites’ eggs surviving. The new findings have greatly improved the situation for zoo primates too. An animal can be exposed in a zoo to infections that it wouldn’t face in the wild (Dunnsense of purposefulness.

Our feeling of frustration in failing to complete some task is (like pain, pleasure, and boredom) no doubt biologically useful. So it is likely that animals can feel similar frustration to ours – say if a lion has a meal to eat, but keeps being disturbed by hyenas.

Probably very important also are a sense of security and a sense of belonging. The Harlows’ (very inhumane) experiments showed how infant monkeys need a source of security, a source of confidence. Dogs can show their general sense of unease by failing to groom themselves. Of course, an animal should be able to enjoy this sense of security, and indeed many other pleasures, in good zoo conditions.

Obviously, in the wild, there are all sorts of discomforts, problems, and very real dangers: parasites, insect bites, problems of finding food – the unpleasantness of sometimes going without or actually starving – and so on. But we have our problems too, and for most of us, most of the time, they are not overwhelming. What often prevents a nervous breakdown is a sense of purpose and a sense of security. Although war is a cause of appalling suffering, the suicide rate tends to go down in wartime, presumably because people have more sense of purpose, and of comradeship and belonging, and these more than compensate for the presence of extra hardships in preventing extreme depression. A state of non-depression, a state far from that extreme depression which could lead to suicide is likely to accompany the state of being very busy; having things to get on with.

It is probably important to many animals, too, to have plenty to get on with, which wild animals normally obviously do, as well as having a sense of security and, where appropriate, companionship, a home base and proper relations with one’s companions in the case of a social animal. Marian Dawkins mentions experimental findings that sheep are stressed by situations such as being put in a truck or chased by a dog but nothing like as much as they are stressed by simply being separated from the rest of the flock, which bears out what I am suggesting.

And life in the wild is often not all “business,” essential activities for survival, compensated for only by a sense of purpose such as I have been proposing. There are also plenty of reports of animals enjoying themselves in a direct way – otters sliding down banks, badgers playing leapfrog, and so on.

So in brief, to give the provision of regular food and safety from predators and other dangers, not to mention discomforts, as pure and simple advantages, of captivity over against life in the wild is to leave out certain related disadvantages which go hand in hand with such advantages: the loss, in particular, of purposeful living. However, in many cases, it is possible to provide conditions of captivity which do a lot to compensate for the loss of the positive side of wild existence. But we need to recognize that positive side to realize our responsibility to provide suitably enriched captive conditions.


We began with comments on lions, polar bears, and birds in cages. But keeping animals doesn’t have to be like this. Sometimes, indeed, we can create an artificial habitat so attractive that animals just drop in: ponds for wildfowl, or for freshwater invertebrates, for example. Agreed, this is exceptional. In some ways, the deer in a large park may be living almost naturally. The Duke of Bedford, who saved the Pere David’s deer from extinction in the early years of this century, kept them at Woburn in a very large area, Alith lakes and marshes, v·vl1ere they bred well, but also faced such natural hazards as a high loss of young born in particularly bad weather.

The more normal, basic way of keeping animals is in what I would ( perhaps over-optimistically) call a semi-naturalistic enclosure – one which hopefully suggests the wild habitat to some degree, if not very closely. But the really important thing is that it should produce whatever features the animals need to allow and stimulate a large portion of their natural behavior, certainly including whatever means of locomotion – climbing, burrowing, swimming, and so on – they would normally use in the wild. For many animals such as various ungulates, and wallabies, their needs may be met by little more than a field suitably enclosed (Duncan and Poole 1990, 220). Rodents such as prairie dogs or porcupines may need only an enclosure of reasonable size allowing burrowing: they will create for themselves what else they need and will be fully occupied by excavations and their social relations.

Even with animals quite easily catered for, there is always room for improvement, especially in the light of their wild behavior, guided by careful monitoring of the animals’ behavior in the enclosure, but such improvement, or enrichment, becomes much more urgent with the more “difficult” animals: the highly intelligent, exploratory, opportunist and sometimes also (to make it worse) physically powerful animals such as bears, dogs, primates ( especially apes), and perhaps pigs.

Needed here is ingenuity in doing all possible to make the animals’ lives more interesting, in particular, whatever can be done to elicit their natural behavior (Shepherdson 1988). The obvious deprivation of zoo animals is the occupation of food seeking which in many cases would occupy them for long periods in the wild.

The remedy is to hide food so that it has to be searched for, or provide it so that it has to be worked for in some way. As before, it is usually a matter of providing a more or less natural-looking area. But where an area something like the natural habitat will probably be enough for wallabies, this may be far from enough, even with a tree or two or a climbing frame or two, for chimpanzees. A wooded enclosure the size of the chimpanzee island at Arnhem (de Wall 1982) is a different matter. Where an area like this is not available, it is still desirable for the enclosure to be as natural as possible or at least have natural elements such as a grassy area and plants, but it is still more important to provide what will stimulate the animals, which may be, for example, an artificial termite mound into which they can stick straws to extract not termites but honey. The significant thing about this example is that it is provided in the light of the knowledge of what chimpanzees do in the wild.

Howletts’ gorilla enclosure (near Canterbury in England) is a good example of a non-naturalistic enclosure which yet meets the animals’ requirements admirably, as is borne out by their breeding success. The enclosure looks more like a sort of gymnasium than a bit of rain-forest – a sort of health club for gorillas, indeed, or a holiday camp.

Of course, other matters come into the question of whether a certain species should be kept, such as the need or otherwise for conservational captive breeding. But our judgment of the animal’s well-being must clearly be a major factor as a guide to action, only to be overruled to a very limited degree by other considerations.

[adinserter block=”3″]


Leave a Comment