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Rethinking how we treat our animals

Jerry Stones was the caretaker of Harambe, a male western lowland gorilla, for 15 years.

The trainer says Harambe was “like a son,” and he called the animal “inquisitive,” “curious” and “mischievous.”

Deeply shaken when Harambe was shot and killed May 28 after a 3-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, Stones recalled bottle-feeding the gorilla, bringing him home at night, changing his diaper.

It’s troubling to think of a being capable of mischief and curiosity confined for human pleasure.

A torrent of conversation

Since Harambe was shot, there has been a
Photo Credit: AP

Since Harambe was shot, there has been a torrent of conversation about who is at fault: Was the mother negligent? Was the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden? How did the boy get into the enclosure, and did Harambe need to be killed to save the child?

But these are easily answered. The boy fell in because his mother made the terrible mistake of taking her eyes off him for too long, as parents do. The boy fell in because the zoo likely made an error, as institutions do. Harambe was killed because zoo employees made a decision, as they had to.

The more profound questions center around how the whole situation came to pass: Do we really need zoos? Are they the best way to preserve species and teach people to love animals? Is it moral to imprison primates as intelligent as Harambe? And how does all this fit with a growing concern about the relationship between humans and animals as pets, as food and as sentient creatures worthy of caring treatment?

Different from the past

The earliest known zoo existed in ancient Egypt.

The earliest known zoo existed in ancient Egypt. They proliferated as a way to show people curiosities from far-off lands, often with little concern for the living conditions of the animals. Over time, the settings and the sensibilities changed as more zoos were taken over by municipalities or not-for-profit foundations that tried to create natural, comfortable habitats. But the history of zoos is laced with tragedy, from animals growing despondent, attacking each other, or falling victim to catastrophes, such as the fire at South Carolina's Hollywild Animal Park last year that killed 28 creatures.

The relationship between humans and animals is vastly different from the past. We form intense attachments to our pets, which can lead to empathy toward other animals. Increasing numbers of people refuse to consume animals, or any animal products at all. And even among those who do eat meat, there is growing concern about how those animals are treated. Companies recognize this and are making changes. McDonald's, for example, has pledged to no longer buy eggs laid by chickens that live in cages.

The ethics of imprisoning animals

The way many of us look at the
Photo Credit: Handout

The way many of us look at the imprisonment of exhibition animals is changing, too, causing a dramatic evolution in that business. Last month, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus retired its performing elephants after years of protests. And earlier this year, SeaWorld announced it would phase out the use of killer whales in its shows, in part a response to the reaction to the movie "Blackfish," which accused SeaWorld of abusing orcas.

Some ethicists argue that imprisoning any animal that naturally ranges far and wide, like elephants or whales or birds, is abuse. And there is a growing sense that confining primates such as the zoo-born Harambe is uncomfortably close to confining humans.

Yet there are compelling arguments to be made for zoos, and the inclusion of animals like Harambe in them. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 75 percent of Americans approve of zoos and aquariums and its 233 members (217 in the United States) have made huge strides in habitat quality and conservation programs.

Another argument for zoos is that the natural habitats of rare animals are being devastated. Some species might continue to exist only via zoo programs, or might be reintroduced into the wild thanks to zoos. Supporters also argue zoos foster respect for animals, and help people learn about and even fall in love with them. That can lead to support for humane treatment programs and recognition that all species and habitats need protection.

Acceptable treatment of animals

But imprisonment of thinking, feeling creatures because it
Photo Credit: AP

But imprisonment of thinking, feeling creatures because it could benefit the species, or encourage humans to care about them, might be a tough argument to make morally. Experts say as many as 99 percent of all zoo animals are not part of a conservation effort, and attempts to rebuild populations of endangered animals within zoos often fail.

What is considered acceptable treatment of zoo animals has come a long way. Many tiny steel cages have been replaced by realistic-seeming versions of natural habitats. Our increased empathy for the plight of zoo animals springs from increased knowledge about their thoughts and emotions. Our increased empathy toward agricultural animals springs largely from our prosperity. Many of us, no longer desperate for affordable food, have the luxury of being concerned over how it is produced.

As long as zoos house dangerous animals, there will be occasional mishaps like the one that killed Harambe. This incident challenges us to question not only how he died, but how he lived.


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