A history of zoo ethics explored with primates

Primates are highly representative of the progressive zoo ethics within the Western world. Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes, tea parties were once epitome of early zoos along with barren concrete cages with metal barred walls and the iconic lone tire swing. Functioning initially as an example of human curiosity and entertainment, zoo primates are surrounded by a historically significant philosophy which continues to shape the ethics of zoological institutions today. I propose that primates, our closest kin,  continue to represent the many ethical issues of zoo management practised within the West today.

The appeal of primates as zoo animals largely and initially stemmed from their kinship with humans. The first chimpanzees housed in zoos were exploited based upon their physical similarities to humans and comparable cognitive ability, allowing them to manipulate house-hold items in a manner of resemblance to human daily activities. Thus the chimpanzee tea parties were borne. The entertainment value of which has drawn the attention of philosophers and biologists alike. de Waal (2001) claims such anthropomorphism of ridiculing human-imitation denatured chimps in an attempt to detach oneself from the reality of relatedness, a reality which calls moral obligations into question. By reducing them to a role lower than human status, we can place ourselves upon the proverbial pedistall and disregard the rights we possibly (and probably) should allocate to apes which we can clearly see have social and cognitive needs comparable to our own. After all, we do have a history of segregating our own species let alone others- historically we wouldn’t lock up our beloved grandmother but we would our slaves.


Relatedness to apes was widely criticized throughout the 1800s for fear of abandonment of traditional Judeo-Christian standings. The original works of Rene Descartes and Thomas Aquinas, who believed animals were mere automatons without thought or self awareness permitted animal exploitation free from the moral constraints applied to humans. However, the Darwinian revolution of the latter 1800s dissolved the species boundaries imposed by the Scala Natura which once depicted humans above all other life forms on earth, thus making way for a more egalitarian theory: evolution by natural selection (Darwin 1859). Therefore, the kinship between humans and primates has had an extensive and uneasy history, including significant ramifications to religious ideology. Advancements in scientific species classification in the recent neo-Darwinian era of DNA analysis confirmed the chimpanzee as our closest genetic kin, with significant consequences for our moral obligations to them. Our kinship with primates is also vastly exploited by their neotony. The cute response, a term coined by Konrad Lorenz, depicts the innate drive to care for organisms with human-like infantile morphology. In addition, the similarities in emotive expressions of primates and humans as documented by Darwin (1872), make primates highly susceptible to anthropomorphism and provide a clear reminder of our close relation. It is little wonder then why the decisions surrounding captive management of primates (in particular apes) are very emotive and controversial.

Primates are a favoured taxon within zoos for attracting visitors. Primate species are utilized in zoos as educational resources, acting as captive ambassadors to wild counterparts, generating public concern for species survival and contributing to in situ conservation efforts. The captive propagation of many primate species is also considered extremely important, with almost half (48%) of the worlds primates (n= 634 species) threatened with extinction (IUCN 2010). Primarily these alarming rates of decline are due to human impact, habitat loss, human encroachment and fragmentation being the most commonly cited threats to species within the Primate order. One could thus argue that the appeal of zoo-housed captive primates regardless of direct conservation value provide strong incentives for public education and outreach for wild-counterparts.

Euthanasia of surplus zoo animals has been a controversial issue seeing much media attention in recent months after the punishing social media storm which arose after Copenhagen Zoo euthenazed Marius the giraffe, to then cull several lions within weeks of the media and public onslaught. Yet Primates are rarely subjected to culling when zoos become over capacity, many institutions choosing to continue the life of captive great apes past their breeding age at significant financial cost to the zoo despite those very costs and zoo space being better utilized for other functioning animals. So why is this? I believe it be the same theme as was proposed by de Waal in response to humans revelling in the chimpanzee tea parties. In the short, we don’t want to kill our relatives. Just as de Waal claimed ridicule functions to detach ourselves from our moral obligations to chimpanzees, we detach ourselves from the role of zoo apes as a functioning living specimen by subsisting them as individuals and believing their role within the zoo is second to their rights to life. A right to life which primates have but other cognitive animals do not. From the zoological perspective one may conclude the loss of earnings resultant from the public outcry in response to the euthanasia of great apes would far outweigh the benefits made by eradicating individuals taking up valued resources.

Primates also offer a unique insight into the effectiveness of captive breeding strategies for in situ conservation. Just one year prior to me writing this, there were believed to be ~400 primate species, but now there are somewhere in the region of 600! Not only are new primate species being discovered (the Arunachal macaque [macaca munzala] being just one example), but species which were once believed to be one species are rediscovered as two (the orangutan being a beautiful case in point). Hybridizations of species within captivity can therefore be mildly problematic to say the least- Over 80 Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelli) hybrids remain in American zoos today, all of which have NO conservation value. That is 80 mouths to feed for up to 50 years of their average captive lives, and they do not represent wild lineages. Yet again, we sustain these animals because they are our relatives, our moral and ethical obligations- and I believe it should be so.

Coming back to the cute response, another common theme depicted throughout the zoo-debate literature is the over-breeding of ‘cute’ animals in order to attract more visitors. As much as I advocate zoos (but I do not by far agree with many of their independent management decisions), I fear this is indeed the case. Primates are especially susceptible to anthropomorphism, and as such the birth of a baby gorilla, orangutan, gibbon or any other round-raced dow-eyed neonate, is a sure way of attracting increased zoo visitors and financial revenue-not just in ticket sales but in cute and cuddly merchandise and heightened media coverage. This not only enhances the problem of surplus stock but also inadvertently promotes primates as pets. From my own experience working with ex-pet primates and also within zoos, the most common response I heard on an almost hourly basis was “oh how cute, I really want one!” Unless captive breeding is a conservation strategy then the promotion of baby zoo-housed primates should not be condoned without increasing efforts of education explaining a) why this baby was born in a zoo and not in the wild, and b) why baby primates should not be raised by humans.  If anything I believe baby primates should remain off-show to the public until the cute-response is weakened by age.

Although this post just details a snippet of how primates can depict zoo ethics throughout history, I find it really interesting that primates can illustrate the historical journey of zoos, from their function as entertainment  to conservation. From the Victorian era to the present day- primates represent very clearly the different ethical implications to housing zoo animals and meeting zoo objectives.


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