The Ethics of Zoos, a Conservation Conundrum

Zoos have a controversial history among conservationists. Some ethical frameworks praise zoos for increasing the intrinsic value of animals and expanding our knowledge in conservation biology to save threatened species, while others find the caging of wild animals cruel and objectifying, all for human entertainment. Over the past weekend, I visited two vastly different forms of “zoos,” The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and the National Aquarium, to weigh both sides of this issue. 

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An aerial view of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute located in Front Royal, Virginia (c) The National Zoo

I had never heard of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute until a few weeks ago. The institute is a part of the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. and plays a lead role in the Smithsonian’s global effort to save threatened and endangered species. Located outside Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal, Virginia, the center is home to several species of threatened or endangered species from around the world, including the American bison, red panda and the black-footed ferret.  While closed to the public, the center hosts students from around the world and even offers a “study abroad” program in which undergraduate and graduate students can take courses in conservation (accredited by George Mason University). Last Friday, a few fellow NPCA interns and I went to the institute for a behind-the-scenes look at species conservation.

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A black-footed ferret (c) The Nature Conservancy

Centers like SCBI are crucial to the preservation of species and assist in our understanding of veterinary medicine. SCBI has played a crucial role in the reintroduction of once regionally extinct species, one in particular is the black-footed Ferret. A once-thriving American prairie species, the Black-footed Ferret relied heavily on prairie dogs as a source of food. Prairie dog control programs and the conversion of prairie land to cropland led to the decline in prairie dog population, and inadvertently, the decline in Black-footed Ferrets. The loss of prairie dogs as a source of food, combined with low genetic diversity and a disease, known as  canine distemper, left the ferret extinct in large portions of the prairie. The species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1967 and became the focus of several captive breeding programs around the country.  SCBI worked in collaboration with other zoos to institute reintroduction programs throughout the prairie, and has been marked as one of the first examples of assisted reproduction contributing to the conservation of a species. In 2007, over 650 Black-footed ferrets existed in the wild and that number has continued to grow. A 2013 study found that the number of wild ferrets had doubled to over 1200 individuals living in the wild. Without institutes like SCBI, reintroduction programs to save endangered species would not be possible.

The next day, some friends and I took the MARC train from D.C. to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium. As a child I treasured my visits to the National Aquarium, not stopping to think about the lives of the animals who lived in enclosures. Now, as protests loom over aquarium programs like SeaWorld’s orca shows and as movies like Finding Dory (2016) portray the suffocating effects of glass tanks on the species who inhabit them, it is more imperative than ever to weigh the ethics behind aquariums. The National Aquarium, located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, has worked to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay through cleaning up sites like Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, educating guests on bay importance, and serving as an advocate for Bay protection.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland taken from a water taxi on the Inner Harbor (c) AndrewHorne

One of the centerpieces of the aquarium is The Dolphin Discovery exhibit, which includes seven Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Marine mammal exhibits seem to create the most controversy, piquing my interest in the way in which the animals are treated and how the trainers educate guests about the dolphins. Several times throughout the show the trainer told viewers that while the dolphins are trained to follow certain commands, they are allowed to choose which “movement” to perform. If the trainer would hold her hand up in a certain way, the dolphin would choose to do a backflip or splash the audience, but could not repeat that movement. If done correctly, the dolphin was given a fish. She then told us about how they ensure that the dolphins are kept stimulated and active in the tanks to avoid the anxiety that can come from being in a tank. At the end of the show, I could not help but still feel a bit uncomfortable about the entire thing. While I do think that the exhibit is important to educating people on the importance of dolphins, the use of them for entertainment was a bit hard to swallow. 

I do not think there is a “right” answer to the zoo debate. It is important that we stay critical of our treatment of animals and challenge ourselves each day to ask who really is benefiting from this show or exhibit. The primary goal of any type of zoological organization should be conservation, using the species under their care to entertain guests through education about the species and what guest can do to ensure that they continue to exist in the wild. Zoos should benefit animals as much as we benefit from them; striving to achieve this balance creates a zoological system that positively contributes to the global conservation of species.

The view a top one of the rolling hills within the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute