The Role of Zoos in Conservation: Ethical Considerations

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Rachel Stillman
HONH242
11/27/12

The Role of Zoos in Conservation: Ethical Considerations

As the animal rights movement has developed and grown substantially in recent years, there has been an increased focused on the welfare of captive animals. A popular institution that has received much attention for keeping animals captive is the zoo. Because of this focus, zoos have responded by publicizing their positive benefits for existence in order to justify keeping these animals on display. Since the term “zoo” can have a wide variety of meaning and characteristics, it is important to define what constitutes a zoo in this essay. Zoos are defined as a facility in which animals are confined within enclosures, displayed to the public, and in which they may also be bred. The zoos referred to in this paper describe their mission as an organization facilitating conservation, education and recreation. One of the largest and most popular of these, the San Diego Zoo, describes their organization as “being dedicated to the reproduction, protection, and exhibition of animals, plants and their habitats” (San Diego Zoo). As shown in the previous mission statement, one of the main arguments zoos use to justify keeping wild animals in captivity is species conservation. In this paper, I will address the arguments for which zoos claim that they are an appropriate institution for animal conservation. The three main reasons they present are prevention of species extinction, captive breeding, and successfully reintroducing animals into the wild. I will also provide the respective counter-arguments, which suggest that zoos do not contribute positively to the animal conservation movement. The first and most broad argument is that zoos contribute to preventing the extinction of a species. This claim is based on the concept that zoos keep endangered animals safe and try and help individual species repopulate within captivity. To fully evaluate the validity of this claim, we must consider the human motive behind preserving a species. Ethical scholar Steven Bostock argues that caring for animals through conservation is a moral matter. He affirms that the respect we provide for animals goes beyond that of personal property or the value of the animal itself. Instead, he holds that it is “a matter of not destroying something of value” (Bostock 124). Animals are the sorts of “things” that require being cared for and conserved. They are unique rather than easily replaceable. Often, what we as humans conserve is what is useful to us. However, it is not only things with economic or practical use that should be conserved. According to Bostock, we care for things, such as animals, that we also care about (Bostock 126). Though animals merit conservation for their aesthetic values, humans should honor this respect because of the unique features that an animal possesses. Some of these features include sentience, individuality and personality, evolving populations, and their relationship to their environment (Bostock 132). Therefore, these are the features that make a being “animal-like,” and merits humans to exert an effort towards preventing species extinction. In contrast, there are some ethical scholars who believe that it is unnecessary for humans to protect endangered species. Philosopher Tom Regan argues that animals possess inherent value, and once this is granted, there is little ground for making distinctions between individual animals (Lindburg 526). He asserts that a rare individual has no higher moral standing than one that is common. This animal still maintains the right not to be harmed, but it must be weighed equally with others who possess this right (Lindburg 527). Therefore, Regan would argue that there is no reason to make efforts to prevent a specific species from becoming extinct over another species, and therefore the zoo’s programs are unnecessary. Though the majority animal rights philosophers do not oppose efforts to save...
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