Why do we continue to exhibit animals in zoos?

A 19th-century zoological garden was an educational display for the pleasure of humans with only limited obligations to animal welfare

Recent controversy about the death of animals in Tayto Park is a reminder of the complexity of keeping animals in captivity for human amusement. When most zoological gardens were founded, around the middle of the 19th century, western Europeans were certain of their place in the world. A 19th-century zoological garden was an educational display for the pleasure of human visitors with only limited obligations to animal welfare. Humans, at the top of the great chain of being, had a God-given right to superintend the animals of the world as they saw fit.

The animal rights movement, concerns about species extinction, and climate change have affected our perspective, at least a little. Yet arguing about how many animal deaths is tolerable in captivity is not really addressing the fundamental question of whether we think collecting and displaying animals for our amusement is ethical.

Dublin Zoo

The Dublin Zoo was opened in 1831, one of the earliest examples of a zoological garden in

Europe

. The Dublin

Zoological Society

had very limited funds and relied on donated animals to create a display. They also had almost no money to spend on building appropriate homes for the animals. There were no veterinary science degrees offered in Dublin until the 20th century. Even if there had been, veterinary science was concerned with caring for horses, sheep and cattle. The only avenue for learning how to take care of exotic animals was experience.

Deaths in the early zoo were to be expected. A combination of poor living conditions and unfamiliar diets contributed to the death rates. Animals used to a warmer, drier climate suffered particularly badly. Tuberculosis and pneumonia were often blamed for the deaths of monkeys, many confined in very close quarters to keep them warm. Rats preyed on small mammals and birds. Animals injured themselves on their cages and their wounds could fester and lead to death. In 1836, the elephant almost broke down her door, injuring herself in the process. The bears cut their feet on their cage in 1860 and a member hoped that “perhaps it will not be of serious consequence”. The Barbary ape was killed in 1862 before she could die of a wound that was “absolutely rotten”.

This is not to say that the society evinced no care for the animals; they absolutely did. If nothing else, replacing animals was expensive and the society rarely had an excess of funds. When an old lion was sick in 1863, keepers stayed up all night feeding him “broth and whiskey”.

They were choosy about food when they could afford it, and dictated improved diets and outdoor exercise to promote health. They worked hard to discourage visitors from harming or teasing the animals. Yet the society never questioned whether it was right for people to keep animals in cages so that other people might look at them. Human cultural norms rather than animal needs dictated aspects of animal care. Carnivores were not permitted meat on Sundays in 1832. Animals were encouraged or denied opportunities to reproduce, depending on the needs of the zoo.

Naturalised landscapes

The Dublin Zoo and most zoos have changed dramatically since the 19th century. Influenced by the ideas of

Carl Hagenbeck

, zoos moved away from animals in barred cages towards naturalised landscapes and less visible signs of confinement. We expect to see animals with space to roam in environments that have been made to resemble natural conditions. And we expect keepers to take good care of the animals, to feed them appropriately and treat them when they are sick.

Yet we rarely ask ourselves the more difficult question of why we continue to exhibit animals in zoos. We certainly never exhibit people in this way, a practice that was common enough throughout the 19th century. I am not a vegetarian or an animal rights activist and I have always enjoyed a visit to the zoo. Zoos can draw attention to conservation issues and offer a kind of refuge for endangered species. Zoos remain immensely popular tourist attractions. But when we see concerns raised about how animals are treated in one menagerie, maybe we should take the opportunity to discuss whether we want to continue keeping animals in captivity in the future.

Dr Juliana Adelman lectures in history at Dublin City University