Carnivores in captivity: a question of motive and ethics

The debate on whether animals should be kept in captivity or not continues to rage on. Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

In the aftermath of several – in some cases fatal – wildlife attacks, social and mainstream media have been alive with the debate about whether wild animals, especially large predators, should be kept in captivity.

Personally, I try to steer well clear of the emotionally charged, and generally not evidence-based, social media feeds and instead focus on the bare facts of the issue. So, what is at play when we start to talk about the merits and problems of keeping wild animals, particularly ones with large teeth and sharp claws, in captive or even semi-captive situations?

On the one hand, animal rights activists argue that no wild animal should be kept in captivity because it is cruel and unethical.

On the other, captive facilities offer a slightly more convoluted argument. Some operations argue that the experience of seeing and sometimes touching an animal in captivity provides people with an important link to nature through practical education.

Other captive facilities argue that they are vital cogs in the wheel of endangered species conservation. In southern Africa, captive facilities take the conservation angle even further by claiming that their animals will be released back into the wild.

Some of the studies on wild animals in captivity make no bones about the fact that keeping animals in captivity is harmful to the animals.

But whose argument is based on fact and who is blowing smoke up your sails?

The ethics are tricky

Your attitude to keeping animals in captivity will almost certainly change depending on your philosophical outlook. Some may say that as long as the animals are happy, there isn’t a problem. But how do you measure happiness in a captive animal? And does the reason for the animal being in captivity make a situation more or less ethical?

Let me use the example of large carnivores in captive and semi-captive facilities in South Africa. Almost all of these facilities will tell you that their animals are contributing towards the conservation of the species.

Some may also tell you that their animals will be released back into the wild once they reach a certain age. But both of these statements are false and misleading. It is extremely unlikely that captive-born carnivores will ever be successfully re-wilded.

Tourists watch a cheetah in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. Reuters/Radu Sigheti

Also, if you cannot re-wild a captive-born carnivore, then it cannot effectively contribute towards the conservation of the species. So, what then is the motivation behind these captive facilities and can this be considered ethical? The answer, quite simply, is money. Tourists are willing to pay huge money to “walk with lions” or “pet a cheetah”. To me, this is unethical and certainly does not promote any form of carnivore conservation.

Such facilities cannot be considered ethical if there is any risk whatsoever to human life. Recent events in KwaZulu-Natal involving cheetahs attacking people indicate there often is a significant risk and this is related to the animals losing their fear of humans.

But what of the argument that getting close to animals and even touching them gets you to connect better with nature and promotes wildlife conservation awareness? A published study indicates that this is probably not the case for the specific situation they were assessing – particularly not in a captive setting.

The conservation awareness of visitors to captive, semi-captive and wildlife parks did not appear to be affected, even in the more extensive environment of the wildlife park. There are several books on the topic and while we may be divided about the overall educational value of captive animals, perhaps we should take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book and recognise all animals as being sentient creatures just like us.

If we were to do that, then there probably wouldn’t be a place for animals in captivity.

Most of the research done on the topic is divided, so drawing hard and fast conclusions is not necessarily possible. No doubt this debate is going to continue to rage and the internet and the scientific literature is going to continue to be flooded by opinion pieces and studies attempting to debunk the findings of some previous study – but that’s what science is about.

For now, knowledge is power. Ask the tough questions of captive wildlife owners, do some background research and make sure that you go into any captive wildlife scenario fully informed. If you do that, all you have left to contend with is your conscience.