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Zoos Aren’t Sanctuaries

Published 12/15/04
By Craig Brestrup, Ph.D.
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 4, Winter 2004

API is pleased to bring our readers this Guest Commentary by Craig Brestrup, Ph.D., a Board Member and former Executive Director of TAOS (The Association of Sanctuaries).

The August issue of Communique, the official magazine of the American Zoo & Aquarium Association (AZA), featured an article entitled “What’s in a Name? Zoo vs. Sanctuary” by Michael Hutchins, Director of the AZA Department of Conservation and Science.

Impetus for the article came from the decision by the Detroit and San Francisco Zoos to send their elephants to sanctuaries. Both zoos had determined that they were unable to provide adequately for the elephants’ needs. Since elephants are among zoos’ most popular exhibits, one can assume that the decisions did not come easily. The AZA reacted strongly to the zoos’ determination, threatening possible loss of accreditation if the zoos move forward without AZA authorization, which isn’t likely to be given.

The elephants in question were destined for two sanctuaries accredited by The Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS): The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California and The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The purported purpose of Hutchins’ article was to outline the “differences and similarities — both real and perceived — that exist between AZA accredited zoos and sanctuaries.” The article’s tone, however, made it clear that these “differences and similarities” are meant to be construed in a particular way, one that would support the AZA position on the elephants in question.

What’s in a Name?

The differences between zoos and sanctuaries are many, and go far beyond semantics. Such contrast is seen most fundamentally in how zoos and sanctuaries conceptualize their purpose, and in the ethics that underlie those conceptions.

Sanctuaries are conceived out of a sense of necessity. People see animals displaced or exploited and recognize that the options for most of those animals boil down to death, suffering — or sanctuary. They don’t believe it a good thing that the animals live in captivity, but see no better alternatives considering the animals’ histories and current circumstances.

Out of this sense of necessity come sanctuaries’ core values. In true sanctuaries, which are either not open to the public, or are open only in a limited way, animals will be provided lifetime care and will not be bred or used for commercial purposes. They will simply be provided a place to live out their lives as satisfactorily and naturally as possible, with the emphasis always being on their needs rather than the public’s or the profession’s.

Zoos, on the other hand, arise from choice, and over the decades of their existence the choice has been based on changing rationales. Entertainment and recreation, education, conservation, research — take your pick. But whatever the rationale, one thing remains constant: Animals are bred and sometimes taken from the wild for exhibit (and then sometimes culled or otherwise disposed of as “surplus”). And in the acceptance of animal exhibitory, zoos assume that animals inhabit a different moral universe from humans, one in which incarceration of creatures who should be free is acceptable simply because humans choose to do it.

Furthermore, choosing captivity undercuts zoos’ own claims to believe “passionately” in the protection of nature, and their own effectiveness in asserting and implementing that claim. One simply cannot serve as a powerful influence for the protection of wildlife while at the same time choosing to hold in captivity representative members of the wild realms. Assigning these animals the fatuous label of “ambassadors” does not mitigate the central fact of imposed captivity and its underlying assumptions.

Recognizing the moral status of animals requires more than information and rationality; empathy and imagination are equally vital. The AZA wants to believe that the problems of wildlife conservation will be largely solved by science. But the fact is that the problems afflicting wildlife and nature as a whole are problems of culture and values, and until they are confronted at that level they will not be remedied.

PAWS and The Elephant Sanctuary are clearly better equipped to provide for those elephants than any zoo in the country. And just as important, the values that they and The Association of Sanctuaries espouse are more consistent with the kind of life-affirming cultural changes that ultimately are necessary if nature and our fellow creatures, not to mention the human spirit, are to flourish.

NOTE: A longer version of this article is available on the “News/Events” section of the TAOS website (www.taosanctuaries.org). As this article went to press, the AZA announced that it would permit the Detroit Zoo elephants to go to an accredited sanctuary, and the elephants from the San Francisco zoo were transferred to PAWS.

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