Natural Resources & Conservation

The Ethics of Animals in Captivity

activism animal welfare
October 12, 2017

In the fall of 2016, TripAdvisor announced that it would no longer handle bookings for trips involving interactions with animals in captivity, including riding elephants, petting tigers, and swimming with dolphins. The travel site recognized that it—and the travelers it services—had a responsibility to treat animals well. The following year, the dating app Tinder announced that it would no longer allow users to post photos with tigers. These decisions were influenced by a 2015 study funded by several animal welfare organizations and published in PLOS One that looked at different wildlife tourist attractions, comparing the effect on animals with customer perception of the experience based on TripAdvisor reviews. They found that visitors often misunderstood the effect of their visit on the animals. The tiger-petting experiences targeted by both TripAdvisor and Tinder, for example, often involve drugging the animals to make them docile around visitors.

Growing Awareness and Gradual Change

Although it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to interact with a beautiful animal, the public is becoming more aware of the damage that may result from these encounters. Perhaps at one time these attractions may have been justified for their ability to raise awareness of the existence of these creatures and the damage being done to their habitats. With modern media and communications, though, this reasoning is less convincing. A quick internet search or a few seconds with the television remote control brings up footage of almost any animal living where it should live and doing what it normally does.

Many zoos, aquariums, and farms around the world adhere to high standards of animal welfare and work to promote the conservation of wild spaces. For example, the Boston Aquarium doesn’t just display wildlife. It also advises seafood companies on responsible sourcing and runs educative programs about climate change’s effects on marine life. These organizations are exempt from the TripAdvisor ban and are now labeled with an icon that links to an education portal explaining the issues with animals in captivity and tourism.

And many businesses offering animal-based entertainment have done much to improve their operations over the years. Zoos no longer allow people to feed marshmallows to bears, for example, and aquariums have researched ways to grow coral so that reefs do not need to be destroyed. There’s greater emphasis education and conservation, which benefits all involved.

Positive Action

This changing perspective affects the travel and tourism industry, certainly, but it affects other industries as well. As people become more aware of how animals are treated, they’re asking tough questions before spending their money. And, they may spend it in ways that promote improved treatment of animals: focusing on organizations that restore habitats instead of those that remove animals from them, taking their children to a play instead of to the circus, and buying more humanely raised meat—or less meat overall.

The change in business is already under way. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus folded in 2017. SeaWorld puts information about its treatment of animals front and center in hopes of warding off the same fate. Consumers ask questions. Companies without answers may go the way of the dodo.

As this shift in demand occurs, animals themselves will be better off. Those in captivity now are treated better than their predecessors, and more work is being done on habitat preservation and conservation to protect animals in the wild. Greater consumer respect for animals is leading to less interaction with them, and maybe that’s how it should be.

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