India bans captive dophins, Italians want to follow suit, and Costa Rica deep-sixes its zoos

August 6, 2013 • 10:40 am

Readers here will know that I’m not a big fan of putting animals, especially big ones, in captivity for people to gawk at.  All too often the real reasons are at odds with the professed reasons, and the suffering of large, sentient animals in confined quarters does not, to me, justify the meager research results that come from most zoos and aquaria. By all means have facilities to breed endangered species for release, and it’s possible, I suppose, to keep animals like small reptiles or amphibians in captivity without their suffering. But I’ve seen too many animals driven neurotic by captivity to retain much enthusiasm for zoos, or any enthusiasm for places like Sea World. (It’s worse when the animals are large-free roaming sea mammals that have to do tricks to bring in the cash.)

So I’m encouraged by several recent developments on the zoo-and-aquarium front.

First, according to the Environmental News Service, on May 17 India banned the captivity of dolphins for public entertainment everywhere in the country:

The statement issued by B.S. Bonal, the member secretary of the Central Zoo Authority of India, acknowledges that cetaceans in general do not survive well in captivity, saying, “Confinement in captivity can seriously compromise the welfare and survival of all types of cetaceans by altering their behaviour and causing extreme distress.”

Noting that India’s national aquatic animal, the Ganges River dolphin, as well as the snubfin dolphin are listed in Schedule-I and all cetacean species are listed in Schedule II part I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the ministry said it is important to protect these endangered species from captivity and exploitation.

“Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose,” the ministry said.

From the land of “spiritual” enlightenment, this is true moral and biological enlightenment. Can you imagine Sea World saying something like this?  But now India needs to recognize that sentience and intelligence in animals occurs a sliding scale, and is not disjunct at primates and cetaceans. We need to recognize that other species have the capacity to suffer as well. India’s zoos (I’ve been to a few, and will never go again) are some of the cruelest and saddest places in the world, and if India’s government is serious about morality, stress, and suffering, they should ban those as well.

The people of Italy have weighed in on this issue, too, with an announcement yesterday that the overwhelming majority of Italians oppose captivity for dolphins. From Born Free:

An IPSOS survey has revealed that 96% of Italians want to see an end to the keeping of dolphins in captivity, with 81% admitting that they believe dolphins to be ‘happier’ in the wild.

On 4th July, recognised as the ‘World Day opposing the captivity of dolphins’, the Born Free Foundation and likeminded animal protection organisations, FAADA (Spain) and LAV and Marevivo (Italy) launched a campaign to end the exploitation of dolphins in captivity in Italy.

“In Italy, the dolphins in captivity provide no benefit to public education or species conservation, the key requirements of the Italian and European zoo law, instead they are forced to perform demeaning tricks to music and are housed in unnatural, cramped conditions  to provide ‘entertainment’,” said LAV and Marevivo. “This exploitation of these highly intelligent animals must end.”

LAV and Marevivo have presented their investigation of Italian dolphinaria to the Minister of the Environment, Andrea Orlando, asking him to investigate the identified violations with Italian law.

LAV and Marevivo have recently joined a growing number of European NGOs to call for an end to the keeping of dolphins and whales (collectively known as cetaceans) in captivity in Europe. Focusing on the effects that captivity imposes on the welfare and survival of the dolphins, the consortium of NGOs has launched the public-focus campaign film, SOS DOLPHINS, to raise greater awareness and call for a phasing-out of the industry.

In the European Union there are a total of 33 dolphinaria, displaying a reported 290 cetaceans of six different species. Spain has the largest number, with 11 dolphinaria, whilst Italy has a total of 5 dolphinaria keeping 24 bottlenose dolphins and one Risso’s dolphin.

This follows a survey in Spain in which more than 90% of its citizens opposed captivity for cetaceans, and 87% thought these animals were happier in the wild. You can read about the campaign in that country here.

Finally, as reported by lots of venues and the Mother Nature Network, Costa Rica—one of the most environmentally conscious countries on Earth—is poised to close its two government-run zoos.

The Costa Rican government has announced a plan to close the country’s two public zoos next year and release some of the resident animals back into the wild, although the foundation that runs the two facilities disagrees with the plan. Affected would be Simon Bolivar Zoo in San Jose and the nearby Santa Ana Conservation Center.
The country’s Environment and Energy Minister Rene Castro said at a press conference last week that the decision to close the zoos came from “a change of environmental conscience among Costa Ricans.” The country recently banned sport hunting (although illegal poaching remains a problem), and it banned animals in circuses back in 2002.
At the press conference, Deputy Environment Minister Ana Lorena Guevara said the animals that cannot be returned to the wild will be handed over to animal rescue organizations. If that doesn’t work out, she said the government will find a place for some of them in other conservation zones.
. . . A spokesperson for Fundazoo, the foundation that runs the two zoos, told the Associated Press that it has asked a court to block the planned closure and says its contract to run the facilities runs through the year 2024.

This trend is, I hope, part of the arc of increasing morality described in Steve Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature. It’s time we stopped putting animals in prison for our entertainment.  And yes, it’s largely entertainment, not education. A zoo official once told me that despite their efforts to put up signs describing the animals and their biology, visitors spent about two second looking at each sign, just trying to verify what the animal was. The rest was gawking. And yes, maybe a few people have become biologists, or supported conservation, by going to zoos, but we have to balance that against the immense suffering that capture and captivity produces in wild beasts. If we really want to balance “well being,” we have to take into account the well being of our evolutionary cousins.

There are some valid reasons for captivity, first among them to preserve endangered species and increase their number—but with the goal of returning them to the wild. That, of course, requires that we preserve natural habitat as well: the homes of wild animals and plants.

What right does one species of highly cerebralized primates have to destroy every other species and its habitat?

46 thoughts on “India bans captive dophins, Italians want to follow suit, and Costa Rica deep-sixes its zoos

  1. Great. Thanks for posting this.

    I also don’t like zoos all that much. Never have really. It pains me to see the animals looking depressed. That may be me anthropomorphizing, but I doubt it.

  2. Yes, the reason we stayed out of Spain (except for one visit to Barcelona) is the public torture of bulls. I think Hemingway was a good writer, but he was a complete fool admiring those sadist calling themselves heroes torturing bulls.

    1. I believe cruelty is associated with religion. Spain is a Catholic country, and besides a bad history with Fascism, it agrees with the public torture of animals. It is even encouraging this practice to attract more tourists. Now we have Malta, a super-Catholic country, refusing the landing of 100 helpless immigrants from Africa on an oil tanker who rescued them. Religion tells…

      1. Spain has a bad history with Fascism because the UK and the USA failed to give us any support during the civil war. Spanish people like myself are fighting constantly against bullfighting and other fiestas that involve the torment of animals and the practice is slowly becoming less socially aceptable. The fact that tourists come here to take part in the bullrun in Pamploma is because they think that they are like the arsehole Hemmingway but they are not encouraged by many of us. They should look to themselves why they are supporting this.

        Religión certainly tells and many of us are fighting this too, but the reaction of Malta isn’t that different from the average UKIP supporter in the good ol’ UK.

        1. It’s the same with the horrible rodeo in Alberta. Every year animals are hurt in that but it brings in $$ so despite the outcry, it continues.

        2. Spain has a bad history with Fascism because the UK and the USA failed to give us any support during the civil war.

          Castigate the governments as you like, but not the people. We’ve got at least one street in town named for a volunteer in the International Brigade. [Link],-2.112545&z=18

          the reaction of Malta isn’t that different from the average UKIP supporter in the good ol’ UK.

          This must be some usage of “good” which is novel to me. UKIP don’t even have the honesty to be openly racist – it’s neo-fascism with a big yellow stripe up it’s back.
          Sadly I’ve recently had to be castigating my trade union over their following of the racist and UKIP line on immigrant labour. It may be popular, but that doesn’t make it right.

          1. I was not castigating the people. I have British family who fought in the International Brigade as well as Spanish family who fought against the facists.

            My use of the word “good” was in the context of how some people (English) refer to the UK as “Good ol’ Blighty”.

            My reference to the UKIP was because of how they are gaining support from racist and xenophobic British people. I do not mean to infer that all British people are this way. In fact I know that they are not.

  3. I’m in a particularly misanthropic mood today brought on by working with other humans but at least some humans are doing the right thing here.

  4. I lived in Costa Rica in the mid-eighties. At that time, people just LOVED Ronald Reagan. I kept telling anyone who would listen that their values and Reagan’s values couldn’t be more different.

    It was weird.

    1. It’s one thing for other developed countries to be ahead of us on ethics/morality issues, but developing countries like India, Costa Rica and Italy? Pathetic. We still refuse to sign the international land mine treaty, a no-brainier if ever there was one.

        1. Just kidding, Diana, although I was there in 1985 and could still see damage from WWII. I think the only developing country in Europe is currently Greece….

          1. Ha ha I grew up in an Italian neighbourhood and I considered what the reaction would be if I casually called Italy a “developing country” to them. I’m thinking it would be bad, but these guys also called all the “white girls” – don’t know what colour they thought they were (myself included) puttana whenever they saw us so I had a little mental revenge going on.

      1. It’s not a no-brainer. A complete ban on land mines could endanger the security of the U.S. and its allies, particularly South Korea. That’s why the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have all refused to support the ban.

      2. I wonder why you would assume that “developed” (= “highly industrialized economy”) should necessarily translate into more ethical regimes (or conversely, why you would expect “developing” economies to have lower standards of ethics). Some of the most gruesome recent examples of repressive regimes were all based in highly industrialized economies (I am thinking of the the third Reich, the Japanese empire during the second World War, assorted Soviet regimes and the British Empire before the second world war).

  5. But I’ve seen too many animals driven neurotic by captivity to retain much enthusiasm for zoos, or any enthusiasm for places like Sea World.

    I worked as a zookeeper a couple of years ago, and one of my main purposes was to provide stimulating enrichment for the animals. It was a constant struggle trying to find different ways to make the day a bit more interesting for these animals, and you was sort of working against the enviroment because of the limited space in many enclosures. A large part of the animals, especially the predators, showed signs of distress on a daily basis and no matter what we did, we simply couldn’t provide the proper environment as nature intended, but we did our outmost.

    To me it is a double edged sword. On the one hand I wish that all these magnificent animals could return to their natural habitats, and on the other hand I wish to sustain the largest genepool possible. ( without the animals suffering , of course )

    The sad fact of the matter is that many of these habitats are gone, and many others are rapidly headed in the same direction. To turn the tide on this development, we need a global paradigm shift, and I for one can’t see that happening anytime soon.

    We need Zoo’s and we are going to need zoo’s in the future. The task shouldn’t be to close as many zoo’s as possible, but to improve the miserable conditions many zoo’s are in. It’s all about money, I’m afraid.
    When humans suffer, animals suffer, and many zoo’s around the world are struggling to stay in business, and this inevitably leads to poorer conditions for the animals.

    To me it is an evolving learning process and it is my impression that, little by little, the different zoo’s ( at least in europe ) are starting to change their philosophy as best they can within their limitited budgets. We are starting to think about the animals first instead of the audience, and that is a step in a positive direction that will ultimately benefit the animals.

    It is a slow learning process, way to slow if you ask me, but we have no other choice than to keep evolving our knowledge and handling of the animals.
    It takes time but I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.

    What else are we supposed to do?

    Invent a free renewable energy source and a new economical system?

    Zoo’s are here to stay, and we might as well face up to that challenge.

    1. When I read Jerry’s headline I wondered if India was also going to ban polluting the Ganges.

      Zoos have their issues. If solitary confinement is torture for humans then being caged in a zoo certainty can be for many kinds of animals. (Relatedly, hopefully housecats are sufficiently solitary and small ranging not to suffer too greatly from bifold confinement…) However, many animals have threatened habitats. At the very least of like to see larger animal preserves that can give animals a more appropriate sized environment and fewer old school, Victorian style zoos with small cages and habitats. Thee Copenhagen zoo was depressing, for the animals and me because of the animals.

      1. At the very least of like to see larger animal preserves that can give animals a more appropriate sized environment and fewer old school, Victorian style zoos with small cages and habitats.

        I wholeheartedly agree, but my confidence in politicians and lawmakers isn’t exactly stellar. Their track record sucks. Hopefully things will change to the better faster than I expect.

        Thee Copenhagen zoo was depressing, for the animals and me because of the animals.

        I went there as a part of my training and as a Dane I’m sad to say that I agree with you. A complete renovation of the entire zoo would be preferable…..but again, who’s gonna pay?

        1. Blockquote fail, again. 🙂

          Supposed to look like this.

          Thee Copenhagen zoo was depressing, for the animals and me because of the animals.

          I went there as a part of my training and as a Dane I’m sad to say that I agree with you. A complete renovation of the entire zoo would be preferable…..but again, who’s gonna pay?

      2. Yeah, I know the feeling- I love seeing wild animals but hate going to a zoo and seeing something like a leopard or Amur tiger crammed into a small enclosure. One thing I’ve seen zoos do increasingly, but still not really enough, is to take out several single animal or single species pens and instead put in a single larger enclosure with multiple species that can get along with each other.

        Then there’s the drive through wild animal parks: I’ve been to a few of those and there’s a very noticeable difference in the way the animals look and act when they’re given a few grass covered square miles to roam around in instead of a pen that’s mostly dirt or concrete.

  6. There are several important reasons for having good zoos. Preserving species is one, but the most important reason is educating the public so they will support conservation. However, as every zoo director knows, most zoo visitors go to the zoo for entertainment with family and friends, not for education. Clever zoo directors should know how to educate while visitors are being entertained.

    1. I like zoos but don’t generally go there to be entertained, nor even to be educated. I go there just to quietly watch their behaviour and enjoy the atmosphere.

      Some zoos have deliberately kept the old lion and elephant enclosures (empty now) to show how times have changed. Many enclosures are now more humane. I don’t (usually) go to watch animals doing tricks but to watch them feeding and interacting.

  7. Jerry,

    There is a museum in Arizona, The Arizona-Sonora Desesrt Museum, and it stands apart from most (pseudo-zoo) that I have seen.

    Its mission is to put the animals into their habitar as close as possible and the education that most people receive is admirable and mostly justified.


  8. I’ve just started reading ‘Life of Pi’, and there was an interesting discussion about zoos at the beginning of the book. Essentially it boiled down to if the animals needs are adequately covered, they feel safe and fed regularly, then they prefer their enclosure to the stress of being in the wild where they could be eaten, etc. at any time. The issue of course is what needs need to be covered, and in the case of large aquatic mammals, the size of the tank required would probably be impractical.

  9. i might get flak for this but i think zoos do serve a purpose.

    as a child growing up in the uae i didn’t get to see much animal life other than stray cats. maybe a camel if you got lucky to spot one in the desert. my school had a filthy pond where they kept turtles, fish, ducks and chickens. it was awful.

    however, i remember going to new york and going to a zoo for the first time. i was enchanted that i got to see all these animals i had read about in view. at that age i had no right or wrong about their captivity and treatment. it was all about ANIMALS ARE SO COOOL!!!

    of course as i grew up i realised the hardships of these animals. i was more attuned to animal rights causes and caring for them. there are zoos and preserves around the world that go to great lengths to care for their animals. sadly, the other side of the spectrum also exists. still, i think they serve a purpose when done right by the animals.

  10. Perhaps zoos aren’t so useful for kids growing up in upper middle class families, but having seen the effect on kids whose only contact with animals is as shrink-wrapped meat at the supermarket, it might be worth it.

  11. I would add that “the arc of increasing morality described in Steve Pinker’s book,” is also what Peter Singer describes as the Expanding Circle of morality.

    1. Although I don’t doubt that Singer would (rightly) add that factory-farmed mammals and birds are most likely causes more suffering than most zoo animals.

  12. I’m a bit torn on the ethics part of the issue – although: if you ban zoos because you do not have the “right” to “imprison” animals, then you will have to ban a lot of things, possibly including building a fence around your garden, and definitely including all pets that did not voluntarily choose to live with you. I agree completely though, that conditions for animals in zoos have to be improved.

    I think the education part really is understated in this debate. So maybe 9 out of 10 people in a zoo don’t read the sign further than the name, and 5 of them maybe don’t even do that, but they have the experience of being in close proximity to the animals, and from personal experience I would say that means a lot.

    If you close all zoos, then for the next generation of kids, rhinos and tigers will be on roughly the same level of reality as dodos, dinosaurs, and dragons, i.e.: something you have seen on TV a few times (and probably on an entertainment channel at that) and adults give conflicting accounts of if they are real or ever were.
    How much do you think they will care if they join dodos in extinction, if they never got more real than dragons?

    Just my take on it…

  13. Sanctuaries are possibly the best alternative to zoos. Sanctuaries need to be expanded to include places to allow the continuance of species threatened with extinction because of habitat loss.

    If you hate zoos and are not supporting a sanctuary somewhere you need to put your money where your mouth is. I support the elephant sanctuary in Howenwald, TN. Right now it provides a place for elephants who have spent their lives in circuses, zoos, or other entertainment venues. They have many animals who have been abused, injured, or held in inadequate quarters for decades. They use protected contact methods for treating the animals and except for the few in quarantine they roam the sanctuary as they please.

    Find a sanctuary that you would like to support and start making donations even if it is only a small amount. We can make a difference.

  14. I have been deeply attached to the zoo/exotic wild animal experience since early childhood, frequently visiting my local (Taronga, Sydney) and also ticking off British and European collections when I was brought within range, as well as vicariously through books and TV (to name a few presenters and authors I lived through in the 1970s: Johnny Morris, Desmond Morris, Willard Price, Gerald Durrell, David Attenborough, Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey).
    So I was always going to be a vertebrate zoologist (and eventually make a living at it), but can’t imagine doing that without access to public zoological collections, especially as wild animals become more and more rare close to the places most of us live. I absorbed the conservation message that wildlife needs conserving in the wild and that captive breeding programs are sometimes also necessary for conservation (Durrell); but above all, I got my chance to experience animals, close enough to smell and often within touching distance, for thousands of hours of my early life, long before learning how to observe them in the wild, or catch and keep them (small reptiles) in captivity. For me, that was entertainment, and also an essential part of my education in what I regard as a necessary profession, so excuse me if I don’t sign up for the global war on zoos.
    But on a case by case basis, I might well agree.

  15. This seems to me to be rather naive:
    “Noting that India’s national aquatic animal, the Ganges River dolphin, as well as the snubfin dolphin are listed in Schedule-I and all cetacean species are listed in Schedule II part I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the ministry said it is important to protect these endangered species from captivity and exploitation.”

    I imagine that the biggest threat to the Ganges River dolphin come from using the Ganges as a combination superhighway and waste disposal conduit, rather than the taking of a few individuals to stock zoos. And where is popular support for protecting the river going to come from if most people never have a chance to see a Ganges River dolphin up close?
    Yes, there are nasty little “zoos” that see animals only as a source of revenue, and they must be shut down. There are also legitimate zoos and museums that I think do a lot to get the public on the side of environmentalism. If these good zoos were shut down, I think it would be much more harmful for endangered species than the harm caused by the captivity of a few individuals.

    This is about the rescue of eight dolphins after their aquarium habitat was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The dolphins stayed together and awaited rescue back from the wild.

    Sort of illustrates the problem of acclimating domesticated animals back to the wild. Well, domestic house cats have no problem going feral.

Leave a Reply