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Transparency, Debate and Grey Areas in Zoos and Aquariums

Dr Jake Veasey

Oct 30, 2023

Why we struggle to discuss the things we arguably need to discuss the most.

You’ll probably be aware of concerns being raised that university campuses have become increasingly closed to open debate as a result of the “no-platforming” of individuals with viewpoints that diverge from the apparent campus moral consensus. Here, it is a sense of moral clarity that stifles debate, but a lack of clarity can be equally effective in eliminating healthy debate, and not just within the confines of university campuses.

As a sector, I believe zoos and aquariums are much less comfortable debating tricky, ethical issues than they are complex technical ones, and so, when I posted a LinkedIn poll asking whether hand-rearing was justifiable to establish ambassador animal programs, I understood that I would likely draw the ire of those who strongly believe that it is acceptable. However, I was genuinely interested to see whether I was in a quiet minority in having reservations about this practice, and perhaps optimistically hoped it might spark some healthy debate on what I believe is an important, but tricky topic.

The results are in, but what does it tell us?

The response was "fairly" conclusive with 94% of respondents agreeing that removing infants from their mothers for ambassador animal programs was not acceptable, despite it being accepted policy and practice by several major zoo accrediting bodies. With transparency in mind, it’s important to note the poll received 64 votes from 1,629 impressions, and so clearly, “voter turnout” wasn’t great, and hence my use of the epithet "fairly"! However, given the vote was anonymous, and many of mine, and Care for the Rare’s followers are zoo professionals, I can’t help but wonder if this “fairly” conclusive response indicates a emerging disconnect between policy and consensus within our community? At the very least, it suggests to me, that there is likely some value in an open and inclusive discussions on this matter, regardless of how uncomfortable we might find it!

Animal-related ethical issues, like so many others, often become binary in nature, and this can very effectively hinder healthy debate; I vividly recall just how difficult it was to discuss protected versus free-contact elephant management in the early 2000's!

Even within organisations aligned by shared goals and objectives, discussing controversial topics like this can be a challenge; passionately held, divergent perspectives can discourage debate to avoid conflict on exactly those contentious issues which need the input of diverse perspectives the most. And the same might be true between like-minded organisations; it’s interesting to note for example that while the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums' standards of care specifically come out against hand-rearing for animal-based demonstrations, they appear not to explicitly oppose hand-rearing for ambassador animal programs, a practice routinely approved by their North American peers. Clearly, this issue falls very much within the shades of grey, and perhaps a degree of ambiguity is intended to create the wiggle room necessary to maintain a consensus, but at what cost?

I believe, the failure to effectively and openly discuss such prickly issues can have serious consequences; policy and practice can stagnate against a backdrop of an ever-evolving moral consensus, meaning institutions risk becoming ethically out of step with their communities, and I can’t help but wonder if some zoos, or stakeholder groups might be heading in that direction on the issue of ambassador animal programs?

It’s notable for example, that none of the recent press releases I’ve seen concerning ambassador animals put out by zoos and shared by zoo accrediting bodies, explicitly mention the practice of forcibly, and prematurely, removing young animals from their mothers for hand-rearing, but do mention, in quite some detailed aspects relating to quarantine and socialisation. Now I use the words forcibly and prematurely not because they are emotive, but because they most accurately reflect the truth. The apparent lack of candour on this key point might be reasonably be interpreted as a recognition that this practice may be ethically problematic, and as such, a sign of a possible divergence from the moral consensus - and for me, thats a problem. There's arguably not better reason for questioning what you do, if you feel you can't be transparent about it.

So, how can we overcome the desire to maintain cohesion within the zoo community while continuing to discuss challenging topics such as this? A good starting point is to remember that far more unites us than divides us; the overwhelming majority of zoo and aquarium professionals are as passionately dedicated to individual animals, as they are species, despite the often diverging opinions on how to go about saving and caring for either! Engaging in open dialogue about ethical issues doesn’t need to erode our common goals, but should instead improve how we collectively work together to achieve them.

Indeed, the crux of this particular debate, would seem to centre around whether the benefits to the species of ambassador animal programs are sufficient to justify the cost to individuals of hand-rearing. Sadly, we seem to lack the appetite or confidence to have that debate, but if we did, we might be able to navigate a pathway that more effectively addresses the needs of both species and individuals.

All of this is of course far easier said than done; from a personal perspective, I have to acknowledge that I've been known to (regrettably...) upset my peers by challenging the status-quo where I felt it was needed, or tackling difficult topics head-on, and so I’m definitely a work in progress on this point. However, I firmly believe that rather than avoiding difficult but important topics, I, we, need to get better at discussing them.

It's an ongoing journey of growth for me, and it’s not been an easy one, and I suspect, it’s not an easy one for our community, but if we are to keep pace, and ideally shape the moral consensus rather than reacting to it once we’ve fallen out of step with it, it’s a journey I believe we all need to take.

#animalwelfare #ambassadoranimals #transparency #agreetodisagree #roomfordebate #zoos #zoo #conservation #ethics # carefortherare

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