Enclosures and Ethics

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

Sometime in 2011 was when I purchased my first DSLR camera. I remember how excited I was the day I visited the store to pick up my camera and accessories. Of all the place’s I could’ve gone to click and get a feel of my new camera, the following day I choose to go to the city zoo! And that was my introduction to “wildlife photography”. Given my enthusiasm and excitement, little did I think of the caged animals, birds and reptiles that I was so eager to capture on my new camera. Fast-forward 6 years, I have just begun to dabble with the literature on issues such as environmental ethics, animal rights, animal welfare and so on. In this blog entry, I wish to talk about some of these issues.

One of the first photographs I captured in the year 2011 using my DSLR camera. Here is seen a mother and a baby giraffe at the National Zoological Park, New Delhi.

According to the 2009 data of the International Species Information System (ISIS), a little over 5,00,000 species of terrestrial vertebrates are maintained in zoos all around the world. Zoos are commonly perceived as exhibits for wild animals, where the general public have the opportunity to watch at close quarters specimens that they may otherwise only be able to see on television or read about in books and magazines. Yet, in modern times, the role of zoos is changing. From serving as mere enclosures that display animals for the entertainment of the public, zoos and aquariums in present times are partnering with government organizations, conservation-based groups and educational institutions to conduct research on birds, mammals, insects and fishes in an effort to understand their physiology, genetics, behaviour, diseases and so on. This form of research is often seen as the basic premise of ‘ex-situ’ preservation and conservation.

Ex-situ or off-site preservation entails the harbouring of species in artificial conditions under human supervision. This is often the method adopted for those rare and endangered species which have a very small surviving population in the wild or that which are found outside protected areas. Ex-situ preservation is the opposite of ‘in situ’ preservation or the preservation and conservation of species in the wild. Using techniques such as artificial incubation, artificial insemination, embryo transfer and other scientific methods, the broader objective of ex situ conservation is to serve as a pool from which rare and threatened species may be taken and gradually reintroduced into the wild. Interventions such as these are aimed at preserving species and restoring their numbers in the wild and are often justified by wildlife scientists as necessary steps to stem the tide of rapid environmental change and the consequent decline of species around the world. However, ex situ conservation is not entirely free of controversy.

Drawing from ‘Deep Ecology’, most wildlife scientists base their argument on the ethical premise that all species have an intrinsic value, and that man has no right to hamper the existence of any species. They embrace a holistic environmental ethic that focuses on species and populations and the maintenance of ecological and evolutionary processes. As such, zoos, aquariums, and other facilities that hold wildlife captive, are not just recreational spaces that are for public entertainment, but also serve as research facilities where cutting-edge research is conducted to gain crucial insights into the physiology, biology, habitat and behaviour of species. They also serve as Centres of education where the public is made aware of conservation-based issues, and where revenue obtained from visitor fees are pumped into ex-situ research and in situ conservation, thereby giving the public an opportunity to become stakeholders in the conservation of wildlife.

However, such an environmental ethic stands in stark contrast to the view of animal rights activists who are concerned about the rights and welfare of individual animals. In other words, while the former advocates moral concern over endangered species as a whole, and the preservation of wilderness, the latter focuses on the humane treatment of individual non-human living beings, and may often even oppose management techniques such as invasive species control, culling, invasive field research techniques and so on. Animal rights activists argue that zoos are mostly biased towards the larger, more “attractive” animals that are popular among the public. Organizations such as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) feel that the propagation of these larger animals in captivity leads to their overproduction and the consequent abuse that is likely to arise from ill-management of these animals. Animal rights activists are also of the view that ex-situ scientific techniques such as artificial incubation, artificial insemination, and embryo transfer are expensive and are no substitute for in situ conservation programs that preserve traits that are necessary for the successful introduction and survival of species in the wild.

Many from the scientific community call for a balance between the concerns over species loss on the one hand, and the ethical aspects of conservation on the other. While it may be true that zoos are biased towards the more charismatic species, some authors argue that it is these very same charismatic species which attract people in large numbers and fill the coffers. And revenue that is generated from zoos and aquariums around the world are facilitating in situ conservation efforts for both charismatic and non-charismatic species. Yet, in order to educate the public and create awareness about pressing conservation issues, including the plight of endangered species, they do agree that zoos must not just function as safe havens for the charismatic species, but must also make an effort to draw people’s attention to the lesser-known species. Zoos and aquariums must prioritize conservation and preservation of species way above public entertainment and exhibition, especially at a time when climate change, habitat loss, and disease are threatening to wipe out several species. At the same time, wildlife research must work toward a strong animal welfare ethic where less invasive research techniques are adopted, and where there is a growing sensitivity to animals in both in situ and ex situ conservation.


  • Minteer, B. A., & Collins, J. P. (2013). Ecological ethics in captivity: Balancing values and responsibilities in zoo and aquarium research under rapid global change. ILAR Journal, 54(1), 41–51. https://doi.org/10.1093/ilar/ilt009
  • Primack, R. B. (2012). A Primer of Conservation Biology (5th ed.). Massachusetts: Sinauer Associates, Inc. Publishers.

Leave a Reply