Vet Ethics: Discussing the ethics of zoos – with a CEO

Jennifer Gray is the CEO of Zoos Victoria. That means she is in charge of three acclaimed zoos: Werribee Zoo, Melbourne Zoo, and Healesville Sanctuary. Before coming to Australia, she worked in her home country of South Africa in a variety of roles. In addition, Ms Gray has mentored women in leadership roles.

After hearing her speak with great passion about the terrible loss of animal species in Australia and around the world, I decided to interview Ms Gray on the ethics of keeping animals in zoos. Her moral stance on zoos occurs against the background of both an ethical concern for animals and their suffering (she has stopped eating meat), and a fervent wish to save species from extinction. I thought it might be interesting to ask her about how these two concerns interact.    

What is your background and what made you interested in taking on your role?

I am Civil Engineer by training with a Masters in Transportation Planning, an MBA and a Masters in Ethics.  The role at the Zoo was able to meet a number of my passions; the environment, interesting operations and public service. The Zoo operations are incredibly complex and diverse; it is possible to spend the morning talking about breeding endangered insects and the afternoon on commercial programs.

What zoos around the world do you find inspiring or special?

I am most interested in zoos that focus on improving animal welfare – we are learning so much about their needs and interests. By sharing knowledge, zoos are all able to improve their standards of animal care. I am also interested in Zoos that are committed to conservation, and like Zoos Victoria are developing new ways of engaging with people and empowering them to change the ways they act. Zoos to watch are Taronga Zoo, Perth Zoo, Bronx Zoo, London Zoo and Singapore Zoo.

Is the topic of zoos becoming increasingly morally controversial and difficult?

Zoos work with animals and that fact alone means that we need to engage with modern moral discussions. Over time our knowledge and attitudes are changing and we need to be able to change with the attitudes. Most of the challenges for zoos are addressed at bad zoos, and there are plenty of those around. It is important that we address the issues of poor knowledge and lack of standards, so that zoos are able to improve.  

You have studied the ethics of zoos. Can serious and reflective people disagree about the ethics of zoos?

Ethics in zoos is a very complex arena. I find people often jump to a gut reaction and then need to take time to work through all the implications. There is no doubt that people that chose to work with animals, vets and zoo staff, accept an obligation to care for the wellbeing of the animals in their care. It is important that we focus on their needs and address them as well as we can. Zoos do not require cruel treatment, in fact we abhor it, thus good zoos work to ensure that animals in their care thrive and play a role in engaging the community on the wonder of the animal kingdom. 

What is or are the best moral arguments in favour of zoos?

Many people don’t know about the amount of conservation work that zoos do. For example there are species that would be extinct if zoos did not work to preserve them. In addition, millions of people attend zoos around the world to view animals and to share their interest with their children.  The benefits of education and knowledge are immense and it is naive to think that people will care about animals if they don’t ever see them.  Modern zoos are engaging people with the things that they can do, changing our human behaviours, to accommodate animals. 

Some thinkers argue that zoos cannot be fair to the animals. Philosopher Dale Jamieson has said that the best way in which zoos can educate us about animals is to exhibit empty cages! What do you say to such critics?

In an ideal world humans would not be pushing species to the brink of extinction, we would share the planet with other species, but unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world.  Many species need our help to survive. Zoos can and do play a part in saving species. Many species that live at zoos are small and their needs are easily met. For example, Zoos Victoria is working with a number of critically endangered frog species, the frogs in the program live lives very similar to the wild, without many of the threats of wild living. Without this work the frogs will just disappear.


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