Thursday, April 4, 2013

No Diplomacy for Pandas

A great deal of excitement surrounded the recent arrival of two giant pandas to the Toronto Zoo. On loan from the Chinese government, the bears are meant to celebrate the new foreign investment agreement between Canada and China. This is a practice known as panda diplomacy, whereby an endangered animal species native to China is shipped across the world to symbolize a kinship between humans. Politics aside, the issue of putting live animals on display as a symbol of diplomatic relations between countries is surely an outmoded practice in this day and age, when animal rights and welfare are increasingly a matter of public debate and of growing importance in Canada's legal system. Given our knowledge of animal psychology and behaviour, it is no longer possible for us to ignore the ethical wrong of keeping animals captive in our country's zoos and aquariums.

There has been much controversy in Canada recently over the question of animal welfare in zoos and aquariums, and whether certain species should continue to be held in these facilities. Last April the Supreme Court rejected an appeal to the City of Edmonton’s decision to keep a single remaining elephant at the zoo, despite a widespread campaign to have her transferred to a larger habitat where she could socialize with other elephants. In Ontario the fate of the three remaining elephants at the Toronto Zoo has been an ongoing battle for over three years, while the OSPCA continues to investigate allegations of neglect and mistreatment at Niagara Falls’ MarineLand.

The main lesson to be culled from the problems surrounding our zoos and aquariums is that we need to rethink our practice of keeping animals in captivity for the purpose of exhibition. Proponents of zoos and aquariums often cite two reasons for upholding these institutions, education and conservation, but both arguments are flawed.

Given the rise in animal rights activism and research into the physical and psychological impact of captivity, the lessons we teach our children through zoos say more about our understanding of animals as objects -- or, more simply, our disregard for that impact. As an example we can look to Koshik, the elephant at South Korea’s Everland Zoo who learned to imitate human speech. While the media largely represented this phenomenon as a heartwarming story, the scientists who published their findings in Current Biology speculate that in fact Koshik learned human words out of social deprivation from other members of his species, having spent seven years as the sole elephant at the zoo. Koshik learned to mimic the language of his keepers because it was his only hope at communication. The authors of the study also speculate that social deprivation could be a factor in other cases of animals who “talk” in captivity.

Why then are we misunderstanding their attempts at communication? And how can we purport to use zoos and aquariums as resources to teach people about the lives of animals when we deprive them of their social groups and natural habitats?

The argument for conservation should also be disputed. Indeed many zoos breed animals with dwindling populations in the hopes of one day releasing them back into the wild; this is the stated intention of the Toronto Zoo regarding the incoming giant pandas. The problem, however, is that we can easily lose sight of the well-being of the animals themselves. There is little doubt that conservation can be a worthy cause, but what is often not discussed is the moral dilemma of imprisoning one animal for the potential future generations of animals that may or may not come to fruition. The issue is then whether our desire for conservation outweighs a captive animal's quality of life.

The intentions of most people who support or engage in conservation and zoo-keeping are generally well-meaning and compassionate, but the outcome for the animals involved is not always favourable. Countless studies in animal behavioural science have shown us how captive animals resort to stereotypic behaviours that are repetitive and obsessive in nature, as well as frequently self-destructive. While studies determining the stress impact on captive pandas have been few at this point, scientists have nonetheless reported a number of stereotypic behaviours in zoo pandas which include pacing, head-tossing, self-biting, and regurgitation (repeated vomiting and ingesting of the vomit). It could be argued that the frequency and intensity of such behaviours are augmented by poorer living conditions, but even the best zoos deprive animals like pandas of the space and natural stimulation they would get in the wild. No enrichment activities or increase in enclosure space can compare to the ability to roam free for kilometres on end.

To continue to sell zoos as entertainment is cruel. Moreover, the fact that the exhibits are often directed at young people poses a larger problem. What kind of lesson are we teaching when we encourage them to derive pleasure out of the deprivation of another living being? The time has come to end this practice and start exploring other ways to observe and interact with animals. Surely by the twenty-first century we can stop looking at them in cages.

Vanessa Robinson, PhD
Guest Blogger


  1. Very interesting article, thank you, Vanessa! Can you say where one can get full story about Koshik? {elephant}.

  2. Thanks Andrew; I'm glad you liked it.

    The journal article about Koshik can be found at: