Maja Hampson

Research, zoo keeping adventures, art, unicorns

Let's talk ideologies. All of us have them, whether it's about politics or religion or sports. I'm going to introduce, very briefly, some different groups of thought about animal welfare.

Contractarianism: Animals used in ways that benefit humans

Utilitarianism: Animals used in ways to benefit a majority – the human or animal majority

Animal rights: Animals are not to be used for human gain, animals have the same right as humans

Contextual: Animals used in the context of the animal-human relationship (example: treating pets better than wildlife because of the relationship humans have with them)

Respect for nature: Animal used in the context of animal importance to nature

You may have a good sense of which camp you belong in already. If not, you might get a hint from your gut reaction to reading these descriptions. So how do these ideologies come into play when working with animals in captivity? I would argue that they influence what people perceive as good animal welfare. Animal welfare being both the physical and psychological state of an animal.

Different people have different ideas about what constitutes good animal welfare. If you've got your eyes set on a career as a zoo keeper you're going to need to learn how to deal with visitors, organizations and professionals who have differing opinions on what good animal welfare looks like.

I'll use my own personal experience as an example. I've had to deal with representatives from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) while I was a zoo keeper. Some one you might be thinking “the SPCA? How could you possibly have an issue with them.” Well it's because my stance on what good animal welfare looks like is different from theirs. I respect the work they do with domestic animals but they know very little about how a zoological environment works and how to deal with captive wildlife. I personally feel that the SPCA should have no say in animal welfare matters concerning captive wildlife in zoos and aquariums, instead decisions and actions should come from an organization similar but autonomous to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) - but that's a discussion for another day.


The SPCA's animal welfare guidelines are based on one measure of animal welfare called The Five Freedoms.

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
  3. Freedom from distress
  4. Freedom from discomfort
  5. Freedom to express behaviors that promote well-being.

Sounds pretty good right? But using the Five Freedoms as a catch all assessment for animal welfare is tricky when you're dealing with wild animals. The Five Freedom are pretty cut and dry for domestic animals but not wildlife – even those in captivity.

Let's end with an little exercise to hopefully help you see why it's such a difficult topic discuss. Rank these animals from WORST welfare to BEST. Compare your rankings with mine. How are they different? In what ways do you agree or disagree?

  1. A fearful dog housed in a small pen in a rescue center, getting good food and vet care
  2. A well-cared for, content and pampered dog, confined indoors with a terminal illness
  3. A moose living free in the wild, hungry, in poor condition and fearful of wolves
  4. A tiger in a large enclosure, getting good good and vet care, occasionally scared by machinery noises and pestered by obnoxious guests
  5. A loved Labrador, overweight and with congestive heart failure, allowed to run free in a big garden
  6. A dog kept for hunting, health, well fed and allowed to roam but fearful of his punitive master
  7. A much-loved beagle, showered with affection, healthy and allowed to roam free

After thinking about it, and debating with myself (because these issues are never black and white) I would rank these:

WORST 1 – 2 – 6 – 5- 4- 7- 3 BEST


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