A Human Model

Human medicine offers a compelling model for considering potential unintended effects that zoos may have on some of the animals in their care. Some hospitals have challenged widely held presumptions that they only help patients. Many have found that despite good intentions, their efforts can actually result in unintended harm to patients. Internal focus on this led to assessment of unintended consequences in patient care and to many changes that have dramatically affected how some hospitals operate. The Center for Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare and Ethics parallels this work for exotic animals in the care of humans.

Ensuring captive animal welfare

Ensuring that exotic animals in the care of humans experience great welfare requires acknowledgement of fundamental issues:

  • Zoos and aquariums have an ethical obligation to understand and ensure the well-being of every animal.
  • An individual’s overall mental, physical and emotional state (referred to as welfare or well-being) is determined only by that individual.
  • Captive exotic animals must be able to exercise relevant and meaningful control and choice in their lives.
  • Good care is not the same as good welfare.
  • Constant, rigorous evaluation of captive environments and practices is essential.
  • Sharing of information and open dialogue is essential.


In zoos and aquariums, ensuring the well-being of individuals (animal welfare) may sometimes conflict with ensuring the well-being of species (conservation). Animals that are old, non-breeding, or not considered genetically “valuable” are often viewed as competitors for resources. Zoos and aquariums need to move forward as welfare centers, championing compassionate approaches that ensure the well-being of the animals within their organizations as well as for the animals in their field conservation programs. Compassionate conservation is an emerging field that considers the welfare of individual animals affected by conservation practices (e.g., capturing, marking/tagging). Zoos and aquariums are especially well-suited to promoting compassionate conservation.