Human–Animal Interactions in Zoos: What Can Compassionate Conservation, Conservation Welfare and Duty of Care Tell Us about the Ethics of Interacting, and Avoiding Unintended Consequences?

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Mark James Learmonth
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Human–animal interactions (HAIs) in zoos can be rewarding for both humans and animals, but can also be fraught with ethical and welfare perils. Contact with animals can be beneficial for all parties involved, and can indeed lead to pro-conservation and respect for nature behaviours being adopted by humans after so-called “profound experiences” of connecting or interacting with animals. Yet, human–animal interactions may also increase certain individuals’ desires for inappropriate wild-animal ‘pet’ ownership, and can convey a false sense of acceptability of exploiting animals for “cheap titillation”. Indeed, this has been reflected in a recent research review conducted on animal–visitor interactions in zoos from a number of different countries and global regions. These are unintended consequences that ”modern, ethical zoos” would try to minimise, or avoid completely where possible, though most zoos still offer close-contact experiences with their animals. Three ethical frameworks that may be beneficial for ethically run zoos to incorporate when considering human–animal interactions are: Compassionate Conservation, Conservation Welfare and Duty of Care. These three ethical frameworks are concerned with the welfare state and outcomes for individual animals, not just the population or species. Human–animal interactions in zoos may be acceptable in many circumstances and may be beneficial to both animal and human participants; however, they must be closely monitored through welfare tracking tools. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) has published guidelines for human–animal interactions that are mandatory for member institutions to adhere to, although whether these guidelines are taken as mandatory or suggestions at individual institutions is unknown. Some suggestions for relevant extensions to the guidelines are suggested herein. Melding Duty of Care and the two Conservation ethical frameworks would be ideal for assessing the ethical acceptability of such interactions as they currently occur, and for considering how they should be modified to occur (or not) into the future in zoological settings.


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