Bears or butterflies? How should zoos make value-driven decisions about their collections?

By C. Palmer, TJ Kasperbauer & P. Sandøe (forthcoming 2017) 
Book chapter in The Ark and Beyond, Minteer, B.A., Maienschein, J. & Collins, J.P. (eds.). University of Chicago Press


Zoos are ethically contested institutions, not only in terms of their existence, but also with respect to their aims, policies, and practices. Many of these aims, policies, and practices are underpinned by commitments to defensible and widely shared values including animal welfare and species conservation. However, as we will argue, these values may be in tension, forcing choices between fulfilling some aims at the expense of others, or requiring trade-offs where each aim can be only partially met.

Such tensions are particularly salient with respect to the variety of species in zoo collections. Obviously, zoos have limited space; even in combination, zoos can only keep a tiny fraction of existing species, and keeping one species essentially means excluding others. So what should drive the mix of species kept, given the aims and values that zoological associations claim to endorse? And how should zoos respond to tensions and conflicts between these values in terms of their collections?

We begin this chapter by exploring key aims endorsed by three major zoo associations. Then we discuss the values underlying these aims, including animal welfare and competing understandings of conservation. We consider why these values are important, and the dilemmas and difficulties they pose for decision-making about the composition of zoo collections. In concluding, we make some tentative suggestions about future directions for zoo collections.

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