“The basis of all animal rights should be the Golden Rule: we should treat them as we would wish them to treat us, were any other species in our dominant position.”
— Christine Stevens
In the wild, animals live in vast, complex, ever-changing environments. Their world is unpredictable, and no two days are the same. Their days are filled with finding food, seeking a mate, looking after young, interacting with others, finding safe places to rest, defending territories, and so many other engaging activities.
The sights, sounds and smells of their natural environments constantly stimulate their senses. Their minds are active, their bodies are exercised.
In a captive environment, their living conditions are very different. Their living environments are far less complex and more static, and life is far more predictable. They have less space, less objects in their surroundings, less sights, sounds and smells. Their companions are more or less constant.
Added to this, they usually have to cope with being in close proximity to humans- something they usually wouldn’t have to face in the wild. They are frequently subjected to intense viewing pressure from zoo visitors, often all day every day, which can be very stressful.
Animals have needs, and these are not just physical needs such as the need for food and exercise, but also behavioural and emotional needs. Animals will get frustrated if they cannot act on their behavioural instincts - the behaviours that have been instilled in them by thousands of years of evolution - and may even become unfit and sick. They will become bored if their environment lacks stimulation. In addition, like us, many non-human animals are known to feel a complex range of emotions, and many lead complex social lives. They will become lonely if their social needs are not met, or may become stressed if their social situation is wrong. They can become anxious if they cannot escape from visitor view or are subjected to stressors from which they cannot escape.
This is why, if we are to keep wild animals in captivity, we need to do all we can to, as far as possible, to replicate their lives as they would be in the wild and recreate the environment to which they are adapted, as well as take into account their - often complex - social needs. This is essential if we are to keep them as healthy- mentally, emotionally and physically- as possible. We also need to respect their need to get away from visitor view when they desire and avoid stressful situations.
It is not enough to simply give animals food and water and shelter- these are just their most basic needs. We need to keep their bodies and minds active, and avoid causing them stress.
The needs of captive wild animals need careful consideration, especially when we remember that, to the animals, their enclosures are their whole world. When we go to a zoo, we only have a very short glimpse of the animals’ lives. We only look at them for a few minutes, sometimes even a few seconds. We need to remember that these animals usually live in these surroundings for their whole lives, so their living conditions and the way they are looked after (husbandry) determine their entire well-being, and therefore need to be the very best they possibly can be and meet the needs of the animals as far as possible, in order to ensure the animals do not experience poor welfare.