On Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness for Wildlife in Confinement

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1994:
by John Lukas
Director, White Oak Conservation Center, Yulee, Florida

This guest column is adapted from a cage-rattling presentation Mr. Lukas delivered to the recent White Oak conference on zoos and animal protection, hosted by the Howard Gilman Foundation.

Happiness is not a term zoo administrators and others who hold wildlife in confinement like to use. Many of us were trained to think of “happiness” as a human interpretation, linked with anthropomorphizing animals, and therefore problematic when much of what we do is oriented toward trying to get animals to behave in the manner appropriate to their own species. Nonetheless, I use the term “happiness,” because even if we have trouble suitably defining it, I believe we cannot avoid having to think about it as an essential component of animal well-being.

Well-being, by dictionary definition, is the condition of happiness, prosperity, and good health. In considering the well-being of a confined animal, we must consider both biological well-being, which encompasses the territorial, social,
nutritional, and reproductive needs of a species, and cultural well-being, which is how we as humans understand the well-being of animals in the context of our own perceptions of happiness, cleanliness, safety, and how we think animals ought to be treated.

There are five principle venues in which wild animals may be confined to protect and/or perpetuate species. Each venue includes both inherent advantages and disadvantages in our efforts to insure animal well-being, including happiness, and it is important that their functions and capabilities not be confused. A zoo, for instance, cannot become a conservation center and continue to function as a zoo. Neither should a conservation center be allowed to evolve into a zoo without making a studied choice of taking that direction. Each venue for holding wildlife has a different job to
do, and the better we understand the distinctions, the better adapted our responses will be to the problems of keeping wild animals.

In situ refers to keeping animals in their native habitat under a degree of protection that can only be insured within territorial restraints. Usually this is done within a national park or wildlife reserve. An Intensive Protection Zone is a section of native habitat, usually within government land, within which a threatened species is concentrated when it needs more protection from humans than can be provided in situ. The IPZ is defined by fences, guard posts, natural barriers, and the presence of a large, well-trained unit of wildlife guards. The IPZ connects to a larger wildlife reserve into which the animals can be moved after the threats to their survival have been controlled or eliminated.

A conservation center is an institution outside the native range of particular animals that maintains these species in semi-natural conditions, with the emphasis on scientific management to aid their survival. The overriding premise is that the needs of the animals come first. Usually, conservation centers are not open to the public. Any animal observation is strictly controlled. Nature centers exhibit native species in naturalistic surroundings to educate visitors about indigenous plants and animals. Nature centers concentrate upon topics related to ecology and human interactions with wildlife on a local level.

Zoos exhibit animals in artificial environments meant to depict each animal in a semblance of natural habitat, for both
educational and recreational objectives. Progressive zoos dedicate resources to off-exhibit breeding and research, and make each exhibit as natural and representative of the habitat of the species kept as is possible.

Biological and cultural well-being

Each species has specific biological needs that must be fulfilled for it to survive and reproduce. For most species these
needs are known and documented. How well they are satisfied determines the level of well-being for the species in confinement. Animals in situ enjoy the maximum degree of natural biological well-being. The natural biological envrionment declines as we bring the animals into increasing degrees of confinement. As the natural sources of biological well-being are lost, we provide substitutes to maintain biological well-being at lesser levels. For instance, we substitute hay for natural grass, prepared meat diets for carcasses, culverts for dens, and concrete pools for lakes.


Our success depends upon how well we understand the biological needs of each species and upon how adept we are at responding to these needs within the constraints imposed by the levels of confinement. Cultural well-being is defined for most people by the question, “Is the animal happy?” Because most conservation efforts are financed either directly or indirectly by the general public, the White Oak Conservation Center being one of the few major exceptions, it is in our paramount interest to be able to answer that question–convincingly–in the affirmative. If we hold animals in conditions where they appear to be unhappy, we will not hold public support for long, no matter how well the biological needs of the animals are met.
People seem to sense that an animal is happy when he or she has adequate space to live in; lives in a normal social grouping; is in habitat resembling the natural home of the species; eats food resembling the species’ natural diet; is in a clean environment; the environment is safe and secure; and the animal does not look or act bored.

An analysis of cultural well-being takes the biological needs of the animals, injects into them human ideas about happiness, and examines how well the composite of animal needs and human perception is reflected in the animal’s environment and behavior. This leads us to several troublesome contradictions. For example, most people believe an animal can never have too much space: people equate space with freedom. But when people come to view wildlife, they expect to be able to see the animals. In a national park or wildlife reserve, this contradiction is resolved by conditioning the animals to accept the presence of tourist vehicles or boats. This can be done because the animals are protected by law from human harm, and therefore they soon become used to the presence of another essentially neutral entity. Some animals even use tourist vehicles for their advantage, as evidenced by the cheetahs in the Masaii Mara, who use vehicles as elevated observation points from which to look for suitable prey. Thus, even in the most natural of confinement situations, where we attempt to minimize the effects of human intrusion, animal behavior is
influenced by our activity. Our objective is to seek the best balance for the species being conserved, including the sometimes restrictive consideration that someone has to pay for the conservation effort.

In an IPZ, and to a lesser extent in conservation centers such as White Oak, suitable space is given to each species, but with little emphasis on visibility and more emphasis on protection, since the goal is to increase and maintain a fragmented population at all costs. Poaching, disruption of behavior, and harassing the animals is strictly forbidden; at IPZ facilities for black rhinos in Zimbabwe, suspected poachers are shot on sight. Because IPZs and conservation centers are costly, with little means of directly raising revenue, they are not a realistic or even desirable placement for most wildlife despite the advantages they seem to offer to the most fragile or vulnerable species.

Zoos by contrast must provide high visibility. They exist to exhibit animals. Within this context, the space allocated to each species should nonetheless be the maximum available. This requires innovative and costly exhibits: a good zoo cannot be created (or recreated from a substandard existing facility) on the cheap, without a strong ongoing commitment to maintaining quality care. Most important, running a good zoo requires carefully selecting the species to be exhibited, making sure their allotted space is both biologically adequate and culturally perceived to be adequate. If
this cannot be done for a particular species, that species should not be kept.

At zoos, the more that appears natural in the animals’ lives, the more people will perceive that the animals are happy and prosperous. Selecting only species that can be afforded properly constructed exhibits, allowing a natural lifestyle, will go far in presenting a positive image to visitors. In addition to space, we must consider boredom. If an animal looks bored or sad or displays stereotypic behavior, the public will respond adversely. Such behavior is an unnatural response to an artificial environment. Improvement in space, habitat quality, food sources, social opportunities, and health care usually will eliminate the negative behavior. If not, most likely this individual or species should not be kept at the zoo level of confinement. Such animals or species should be kept in relatively close confinement only at conservation centers, in semi-natural habitat. In certain cases, even a conservation center may not be sufficient to insure well-being, and the animal should only be kept in situ, despite the accompanying risks. These cases, where
extinction is possible, pose perhaps the most painful moral dilemma facing the species conservation community.

Safety, security, and cleanliness are uniquely human considerations. Animals do not worry about their safety, other than in situations of immediate danger. Rather, they go about their lives concerned with living. Many mammals and birds clean and groom themselves, and some species keep their dens clean, but most are unconcerned with keeping or finding a clean home range. People worry about dirt because people understand the relationship between filth
and disease. People like cleanliness, and an animal in a clean environment makes us happy, so most people feel the animal also must be happy about it–although in fact the animal may have carefully marked his or her habitat and may be quite stressed at the removal of the markings.

Consideration for safety, security, and cleanliness reverse the order of which levels of confinement provide the best situation for animals as people see them. In situ areas provide little security or cleanliness. Natural factors such as predation, disease, starvation, and intra-species aggression, along with human poaching, hunting, and harassment, take a heavy toll. IPZs and conservation centers provide protection from some types of harm, but zoos offer the best overall security and the cleanest environment. Most causes of in situ mortality can be eliminated through the intensive care that good zoos provide. Thus zoo animals on average live much longer than wild animals.

This is both a blessing and a curse. Long-lived animals breed more offspring, if able to breed. They also must be
expensively kept well past their reproductive years and even past the years of their exhibit value. Here again, the perception of happiness depends more on quality of life than on quantity of years. Zoos must provide quality environments and care for all of their animals for their entire lives, if they are to be seen as providing well-being. Aged animals, like aged people, deserve special care. Planning for each animal’s retirement must begin while the animal is
If people see that a confined animal lives in natural surroundings, in natural social groups, eating natural-looking food
in a large area but remaining visible, and if the area is clean and safe, and if the animal does not appear bored or sad, then the animal must be happy. If wild animals are treated at all as we treat domestic livestock, people perceive cruelty.


One way to provide well-being as conditions of confinement become more artificial is to develop appropriate standards for confined living. Such standards should be developed not only by curators, zoologists, and ethologists, but also with input from philosophers and humane advocates. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, through Species Survival Plans, provides expertise in genetic and demographic management of captive populations. Overlooked is what each species needs to experience happiness.

In SSP master planning, a husbandry manual is formulated which describes certain basic standards to maintain a species in artificial environments. I have attended several SSP planning sessions, and feel it is detrimental to develop so-called minimum standards. The idea of “minimum” as “standard” is a contradiction if we define a standard as a “level of excellence generally regarded as right.” In basing standards on the status quo, which includes some deplorable facilities for certain species, the zoo community leaves itself open for justly deserved criticism. Husbandry manuals fall short because they describe what is done now, not what should be done. The standards for management of a species in captivity should stand by themselves, should be emulated, and should be goals to reach for. Let us call them optimum standards of confinement, or OSC. An OSC, if set by a multi-disciplinary commitee, should satisfy both the biological needs of a species and our cultural perception of how animals should be treated.

The decision to keep animals should be linked to a percentage of compliance with the OSC, as set by the committee. For instance, if the committee finds that 75% compliance with the OSC for species “A” is enough to insure the well-being of the species in a zoo setting, then zoos realizing that level of compliance could exhibit animals of species “A,” while continuing to strive toward complete realization of the OSC for that species. If a zoo could only achieve 60% compliance, it could not keep species “A.” Implementing OSC standards will be difficult and costly. But if we are to raise the level of care of the animals we confine purportedly for their own good, we must dedicate new resources and
new energy to developing and realizing optimum standards for confinement. Raising the standards of care of course becomes steadily more costly as the level of confinement increases. Here is where hard decisions lie ahead, for if we cannot provide the standard at a certain level of confinement, the animal should only be maintained in situations of less confinement. Until a standard can be met at each particular level of confinement, efforts should be concentrated on maintaining the species at those levels where the standards of well-being are already being met.

Coming from a conservation center background, I see thatconservation centers have more resources available with which to satisfy biological well-being for certain species than zoos. But for other species, conservation centers have significantly fewer resources than in situ programs. Every time the White Oak Conservation Center considers helping a new species, we go through our own OSC checklist to see if we really can provide for that species well-being. Believe me, sometimes the answer is no. We may have to let certain species fight for their survival in situ because
we cannot realistically satisfy their OSC at the zoo or conservation center level of confinement –although we can provide support to in situ conservation efforts. Other species may only be helped by conservation centers, which provide the best chance to prepare species for reintroduction into in situ situations.

Everyone working with confined wildlife needs to consider the well-being of individual animals while we consider the well-being of species. It is easy to justify less than desirable programs in the name of saving animals from extinction. However, as the human consciousness explores more respectful relationships with other species, the conservation community needs to be leading the way in developing a new covenant with wildlife, based upon dignity and well-being, and including attention to that elusive but important ideal of happiness.

(John Lukas, director of the White Oak Conservation Center since 1982, is also vice president of the International Rhino Foundation. He formerly served in various capacities with the Boston Zoological Society, the Okanagan Game Farm, and the New York Zoological Society, gaining direct experience at all levels of wildlife confinement.)