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 con
ference on zoos and animal protection, hosted by the Howard
Gilman Foundation.
Happiness is not a term zoo administrators and oth-
ers who hold wildlife in confinement like to use. Many of us
were trained to think of “happiness” as a human interpreta-
tion, linked with anthropomorphizing animals, and therefore
problematic when much of what we do is oriented toward try-
ing 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 com-
ponent of animal well-being.

Well-being, by dictionary definition, is the condi-
tion of happiness, prosperity, and good health. In consider-
ing 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 percep-
tions of happiness, cleanliness, safety, and how we think
animals ought to be treated.
There are five principle venues in which wild ani-
mals may be confined to protect and/or perpetuate species.
Each venue includes both inherent advantages and disadvan-
tages in our efforts to insure animal well-being, including
happiness, and it is important that their functions and capabil-
ities 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 bet-
ter 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 protec-
tion 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 ani-
mals 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, conserva-
tion centers are not open to the public. Any animal observa-
tion 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.
Z o o s 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
Animals in situ enjoy the maximum degree of natur-
al 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 nat-
ural 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 confine-
Cultural well-being is defined for most people by
the question, “Is the animal happy?” Because most conserva-
tion 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 affir-
mative. 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 biologi-
cal 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 envi-
ronment and behavior. This leads us to several troublesome
For example, most people believe an animal can
never have too much space: people equate space with free-
dom. 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 ani-
mals even use tourist vehicles for their advantage, as evi-
denced 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 situa-
tions, 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 con-
served, 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, dis-
ruption of behavior, and harassing the animals is strictly for-
bidden; at IPZ facilities for black rhinos in Zimbabwe, sus-
pected poachers are shot on sight. Because IPZs and conser-
vation 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 allo-
cated 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 com-
mitment to maintaining quality care. Most important, run-
ning a good zoo requires carefully selecting the species to be
exhibited, making sure their allotted space is both biological-
ly 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 ani-
mals’ 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 con-
sider boredom. If an animal looks bored or
sad or displays stereotypic behavior, the pub-
lic will respond adversely. Such behavior is
an unnatural response to an artificial environ-
ment. 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 confine-
ment only at conservation centers, in semi-
natural habitat. In certain cases, even a con-
servation center may not be sufficient to
insure well-being, and the animal should
only be kept in situ, despite the accompany-
ing risks. These cases, where extinction is
possible, pose perhaps the most painful
moral dilemma facing the species conserva-
tion 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 ani-
mal 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 situa-
tion 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 con-
servation 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 elimi-
nated 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 quan-
tity of years. Zoos must provide quality envi-
ronments 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 young.
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 arti-
ficial 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 demograph-
ic management of captive populations.
Overlooked is what each species needs to
experience happiness.
In SSP master planning, a hus-
bandry 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 m i n i m u m
standards. The idea of “minimum” as “stan-
dard” is a contradiction if we define a stan-
dard 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 commu-
nity leaves itself open for justly deserved crit-
icism. Husbandry manuals fall short because
they describe what is done now, not what
should be done. The standards for manage-
ment of a species in captivity should stand by
themselves, should be emulated, and should
be goals to reach for. Let us call them opti-
mum standards of confinement, or OSC. An
OSC, if set by a multi-disciplinary commi-
tee, 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 ded-
icate new resources and new energy to devel-
oping and realizing o p t i m u m 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 con-
centrated 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 that conservation 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 consid-
ers 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 real-
istically satisfy their OSC at the zoo or con-
servation 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 respect-
ful relationships with other species, the con-
servation 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.)
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