Conservation Benefits of Captive Animals

The below picture really caught my attention this week. It is an incredibly provocative example of our relationship with animals. How does it make you feel? Does it make you want to support the conservation of orangutans or fight to put this one back in the wild?


The picture was found on The Dodo’s website. Chris Draper, the Born Free Foundation program manager, was invited to comment on the impact of the photograph. He importantly challenges the propaganda of profiteering companies that use animal captivity to make cash. Many excuse themselves by suggesting that captivity benefits conservation, but as Chris says;

“It is difficult to imagine how exhibiting the orangutan in this manner is helping to conserve wild orangutans,”

I am also very sceptical about the conservation benefits of captive animals. Yes, zoo’s do donate to selected conservation efforts, but the idea that some animals have to ‘take one for the team’ to ensure the survival of the rest of its species is questionable. After seeing this picture do you think anyone from that crowd will suddenly feel inspired to donate money to an orangutan foundation, perhaps volunteer at a rehabilitation centre or even dedicate their lives to saving the species working as a conservationist? So how is animal captivity helping?

The UN suggests that 54% of the population is urbanised and are thus cut off from the natural world. We have become distracted by more immediate and pressing issues like bills, work, employment, buying things… So why should we pay for something that doesn’t directly affect us or we never see? Captive animals are therefore designed to provide that link and bring nature to urban areas rather than taking people into nature.

However, there are other means to reconnect people with the natural world as this conservationist photographer explains. Furthermore, David Attenborough and Obama recently discussed how the media is contributing to people’s environmental awareness, so is a caged animal really warranted?

So my question is, could captive animals actually be destructive rather than beneficial to conservation? Look at it this way, the captive animal owners would probably prefer that you paid them an entrance fee rather than going into the wild. To achieve this attraction, companies like SeaWorld Entertainment work very hard to bring you a show like the jumping orcas below. This then really encourages further disconnection, why should you go into the unknown when you can have an ‘even better experience’ served on a plate?


We do not realise the importance of wildlife until we come face to face with it in its natural setting. The crowd below are completely absorbed by this small turtle do you think it would have had the same effect if it were in a tank?

Captivity somehow loses its magic, perhaps it’s the obviously depressed animal, the concrete walls or the glass separating ‘us’ from ‘them’. As 100’s of people continuously stare at the above orangutan I wonder how many people really feel the all-important connection with nature? The juxtaposition between the crowd’s jubilation and the withdrawn orangutan says otherwise…


But, this is where the problem arises, captive animals are no longer wild creatures or something to discover, they have been manipulated, placed in a controlled setting and the ‘wild’ removed from around them.

So what happens when you are in the wild? Recently, I was lucky enough to be out on a boat in the Azores, with strong winds, rocking backwards and forwards on a boat looking for whales. You can smell the sea air, hear the waves and instead of being able to instantly see the marine animals you had to search for them!

Children’s eyes scoured the sea searching for a fin, a hump or perhaps a tail sticking out of the water. Of course, I was much the same, my eyes were strictly focused on the waves, desperate to spot something. To then see pods of dolphins and their calves became an incredible experience, it wasn’t expected, it wasn’t served up and they were untamed.


It impacted everybody! I heard the sounds of joy, that you never hear in a zoo, the excitement of children actively spotting more of the same dolphins instead of wanting to move on and see the next animal, keen photographers competing to get the best photograph and I heard the onboard marine biologist teaching us all about the species. You don’t get this type of excitement in a zoo!

I am positive everybody made the all-important connection with the natural world. They will remember the experience a lot longer than an orangutan in a glass box. So perhaps it’s time we stopped hearing about how captivity helps conservation when it actually perpetuates the need for conservation, by disconnecting people even further from the natural world.

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