We cannot learn about behaviour of animals by keeping them locked in zoos

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2011, 12:00am


Your article ('Sea change for Ocean Park?' September 19), raises several important issues highlighting the ongoing battle between the proponents and opponents of zoological parks.

Zoological parks claim their raison d'?tre is to educate, research and conserve, yet when it comes to sentient beings (which is a more accurate term than intelligent animals) it is impossible to achieve these three objectives. It would be like trying to understand the nature of humankind by studying the inmates of Guantanamo Bay. The population is not representative of humankind and the environmental and social constructs are abnormal. So the display of highly sentient beings is not justified on the grounds of assisting zoological parks achieve their objectives.

Even if proponents of these parks can achieve their objectives by the creation of a utopian captive environment, one cannot help but pose the question that Jeremy Bentham famously asked more than 100 years ago, 'The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?' We now know that the ability of sentient animals to suffer is far greater than we ever imagined, so by doing a cost-benefit analysis, one must draw the conclusion that the level of suffering of highly sentient beings, such as whales, even in a hypothetically utopian, but captive environment is far greater than any benefit achieved. Hence the displaying of sentient beings cannot be morally justified.

One must also question the surveys which show Hong Kong's majority support for the display of the whales. Certainly, the will of the majority of the people should prevail but there are exceptions. One such exception is that at no time should the will of the majority be detrimental to the well-being of a minority.

If one accepts this statement, then the will of the majority of sentient human animals does not justify the removal of the freedoms from the minority, that is, sentient non-human animals. This is not philosophical claptrap but the policy of an enlightened society.

We are sharing this planet with other sentient beings that have the expectation of freedom. Therefore no matter what the opinion polls say, it does not make the deprivation of freedom of these beings morally right.

Maybe Ocean Park would be better off employing an ethicist to assist with its decisions about future exhibits instead of using spin doctors to conduct opinion polls.

Dr Anthony James, director, Laboratory Animal Services Centre, Chinese University of Hong Kong