Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka are co-founders of the Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law and Ethics research initiative at Queen's University.
Many Canadians this week nodded in approval over the retirement of Ringling Brothers's performing elephants, and cringed at photos of Justin Bieber posing with his "tiger for hire." Following on SeaWorld's recent decision to stop breeding captive orcas, these reports suggest growing public unease about the ethics of capturing or breeding animals purely for entertainment.
Elephants, tigers and whales living in the wild roam vast distances, negotiating an infinitely rich physical environment and complex social worlds. The scale of deprivation involved in their captivity – the loneliness, the boredom, the mind-numbing sterility – is terrible to contemplate.
Growing public unease has prompted the multibillion-dollar zoo industry to rebrand zoos as institutions of "education" rather than "entertainment," in the hope that this will make captivity seem more acceptable. But notice that this shift is more about the human experience than it is about the situation for the animals. For them, the realities of social and environmental deprivation remain, and so-called enriched zoo habitats merely gloss over the realities of rigid control, manipulation and impoverishment, whether or not animals are trained for public performance.
Moreover, the very distinction between entertainment and education is misleading. Circuses, marine parks and zoos are all involved in education. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of education that the industry touts – instilling in children love, respect and awe for wild animals; informing them about "natural" animal behaviour; or raising awareness about threats to animals and their habitats.
On the contrary, a growing field of research has documented the "hidden curriculum" of the captive animal industry, showing that its real educative function is to inculcate children away from interspecies empathy and into an ideology of species superiority and entitlement.
Pioneering work by psychologists such as Gail Melson reveals that young children naturally recognize animals as fully minded and intentional beings, with their own lives to lead.
Animals are central to the social and psychological world of children, objects of love and fascination when awake, and populating dreams at night. Children don't recognize a human-nonhuman hierarchy; they recognize animals as their friends, neighbours, family members – and equals.
Children don't need to be educated to respect and love animals. On the contrary, to accept the ways our society eats and exploits animals, children should be educated to stop caring about them. Zoos and circuses are part of this education. Zoo cages and enclosures help to physically shape this human-animal divide. They teach children that animals don't have a right to freedom or privacy, or indeed any fundamental right to live their own lives. They teach children that the very people celebrated as animal experts and caregivers are the same people who casually divide captive animal families and friendships, kill animals who are "surplus to requirements" and, in some cases, punish animals into behaving "naturally" or performing as desired.
It's not just the zoo and circus industry that carries out this ideological education. A related process occurs in schools. It starts in the early years when kids raise classroom chicks, sheltered from knowledge of what often happens to them when they turn into adults. And it is complete a dozen years later when biology seniors cut open fetal pigs or toss cow eyeballs around the classroom.
Research has systematically demonstrated the pedagogical superiority of humane alternatives to dissection, the psychological cost to students "shamed" into disrespecting animals and the disproportionate rates of young women and indigenous students opting out of a scientific culture that defines animals as experimental objects rather than living subjects. Yet the practice continues as a key component of our ideological education into the human-animal divide.
In his recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Frans de Waal recounts the story of London Zoo chimpanzees that were introduced to afternoon tea in expectation of the mess they would make, allowing spectators to laugh at them, secure in our superior human civilization. Instead, the chimps quickly learned how to use teapot and cups, sitting at a table to enjoy their cup of tea. This wasn't the right message, and so the apes were "retrained to spill the tea, throw food around [and] drink from the teapot's spout."
Numerous studies reveal the failure of zoos and circuses to educate us about animal capabilities, societies or habitat needs. They are much more successful in teaching us to denigrate them.