Jan 062009

The central notion of the Animal Rights movement is that “animals deserve consideration of their interests”. Let us consider captivity as it relates to the interests of animals:

There are an wide range of natural lives and captive lives, and one can easily and misleadingly look at the best example of either and compare it to the worst example of the other and reach whatever conclusion one wants to reach. Too often people compare the very best and most idyllic moment in a wild life with the worst example of atrocious captivity, and reach a skewed conclusion. For the sake of this article I am going to try to compare an average wild life with an average captive life. Since the question is whether or not captivity can be in the best interests of animals, we need to look at a reasonably good example of captive life to decide whether or not it can be a good life and if we believe it can then we can turn our attention to determining what conditions need to be met.

The natural life of a wild animal is rarely the idyllic picture that Disney, your parents, and some animal rights advocates would like you to believe. Nature is harsh and unforgiving, and most wild animals live very difficult lives. They are almost always inundated with fleas, ticks, intestinal worms, heartworms, and other parasites. They are plagued by flies and mosquitoes. They spend much of their life without enough food or water, or drinking brackish filthy water. They are often hunted and killed by animals of other species. They are often dominated or attacked by members of their own species over territorial or mating disputes. They are uncomfortably cold and wet or hot most of the time. They are unvaccinated against even the most common diseases and their injuries and illnesses go untreated and are often agonizing and eventually fatal. They are shot, poisoned, leg-trapped, or struck by cars. They are under constant stress and are always held captive by geographic boundaries or other animals’ ranges. They are often bred every season regardles of their health, and many of their offspring die. A wild animal’s life expectancy is generally less than half what it would be in captivity and much of that time is full of fear, stress, and discomfort.

A reasonably well cared-for animal has a very different life: it has ample space without threat of predation. It has clean, fresh water at all times. It is fed high quality balanced meals regularly and given vitamins, supplements, and treats to ensure maximal health. It is kept close to an ideal temperature at all times, and has dry clean bedding. It rarely encounters any parasites. It is given excellent preventative care, and any injury it sustains is treated immediately and pain management is provided. It is exercised regularly and given lots of enrichment so it is not bored. If appropriate it is housed with other compatible animals so it has companionship without risk. It is weighed and bathed. If needed it may receive massage or chiropractic treatments. Many captive animals are never bred, but those that are often are bred at comparatively infrequent intervals and given superlative prenatal care and their offspring have a very high likelihood of surviving. A captive animal’s life expectancy is generally two to three times longer than that of their wild counterparts, and for much more of their lives they are healthy, robust, and comfortable.

The only intrinsic difference between a wild animal and a well-kept animal is that the captive animal has a person dedicated to tending to its every need. If a captive animal were cared for in a manner identical to “nature”, the owner would be arrested for neglect and abuse immediately.

Very few adult humans chose to live a “wild” life. While we value our freedom dearly, we also value health and comfort and convenience. (Humans who value freedom so highly that they forego comfort to live without walls are called “homeless”, and most of us do not consider their choice optimal)

Over the years we have had several animals who came to us at a young age from the wild due to injury or accident whom we have raised as citizens of both worlds. We live far out in the woods and let them come and go at will. Not only did they stay, but also they spent the vast majority of their time lying on the down comforter rather than being outside. The only way I could get them to go act wild is to go out and call them and play with them, and as soon as I went back inside so did they. This is a well known issue in rehabilitation—one must be careful not to let the animal acclimate too much to captivity or they will prefer a comfortable captive life to the wild and will become unreleasable.

Some people argue that captivity is bad and all animals deserve to be wild and captive animals should be freed or eradicated. The point of this post is to honestly and carefully consider that view: animals have lives in captivity that are every bit as rich and full as in the wild, and in general they are longer, healthier, more comfortable, and by any practical criteria better.

Animals do indeed deserve consideration of their interests, and it is unmistakably clear that, if we can look past our preconceptions and biases, captivity is often the very best life to achieve those interests.


  22 Responses to “Captivity: Good or Bad for Animals?”

  1. “Captivity: Good or Bad for Animals?, Just added you to my feed reader. I’ll make sure I visit this site once a day.

  2. I think that as humans become more able to create a comfortable living for our own race and for the animals, we have more to share.

  3. A great summary of the flaws of AR arguments against domestic animals. Thanks for writing it. =)

  4. This is as I suspected. I had little doubt that animals in captivity live longer. However, making the qualitative determination that “captive is better” is quite the leap. A lion that does not hunt, fight or mate seems contrary to its nature and therefore not necessarily “better.”

    Married men live longer than single men. The Life Expetency of people in Andorra, Maccau and Monaco is much longer than those living in the U.S. I suspect also that those living in metropolitan areas such as New York and D.C. have lower life expectencies than those living in Hawaii, Utah or Idaho. Would everyone agree, however, that those living in Hawaii enjoy “better” lives than New Yorkers?

  5. Frank,

    I did not make the leap you suggest. I mentioned increased life expectancy as merely one example of how the captive life is easier than a wild life. Additionally, I offered multiple concrete examples of the many ways in which, in addition to being longer, a captive life is more comfortable than a wild life. Essentially the entire post was a list of the many advantages to living in captivity. Of course there are advantages to a wild life as well, which is why I did not argue that all animals would be better off in captivity. But the irrefutable truth is that there are many advantages to a non-wild civilized life, including warmth, food, bedding, medicine, water, freedom from parasites, freedom from predation, etc., which tend to be ignored by those arguing that animals “should” be wild.

    If you doubt the validity of this reasoning, go out into the wild and find a person living there without technological comforts, and ask him which life he prefers. Problem is, you will not find many such people, because we find the wild so much less comfortable that while some of us like to visit, almost none of us want to live there which is why our entire species opted for civilization, with all of its downsides, instead of the wild. People who lose their homes often kill themselves rather than head out into the idyllic wild to live a more natural life…

  6. The person that wrote this post obviously keeps giving wild animals human characteristics. They say that because people prefer to live in houses and drink fresh water than wild animals prefer the same. Just to make it clear I am a gamewarden and I have a masters degree in wildlife biology. Breeding in captivity allows for almost no genetic diversity or variation. Also these animals develop very bad disorders from being kept in captivity. For those that argue captivity for research tell me how much you would learn about humankind natural behavior, breeding schudules, territorial charts, mating behavior by studying human kind in solitary confinment. Nothing of value for sure! Whales and sharks actually live shorter lives in captivity. If we really love these WILD animals, let’s love them for what they are!Ofcourse a human can’t live outside and be confortable. Even our ancestors had to live indoors! Wild animals have special traits that have been aquired over thousands of years. These are thereasons they have developed such superb skills in the wild.

  7. animal captivity is good when animals are being studyed but after they should release them

  8. Captivity, in my view, is only good when the animal cannot be released into the wild, and even this is heartbreaking to witness. After asking many people, most would rather die than spend their entire lives in a comfortable prison-like cell, even with food and water and a few magazines to read. Freedom is life, and to deny an animal freedom for the sake of “education” is not ethical. You cannot truly study creatures when they are not in their natural habitat.

    • Judging by how many people fight for life in prison without the possibility of parole vs. the death penalty, and how many that do get the death penalty submit appeal after appeal, I’m not sure I would agree with your reasoning…

  9. Katie,

    You make several points that are very widely held and worth consideration and discussion…

    First, there is a strong tendency to do as you did, and ask whether humans would prefer freedom or captivity. This is not really a valid question, because different species—and in truth different individuals—may have very different preferences. A captive life that might be fabulous for a mouse might be miserable for a polar bear or a moose. In particular, most humans are very attached to certain ideals. In fact, we will often sacrifice practical benefits for ideological principles. There is very little evidence that this generally occurs in the animal kingdom, although there are certainly a few examples of profound altruism in nature. But in general, very few animals question their philosophical freedoms—they value comfort, food, play, safety, and companionship, but whether or not there may be a fence somewhere keeping them theoretically from going to Paris is not high on their list of concerns…

    There are considerable physiological differences between humans and other animals as well—what would be a great life for an arctic fox would be awful for a tropical fish, and neither would be good for you or me.

    There are also individual preferences—I have known some animals that clearly did NOT feel comfortable caged, and I have known others of the same species that seemed to strongly prefer captivity. The point is not that captivity is universally better; rather, that in many individual cases captivity is better…
    In order to reach valid conclusions, we need to ask whether or not an individual animal has a good and happy life in a particular situation, NOT how some other animal or person would feel, as we have very different needs and desires.

    However, let us pretend for a moment that your human metaphor would work:

    Despite what a few people may have told you, virtually EVERY person on the planet chooses to live in a home, despite the freedoms we sacrifice by having neighbors and laws, because we value comfort and safety more highly than absolute freedom. There are a few people who refuse to give up their freedoms, and they live on street-corners pushing shopping carts, but I am not persuaded their choice represents the best and highest ideals…

    And if we are going to look at your human metaphor, a more accurate way for you to ask the question would be:

    1. You are stuck out in the wilderness, surrounded by predators. You cannot go more than a mile in any direction as there are other people who will kill you if you trespass onto their territories. You are freezing cold, hungry, and will likely die before you are 25 due to hardship and the many risks. You will have no medicine, no technology. You have fleas, ticks, lice, flies, mosquitoes and intestinal worms constantly.
    2. You are stuck on a beautiful 5 acre farm with a library, computer, other friendly people to spend time with, a nutritionist who prepares a different perfect meal each day, a personal trainer who helps you exercise, every toy you have every imagined, a tempurpedic bed in a climate controlled home. You go on walks most days and could leave if you wanted to. You go to the beach a few times each year, to the mountains to play in the snow, you go to fairs, to town, to wherever you enjoy going, and you return home whenever you want. You are given massages and your hair is lovingly brushed when needed. You have a doctor who gives you an annual checkup and the best of care. You get manicures. There is a gate that keeps you from leaving the property unaccompanied.

    Which would you prefer? And before you say, “Animals have fur and claws and are adapted to that life,” let me point out that we used to have those things too, and we came inside anyways, and I am pretty sure even if you could run fast and had fur and claws it would not fundamentally alter your answer to this question…

    Virtually every day, I open the front door and let most of my animals have access to wherever they want to go. If they felt like prisoners, as in your model, they would, obviously, leave; just as any prisoner would whose cell was left open. Yet none of my animals depart—on the contrary, they stay in the home, and if I put them outside they will soon be at the front door wanting to come back in. (The inside of my front door looks perfect, NEVER having been scratched by an animal wanting out; the outside is scratched to heck despite having been repainted many times!) Why? There are three primary reasons:

    1. Comfort: most animals would much prefer to lounge and play on a comfortable bed with easy access to everything they want.
    2. Security: most animals passionately want the opposite of freedom. They want to find a small, defensible, secure area that they can call their own territory and that is familiar and safe.
    3. Community: pretty much every animal I have would rather be near me than anywhere else in the world.

    I wonder why it breaks your heart to witness a happy, healthy animal living a long and rich life just because it is living that life with a human caregiver instead of in the wild…

    • Animals in zoos and aquariums certainly can’t leave captivity whenever they want to, and in most situations they have less room to roam then they would in the wild.

  10. Animals in Captivity is horrible cause they don’t have freedom like us people.The End

    • Hey, we don’t have freedom we chose to live in captivity with laws and rules, however, if you want to go live in the wild with creatures trying to hunt you down then go ahead theres nothing stopping you.

  11. I’d need to check with you here. Which is not one thing I commonly do! I appreciate reading a post which will make persons think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  12. I think its okay for animals to be in captivity because they live a longer, happier life!

    Would you rather live for ten years being misrable, or live for thirty years in a warm, conforable paridise?

    It”s like when you watch TV and you those cute, injured, little puppies and you feel so bad for them, well guess what they where in the wild! Look what happened to them! Then you feel that they should live with you, IN CAPTIVITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So, if you disagree with me the next time you see one of those poor, helpless puppies don’t feel bad for them thats what you think they should be like, sad and injured.
    🙁 that sad face is how people that disagree with me want animals to feel like!



  13. To me its fine to have animals in captivity. YOU’RE in captivity! You gave up your freedom to be captive and under the rules of the government.So, if you disagree with me and you have a petthat makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU’RE HOLDING THEM CAPTIVE, and if you think that have animals in captivity is so bad, why are you supporting it by having a pet?

    Another thing, is you know when you see those adoreable little stray cats or dogs on TV and you feel so bad for them, well guess what, they where in the wild look what happened to them! Is that how you want them to feel? What do you think the animals would chose, a life of luxury in a warm, home swarmming with kind, loving people who care about them or out in the wild, ( hense the term wild!!!!) where at any moment they could be shot, leg trapped, poisoned, struck by a car or attacked by another animal! What would you chose?

    If you’d ash me I’d pick the smiley face 🙂

    If this is a hard question for you to answer you are clearly a mean, heartless animal hater! It should be an easy question to answer.

    So are you mean and cruel or kind and warm hearted?

  14. I don’t normally comment on stuff like this but this is the third article of yours I have read and there are flaws in all three. In this article in particular you generalized that captivity, in general, is better than being in the wild. Then in a reply to a post you said it is based on individualized preference. It has to be one or the other. Yes I agree, captivity is better for some, if the option of not being wild is taken away. However to say all animals prefer it, is wrong. Wild animals should be just that wild. In your scenario above, and I hope this isn’t your logic, a killer whale in sea world has a much better life than one in the wild. As for the average life of a captive animal, your animals do not live the average life. Most people don’t let their animals roam free whenever they want. Also, I do know people, my aunt and uncle, who do not live with all the comforts of a modern society. They live in northern canada and while they have shelter,which most animals do as well, they don’t have the conveniences of modern society. They chose to live that way, it was not forced. To compare animals to homeless people is not accurate. I do understand the basis of the article and agree that we as humans can give animals a more comfortable life in some circumstances. With most wild animals, not domesticated, that is not the case. The plight of animals not in captivity who are in constant distress usually is caused by humans, depleting their space, food, and habitat.

    Just my opinion and based on the articles I have read I do believe you genuinely want to help animals and the world could use a lot more humans like that. Thank you for letting me comment.


  16. I was raised on a farm with all kinds of animals. I can tell you from experience that even the animals we raised for food had very comfortable well cared for lives. Animals in the wild, as a rule, live short lives and die horrible deaths. Animals in captivity, as a rule, live longer lives and die comfortable deaths.

  17. Some is good. Some is bad

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