Are Captive Primates Robbed of their Culture?

By Brandon Tinklenberg, August 2018.

Abigail died at 41 years of age in April of 2001. She was suffering from kidney failure. She was a Sumatran Orangutan who spent most of her life in zoo enclosures in Toronto. She was first acquired by the Riverdale Zoo in the early 1960s. Toronto’s first zoo, Riverdale was typical of most of its era. By all accounts, it was a place where animals were treated more as curiosities than sentient beings deserving of our care and respect. Many animals were shackled all day, others displayed in dark, small, wrought-iron cages. Visitors would sometimes throw garbage at the inhabitants in order to rile them up.

In 1974, Abby was moved to what’s now known as the Toronto Zoo. There, she was housed with other orangutans in a relatively large enclosure that loosely mimicked her natural habitat. The Toronto Zoo is a member of the Orangutan Species Survival Plan, an organization that works with zoos to ensure the long-term survival of the species in captivity. Abby herself had six offspring, most of which were moved to other zoos in order to maintain genetic diversity of the captive population. Abby participated in many noninvasive research projects that were vital in rendering the cognitive comparison between human and nonhuman primates. She participated in a study demonstrating that orangutans can learn to categorize pictures at different levels of abstraction in a way that is similar to humans: they can sort animal images by species (bullfrog versus treefrog) just as easily as they could sort them by taxonomic order (frog versus lizard), all without taking a single undergraduate biology class. Abby’s short obituary notes that she had recently taken up painting, and that her handlers were using money spent on her works to raise money for the zoo.

Abby’s move from Riverdale Zoo to the Toronto Zoo was indicative of a historical change in values regarding captive animals. Many zoos now work closely with experts to ensure captive animals’ welfare. They collaborate with researchers that seek to better understand the natural world. They invest in habitat conservation efforts. They actively seek the survival of many species on the brink of extinction. For some species, captive populations now eclipse wild ones.

Abby’s move was good for her, but that does not mean that her being held captive was good all things considered. Some ethicists, like Dale Jamieson, argue that keeping animals in zoos is one of the most obvious demonstrations of ‘speciesism’, commonly understood as ‘a prejudice in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of some other species’ . Whether we think that putting captive animals on public display might mitigate the harm done to their kin by our own hands, keeping animals in captivity robs them of their autonomy. This is a fundamental right that, according to an Amicus Brief co-written by a number of philosophers and submitted by the Nonhuman Rights Project, human and nonhuman apes share.

However, not all philosophers are convinced that keeping animals in zoos is morally wrong. Richard Moore suggests that ‘instead of condemning zoos, we should dedicate our efforts to supporting them: to pushing bad zoos to reform or close, to funding more research into the welfare of captive animals, and to encouraging all zoos to strive to do more for their inhabitants’. His reason for supporting zoos that house primates in particular is that we currently lack any better options to ensure their well being. Wild primates currently struggle to survive in the wake of massive habitat loss. More than a third of all nonhuman primate species , of which there are roughly 400, are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Many primate sanctuaries have been constructed to service both wild and captive populations whose welfare are under threat. Sanctuaries differ from zoos in that they offer private, long-term, stable environments for primates that cannot be reintroduced to the wild.  Many sanctuaries insist that they are ‘in the business of going out of business,’ meaning that while they are dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of primates, the situation that necessitates their existence is morally reprehensible.  That being said, sanctuaries are critically underfunded. Meanwhile, primates’ native habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate. Even if we were to put concerted effort into developing spacious primate sanctuaries, it’s hard to see them fulfilling their ultimate mission of becoming obsolete.

If primates do have diverse cultures, then how should we interact with them? Is it wrong to deny animals the ability to establish cultures? Are existing animal cultures worth preserving?

It’s well documented that wild primates live in complex social groups. Chimpanzees can live in groups of over 100 individuals and orchestrate elaborate raids on their neighbors.  Zoos for their part have tried to respect the social needs of primates by hosting them in relatively large groups and monitoring their interactions. Still, practical limitations restrict their ability to accurately replicate the social environment of wild populations. The question then is whether there is some important element of primate social life that is impossible to sustain in captivity.

Some researchers suggest that nonhuman primates have diverse cultural traditions. In just the same way that rules of etiquette are passed down through human societies, and yet differ between groups, primates have behavioural quirks that permeate each group. Groups of chimpanzees differ in when and how they like to be groomed by others. Different groups of bonobos use particular reeds in order to fish for termites. Capuchin monkeys use stone tools in order to open shellfish, utilizing methods rivalling those used by Stone Age hominids . One group of chimpanzees even developed a trend of wearing grass in their ears: they spontaneously copied other grass-wearers, and adjusted the placement of grass in the ears of their conspecifics. These are just some of the observations that have led scientists to think that nonhuman primates have diverse cultural practices.

It is still an open question whether the findings above are truly evidence of some more primitive form of culture. That said, current zoo practices are completely at odds with the establishment and maintenance of these potentially cultural practices. Zoo enclosures could never hope to replicate the conditions necessary for robust cultural practices, since this would likely require large, long term, free roaming groups. As was the case for Abby’s children, many captive apes are shuffled between different zoos once they reach sexual maturity. So, even if enclosures were sufficiently large, group membership would not be stable long enough to ensure some behaviour was passed down between generations.

If captive primates could maintain cultural traditions, then researchers would no doubt capitalize on this opportunity to carefully study the origins and nature of culture. But the inability to do so not only limits our understanding of animal cultures, it also raises novel ethical questions: if primates do have diverse cultures, then how should we interact with them? Is it wrong to deny animals the ability to establish cultures? Are existing animal cultures worth preserving?

Primatologist Adam Bebko and colleagues recently argued that the relocation of endangered animals into zoos and sanctuaries might preserve the species at the cost of the destruction of long-term social structures. Cultural heritage is a vital part of how humans establish self and group identities: it helps us understand who we are in relation to others.  The psychological effects of indigenous people who are taken away from their families, forced to abandon their language, and assimilate to another ethnic group’s norms include PTSD, depression, and substance abuse. If animals are anything like us in this regard, the destruction of their social structures could be psychologically damaging. If researchers are interested in studying animals for their social life and cognitive abilities, and yet take away a crucial dimension of how they relate to others, no doubt this would make for bad science.

These ethical issues are not often addressed by those concerned about animals in captivity. In conservation ethics, we do not presuppose a creature needs to consciously value some ecological feature as important for its survival for that feature to be worth preserving. Contrast this with how we think about human cultural heritage: the fact that some groups of individuals value some artefact or practice is often the very reason why it’s worth preserving. In fact, the preservation of some artefact or practice is often taken as vital to the survival of the group’s cultural identity. But how could we know whether primates valued their cultural traditions in ways like us?

Humans harbor diverse attitudes towards cultural traditions of which they are part. Take Sunday supper for example. Some dinner guests might have a rich, self-reflexive understanding of their role in preparing the meal, and its importance in the expression for the group’s shared identity. Others might lack such understanding, and just come for the food. Still, they participate in keeping the tradition alive. Others might be critical of the ritual, even wish to be disassociated with it, and yet attend. All the dinner guests might harbor different evaluative attitudes towards Sunday supper, and still be important in the tradition’s expression. If knowing what’s required for some group of humans to value a tradition is difficult, we shouldn’t expect the task to be any easier when thinking about how other animals might value their cultural heritage.

Luckily we need not settle this issue in order to understand when some cultural group is being exploited, that is, when some group derives an unfair or opportunistic advantage from a vulnerable group who cannot reasonably consent to the situation. Whether primates value the cultural traditions they are denied via captivity, it’s a potential harm that they did not reasonably consent to. They did not consent to being housed with the conspecifics they are in fact housed with. The social relations of captive primates are heavily monitored and maintained by their keepers and organizations like the Orangutan Species Survival Plan. Since captive primates lack large, long-term, flexible groups, they cannot maintain the social structures required to share cultural traditions. If primates are like us in this regard, their inability to be involved in cultural traditions has deleterious psychological effects . Regardless, humans benefit from animals being held in zoos, if only in our understanding of the severity of human-caused threats to their well-being. Denying captive primates the ability to form and maintain cultural traditions is one such human-caused threat that is not highlighted by zoos, even though zoos themselves are the cause of the threat.

When considering whether captive apes  could ever be returned to their wild habitats, Richard Moore questions if these apes possess the skills needed to survive. He writes that “young apes learn these skills in the wild by watching the knowledgeable adults around them – but that’s an opportunity that creatures in captivity simply don’t have.” I wonder whether robbing captive apes, like Abby and her children, of the opportunity to learn in this way is at best doing a supreme disservice to them as complex social creatures, and at worst causing them irreparable psychological harm.


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