Vol. 27 No. 7 (September 2017) pp. 105-108

INCREASING LEGAL RIGHTS FOR ZOO ANIMALS: JUSTICE ON THE ARK, by Jesse Donahue (ed.), Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 163pp. Hardback $90.00. ISBN: 978-1-4985-2894-8. eBook $85.00 ISBN: 978-1-4985-2895-5.

Reviewed by Steven Tauber, School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, University of South Florida. Email:

Since the 1980s, scholarship on the legal status of animals, also known as “animal law,” has proliferated in the fields of law and social science, especially as public concern for animal welfare has increased. However, the extant animal law literature had not concentrated specifically on animals living in zoos and aquariums (for brevity’s sake I will henceforth use the term “zoo” to refer to both zoos and aquariums), and this oversight had been problematic because zoo animals have a unique status compared to other animals. Similar to animals in research and entertainment facilities, zoo animals are captive, but similar to companion animals (i.e., pets), zoo animals receive care from their human custodians. Although the species of animals who live in zoos tend to be wildlife, the individual zoo animals are not wild because they live under human care. Fortunately, Jesse Donahue’s edited volume fills this gap in the literature by focusing on animal law as it relates to zoo animals. The central argument of this book is that many zoos harm animals, but abolishing zoos is not a viable solution. Therefore, Donahue and the contributors to this book offer a number of intriguing legal recommendations for improving the conditions of animals living in zoos.

In the Introduction, Donahue establishes the central point of her book. She recognizes that there is significant variation in the conditions of animals in zoos throughout the United States and the world. Many zoo animals suffer considerably in inhumane habitats; consequently, animal rights activists argue that zoos should be abolished. However, Donahue notes that abolishing zoos altogether will not improve animal welfare because there is no viable place to put all of the animals currently living in zoos. Therefore, Donahue proposes expanding legal rights for zoo’s animals. Donahue continues with this idea in Chapter 1. She begins with an interesting analysis of terminology for zoo animals and proposes the term “wild public companion animals” (p. 4). Zoo animal species tend to be wildlife, but the individual zoo dwellers are not wild. Unlike pets, zoos animals (and the facilities that house them) are generally owned by nonprofit organizations that charge admission to view the animals. Moreover, although zoo animals are not companion animals like pets, they do live among humans who are concerned about their welfare and often bond with them. More importantly, by renaming zoo animals as “wild public companion animals,” legal institutions can recognize zoo animals as “co-citizens,” which will result in significantly increased legal protections for the animals. Additionally, Donahue proposes creating a separate federal agency to enforce animal welfare laws in zoos. This agency’s single mission would result in greater animal protection, and it would give activists a central place to file complaints against substandard conditions at zoos. An agency devoted to zoo animals would be well positioned to thoroughly investigate these complaints. In short, Donahue proposes a new legal regime for protecting zoo animals. [*106]

Chapters 2 and 3 address specific issues facing zoos in the United States. Donald E. Moore – the Director of the Oregon Zoo – writes Chapter 2, which concerns reintroducing animals into the wild. He defines reintroduction as “transfers of animals born in captivity and then restored to their natural habitat” (p. 27). Conservationists favor reintroduction of endangered species in order to stave off extinction, and animal rights activists believe that reintroduction is preferable to captivity in a zoo because the animals live in their natural habitat instead of in a cage. However, Moore explains that reintroduction is extremely difficult because animals need to be able to make the transition from zoos, where humans care for them, to the wild, where catching prey is difficult, conditions can be harsh, and hunters are allowed to kill animals. Additionally, Moore notes that reintroduction policies allow human intervention on behalf reintroduced animals who are not thriving only when the animal is an endangered species. Consequently, reintroduced animals who are not members of an endangered species are more likely to suffer and die after being released. Animal Behavior specialist Susan Margulis writes Chapter 3, which addresses research conducted on zoo animals. Animal rights activists often conflate research conducted in zoos with research conducted on animals in laboratories; however, Margulis demonstrates that unlike research conducted on animals in laboratories, research conducted in zoos is humane and benefits the animals. The main reason for this difference is that accredited zoos must adhere to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) relatively stringent regulations governing the treatment of zoo animals, whereas laboratories only have to adhere to the laxer Animal Welfare Act, which permits animal suffering. Most research on zoo animals is noninvasive and voluntary – animals can opt out if they choose. The occasional invasive research must use anesthesia. Recognizing that there are still problems with research conducted on zoo animals, Margulis proposes ways to increase protections, such as establishing Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) and developing better techniques for inferring informed consent from the animals. She also advises zoos to better educate the public on the humaneness of their research and its benefits to the animals.

Chapters 4 and 5 address zoos outside the United States. Animal rights activists Michael Morris and Mary Murray write Chapter 4, which focuses on New Zealand. Similar to the United States, New Zealand has statutes that govern zoo animal welfare, and it has an accrediting agency that scrutinizes animal welfare and ensures that zoos prioritize conservation and education. Nevertheless, the authors contend that these regulations do not sufficiently protect New Zealand’s zoo animals. To rectify this problem, the authors propose concrete recommendations, including banning high-functioning mammals and exotic animals from captivity and creating an independent agency to enforce protections more vigorously than they do now. Primatologist Govindasamy Agoramoorthy writes Chapter 5, which concerns zoos in Southeast Asia. Most Southeast Asian nations have animal protection laws, but they are weak and often unenforced. Additionally, the Southeast Asian Zoo Association (SAZA) represents zoos in Southeast Asia, but unlike AZA, it does not regulate the treatment of captive animals. Southeast Asian zoos frequently impede animal welfare by housing exotic animals in ill-equipped facilities; subjecting the animals to humiliating performances; [*107] and allowing physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. He suggests providing greater legal rights for zoo animals through stronger laws prohibiting the use of animals in entertainment; stricter standards for zoos’ conservation and rescue functions; more funding devoted to animal welfare; and more wild animal parks. He also advocates that the key stakeholders – conservation groups, the zoo owners, and animal rights groups – work together to improve the treatment of zoo animals in Southeast Asia.

Ron Kagan, who is the CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society, writes Chapter 6, which compares zoos to sanctuaries. Although many Americans assume that animals are better off in sanctuaries than they are in zoos, Kagan provides a more nuanced analysis of the two types of institutions. Federal laws and accrediting agencies regulate both types of facilities, but there are also key differences. Kagan demonstrates that each type of facility has relative advantages and disadvantages. For example, zoos tend to provide better medical care, but sanctuaries tend to better reflect the animals’ natural habitat. Overall, Kagan argues that there are zoos and sanctuaries that neglect and mistreat their animals, but many zoos and sanctuaries are genuinely devoted to caring for their animals. Kagan identifies the proliferation of exotic pets as a major animal welfare problem, and he argues that high-quality zoos and sanctuaries should work together to improve the exotic pet problem.

Donahue’s concluding chapter reiterates that improving zoo animal welfare can only occur through specific legal changes and government reform that will enforce protection laws. Donahue also notes that animal rights activists will need to reevaluate their knee-jerk opposition to zoos. Instead zoo animals “need activists who seek any institution that is best for them” (p. 154).

Donahue’s edited volume will contribute significantly to the field of animal law because it will help legal scholars and social scientists develop a greater intellectual understanding of the vexing and previously unexplored question of how to improve zoo animal welfare. Donahue’s classification of zoo animals as “wild public companion animals” will advance conversations on how humans should treat zoo animals. They are not wildlife, as many zoos claim. Adding the term “public” stresses that humans have a responsibility to care for these animals, and the term “companion animals” emphasizes that the law should protect zoo animals as well as it protects pets. Moreover, once the public better understands the status of zoo animals, then they will be more likely to support increasing legal protections for them. Donahue should also be commended for going beyond merely identifying problems with zoo animal welfare or being satisfied with a discussion of the ethics of zoos. One of the most valuable assets of this book is that it offers viable, concrete suggestions for improving the treatment of zoo animals.

Donahue also deserves credit for assembling an outstanding team of contributors. Editing a book can be a difficult task because the chapters often seem disjointed, but Donahue has organized the chapters to present a coherent argument with a refreshing diversity of views. The individual chapters also independently contribute to the discussion of zoo animal welfare. Animal rights activists, who reflexively argue that zoos should be abolished, should read Chapters 2, 3, and 6. Reintroduction and sanctuaries will not necessarily improve animal welfare. Research conducted on zoo animals is not nearly as detrimental as [*108] research conducted on laboratory animals, and the animals benefit from that research. Chapters 4 and 5 are important because they provide a comparative context to the question of the legal status of zoo animals. Initially, animal law research was largely confined to the United States, but more recently scholars have investigated the legal status of animals throughout the world (e.g., Wagman and Liebman 2011). These two chapters will enhance this nascent comparative animal law scholarship.

Students will also benefit from this book, although it is a little pricey (which is not Donahue’s fault). It would be a valuable addition to an animal law class taught at a law school, and it would benefit a graduate course or undergraduate course in animals and society. In fact, this volume could even contribute to an undergraduate biology or zoology class.

Donahue’s book could be improved with a fuller discussion of the difference between “animal rights” and “animal welfare.” Throughout the book Donahue and the other contributors allude to providing more legal “rights” for zoo animals by improving the conditions of their confinement. However, many scholars (e.g., Francione 1996) do not consider better conditions for animals in captivity to be an issue of animal “rights.” Rather, they view these measures as animal “welfare,” which is qualitatively different, and, in their view, less meaningful than animal “rights.” To these absolutists, any form confinement violates the animals’ rights. I do not raise this point to object to Donahue’s use of the term “rights,” nor do I dispute Donahue’s central argument. Rather, my intention is to suggest that a richer discussion of the rights/welfare distinction would enhance the volume’s argument on “increasing legal rights for zoo animals.”

This minor flaw notwithstanding, Donahue’s edited volume is essential for scholars, students, animal advocates, zoologists, and political leaders because it provides clear guidance on how to humanely and justly improve the lives of animals living in zoos.


Francione, Gary. 1996. Rain without Thunder: Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Wagman, Bruce A. and Matthew Liebman. 2011. A worldview of animal law. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

© Copyright 2017 by author, Steven Tauber.