The animal world is under increasing pressure, given the magnitude of anthropogenic environmental stress, especially from human-caused rapid climate change together with habitat conversion, fragmentation, and destruction. There is a global wave of species extinctions and decline in local species abundance. To stop or even reverse this so-called defaunation process, in situ conservation (in the wild) is no longer effective without ex situ conservation (in captivity). Consequently, zoos could play an ever-greater role in the conservation of endangered species and wildlife—hence the slogan Captivity for Conservation.
However, the integration of zoo-based tools and techniques in species conservation has led to many conflicts between wildlife conservationists and animal protectionists. Many wildlife conservationists agree with Michael Soulé, the widely acclaimed doyen of the relatively new discipline of conservation biology, that conservation and animal welfare are conceptually distinct, and that they should remain politically separate. Animal protectionists, on the other hand, draw support from existing leading accounts of animal ethics that oppose the idea of captivity for conservation, either because infringing an individual’s right to freedom for the preservation of the species is considered as morally wrong, or because the benefits of species conservation are not seen as significant enough to overcome the presumption against depriving an animal of its liberty.
Both sides view animals through different lenses and address different concerns. Whereas animal ethicists focus on individual organisms, and are concerned about the welfare and liberty of animals, wildlife conservationists perceive animals as parts of greater wholes such as species or ecosystems, and consider biodiversity and ecological integrity as key topics. This seemingly intractable controversy can be overcome by transcending both perspectives, and developing a bifocal view in which zoo animals are perceived as individuals in need of specific care and, at the same time, as members of a species in need of protection.
Based on such a bifocal approach that has lately been adopted by a growing international movement of “Compassionate Conservation,” the modern zoo can only achieve its conservation mission if it finds a morally acceptable balance between animal welfare concerns and species conservation commitments. The prospects for the zoo to achieve such a balance are promising. Over the past decade or so, zoos have made serious and sustained efforts to ensure and enhance animal welfare. At the same time, the zoo’s contribution to species conservation has also improved considerably.