Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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 Zoophilia is about having sex with animals. People with a sexual orientation for animals are called zoophiles (from the Greek zoon - animal and philia - lover). The term bestiality is often a more commonly used word for zoophilia. Possibly the most popular beast partners are dogs, horses, cows and sheep, probably because of their prevalence and relatively submissive behaviour as domesticated animals.

Love Across The Species Divide

Illustrations from early history depicting sexual acts with animals indicate that among some societies bestiality was accepted at least to some degree. Many people today would view zoophilia as abhorrent, disapprove of it and see zoophiles as sick or sexually impaired. Until recently zoophilia was widely considered a mental disorder and in some places it still is.

Some people can be zoophilophobic much like some people are homophobic; this attitude is subjectivist and emotivist - based on subjective and emotional feelings and not on rational consideration. Zoophiles, however, maintain that they have loving relationships with their partner animals and do not feel what they do is immoral; zoosexuality is no different from human-human relationships, can last years and exceed bare sexuality. They claim that many animals of both sexes can experience pleasure from sexual acts, can solicit sexual pleasure from humans and show their appreciation.


Sex with animals is illegal in some countries, eg Canada and some European countries; bestial acts in Britain carry a jail sentence of up to two years. But elsewhere, as in half the states of the USA and in other European countries, there is no specific legislation against it.


Facts and figures about zoophilia are hard to come by because it is a concealed activity with little research on the subject. One celebrated estimate put the number of people involved in sexual activity with animals at eight percent of men and half that value for women. But opinions vary wildly and some people make out that over half the population have indulged in some form of zoophilia, if only in fantasy.


It may be said that it is immoral for self-interested sexual gratification to cause an animal distress or pain, impair a young animal's development or coerce an adult animal into unwilling acts. But surely responsible zoophiles would care for their animal partners, who must be consenting, and insure their well-being as part of their love.

For & Against: argue your case

  • Claim: Animals do not have the mental maturity and capability of adult humans for sex. If they had sex with humans their healthy development would be stunted and they would suffer.

  • Claim: Grown animals are physically and emotionally ready for sex and have sex drives. Responsible zoophiles acknowledge that immature animals can be harmed by sex and must not be harmed.

  • Coercion or Choice
  • Claim: Animals, like children, cannot make choices and consent to sex but are fooled and manoeuvred or coerced into sexual acts.

  • Claim: Grown animals can make adult choices of their own and consent to sexual advances from humans. Animals not wanting sex will clearly say so with body language and fight back if necessary.

  • Degradation or Dignity
  • Claim: Having sex with animals sullies animal dignity.

  • Claim: Neither humans nor animals are superior that one side can degrade the other.

  • Harm
  • Claim: Zoophilia harms animals. Animals are bound, physically abused and injured.

  • Claim: Zoophiles do not harm animals and loving relationships can develop. Sometimes a partner can suffer, as can happen in inter-human relations. Sexual abuse is wrong in humans and animals.

  • Compatibility
  • Claim: We should seek partners we can relate to on the same emotional and intellectual level. We cannot do this with animals.

  • Claim: Sex is an expression of many things, not just egalitarian relationships and can bridge the species barrier.

  • Anomaly
  • Claim: Zoophilia is a mental disorder and a perversion which needs to be cured.

  • Claim: Zoophilia is as much a part of the normal mind as other forms of sexuality, such as heterosexuality and homosexuality.

  • Pregnancy & Disease
  • Claim: Either party might get pregnant or pick up a disease.

  • Claim: Different species cannot make each other pregnant. Sexual diseases are mainly specific to each species so are unlikely to be caught from an animal-human sexual partnership.

  • Injury
  • Claim: If there is a big size or strength difference then either party could easily injure the other, eg a dog or horse vs a human.

  • Claim: There is a risk of harm because of size, strength and behaviour differences, but this also applies to man-woman relationships.

  • Naturalness
  • Claim: Inter-species sexual activity is unnatural so should stop.

  • Claim: We do not know the incidence of inter-species sexual activity among wild animals. So we cannot knowledgeably say that zoophilia is unnatural.

  • Prejudice
  • Claim: Zoophilia is as wrong as paedophilia.

  • Claim: Condemnation of zoophilia is an example of speciesism: discrimination against other species based on human prejudices.

  • Also see Therianthopy: people venerating animals.

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  When you think of a zoo you might picture one of the few prestigious institutions. But most zoos are small insignificant collections situated by roadsides, in people's private backyards or in towns. A 'zoo' is simply a collection of animals. Most zoos are geared to make money by attracting paying visitors, give trivial or no thought to animal rights or welfare, and the quality of life for their animals varies from lethal to scarcely adequate.

The earliest significant animal collections date back at least 3,500 years to the Middle East. The animals came from far away places, objects of curiosity. They were given to rulers, the rich and powerful in return for political favours and their new owners used their collections as displays of status.

Enthusiasts with a passion for collecting animals started the first big zoos as we know them today. They trapped animals from the wild and sometimes killed mother animals to take their young. Young animals are easier to keep and transport because they eat less, take up little room and are more manageable than adults. They also killed the animals who got in their way and many of the trapped animals they took with them died on the long and hard journey to the zoo.

There is a zoo in nearly all large cities today and the bigger the zoo the prouder the citizens. Among the first major city zoos were Vienna and Paris, opening in 1752 and 1793. London Zoo was founded in 1828 with the distinction of claiming to be the world's first zoo for the study of animals. Philadelphia and Adelaide zoos were founded later the same century.


  • Over 10,000 zoos exist worldwide, holding about a million vertebrate animals.

  • The number of animals per zoo ranges from a handful to several thousand.

  • Over 600 million people a year visit zoos.

  • These figures (from Guide to the World Zoo Conservation Strategy, 1993) no doubt exclude animals from the innumerable small roadside tourist stops and small private collections. Some sources claim there are more like five million vertebrate animals in zoos.

    The Changing Attitude to Zoos

    Collectors of zoo animals in living memory treated their charges as items or specimens, especially treasured if rare or unusual, and prized as public attractions. However, the animals themselves typically lived in small bare cages with nothing to do and no place to retreat from human gaze or disturbance. Even today's leading and distinguished zoos set a trend from the 1950's as popular attractions to entertain the mass public. But in the 1970's people's attitudes started changing. A few people began expounding the view that animals have mental and physical needs which their inadequate living conditions could not support. They challenged the role of zoos and made zoo animal welfare an issue. Consequently, zoos are no longer automatically accepted unthinkingly by everybody and are forced to justify their existence to their critics.

    Basic Arguments for Zoos

    Zoo give four basic justifications for their existence:

  • Scientific Research
  • Zoos contribute substantially to scientific knowledge. They research animals at the zoo and contribute to human knowledge.

  • Nature Conservation
  • Zoos play a key role saving species from extinction. They conserve endangered species by breeding endangered animals and returning them to the wild.

  • Public Education
  • Zoo exhibits are a valuable source for public learning about animals and their natural habitat.

  • Public Entertainment
  • Zoos offer entertainment and recreation for the public. Zoos cannot rely entirely on grants and public donations and must earn their way like any other business.

    So what arguments do zoo critics muster against these assertions?

    Arguments Against Zoos


    Few zoos finance research which may benefit their animal occupants. By far the majority of zoos have neither the means nor the will to carry out research. The research in the few zoos that do carry it out is not necessarily always significant or worthwhile.

    Zoo animals make unreliable subjects for behavioural research, for example, because their living conditions are artificial and many zoo animals are mentally deranged (more below). Therefore the results of research can be misleading as well as unproductive. An example is research on the social structure of zoo-living wolves and chimpanzees. We now know their natural social organisations are completely different in the wild where humans do not disturb them. But this knowledge only emerged from field studies on wild animals.


    The vast majority of zoos have no desire or resources to be an effective means for conservation. It is only the few leading zoos or ones with conservation minded owners that pay tribute to conservation.

    The purpose of many large zoo animals, like African lions, elephants and giraffes, is to acquire money at the gate from paying visitors. Zoos breed cute baby animals for the same reason, but then have a surplus of animals to get rid of (see Canned Hunts). Of course some species, like pandas, chimpanzees and snow leopards are charismatic crowd-pullers and are also endangered. But most species in most zoos are not threatened with extinction.

    Removing rare animals from the wild to stock zoos can influence the survival of the animals' wild population. The major zoos today breed most of their animals from existing zoo-held animals but still occasionally take animals from the wild. More importantly, there is still a highly damaging trade in wild animals for smaller and for private animal collections.

    Zoos only reintroduced a handful of species successfully back to the wild. Notable successes are the golden lion tamarin to the rain forest in Brazil, the Arabian oryx to the deserts of Arabia, the tarpan (Przewalski horse) to the Mongolian steppes and the field cricket to Britain. But these exceptions, although important, do not justify the captivity of a million other animals at zoos.

    It is not possible to return zoo animals to the wild if their habitat is destroyed or seriously degraded. This is a growing problem as more forests are cut down and plains are ploughed up for roads and other human developments.

    Even if suitable habitat remains, reintroducing zoo animals is an expensive, time consuming and complicated process of teaching the animals to survive without support from humans to do such elementary activities like getting food and avoiding predators. Most animals would be dead in a short time if simply released.

    It is also impossible for zoos to look after the many and growing numbers of endangered species (see Mass Extinction). There is no space in zoos to accommodate even a tiny fraction of them. Nor is there any certainty that animal species kept in zoos will breed successfully, survive debilitation from lack of genetic variety or resist extinction from infectious diseases. Nor that money will always be there to keep them.

    The priority for conservation, therefore, must be to conserve animals and their habitat in the wild. Yet few zoos support in situ conservation projects. Animal species down to their last few surviving members might be taken into captivity, but only as a last resort, and you still do not need zoos because they can live at specialist conservation centres.


    Throngs of people visit zoos, so the potential is there to educate them about animals, their welfare, ethics and conservation. Some zoos fix up information plaques or recorded talks next to exhibits, and a few of the big zoos supply videos and publications. However, at the small number of zoos where good educational material is available, little of it is absorbed by the public at any one visit and most zoo-goers disregard it. Children, especially, rush from one exhibit to another, staying a while only if animals are being fed.

    Zoo animals cannot possibly act genuinely in their enclosures and may even be deranged (more below). Unnaturally housed or insane animals cannot be representative of their species. There were virtually no televisions in the 1950's. But good wildlife television programmes today can show normal behaviour of animals in their natural surrounds. And many people go on safari or working holidays in wild animal habitat to experience nature in the flesh. We do not need to confine animals in zoos to lean about them. Zoo animals are not necessary as educators of the public.

    What do zoos really teach people? They teach us that it is all right to keep animals locked up so long as you can justify it with an excuse (we need them for conservation, or research, or for public education, or to earn money). They teach us that humans are superior to animals because we can capture and control them. Zoos teach us that animals exist for human purposes and not as individuals who control their own lives.


    Zoo animals live in conditions where outlets for their natural instincts are continually frustrated. Lack of adequate environment is not a mental or emotional problem for invertebrates, like giant stag beetles and tarantula spiders, but is a serious problem for animals like wolves, bears and eagles. How can animals who normally run or fly great distances express their urges locked up for years in pens? These animals normally range over thousands of kilometres but spend their lives in what is no more for them than a pit in the ground.

    Animals in zoo usually have nothing to do. They are not given tasks to exercise their intelligence or other skills. Animals can be bored, depressed and listless. In short, zoo animals become institutionalised, helplessly dependent on humans.

    In their narrow and confined zoo-world many animals succumb to ailing mental health and go mad. It is easy to see animals with unnatural behaviour in zoos. You can see self-mutilation such as tail chewing or excessive plucking out of fur or feathers, see listless indifference, and abnormal repetitive behaviours (stereotypies), like pacing up and down or rocking back and forth for ages. These behaviours indicate neurosis or insanity brought on by boredom, deprivation, frustration and stress. The animals are telling us they are suffering from inadequate lives - even though they may look physically healthy, well fed, clean and otherwise cared for. Humans in mental homes express the same kinds of behaviour, but mental health problems in zoo animals usually go unnoticed by the public passing by.

    Zoos encourage the trade in animals and endangered species through continued demand for animals. And where do old and surplus zoo animals go? To keep going, zoos must get money. For some zoos the temptation is there to sell animals they do not want to dubious practices like the exotic meat industry (for instance see Bushmeat) or to canned hunts. Animals in zoos in war zones may stave slowly to death in their cages through neglect because no one can care for them. Deliberately starving animals to death like this is outrageous neglect and an abandonment of moral consideration.

    Locking up animals encourages indifference and lack of respect for animal life. Zoos teach people that it is all right to make use of animals for human purposes, even purposes we assume are virtuous. Zoos inspire us with false ideas by inadvertently teaching us that humans are superior to animals and dominant over them, and that we live apart from nature, not with nature as a species ourselves.

    All in all, humans use zoo animals as a means to further human ends, in particular for the conservation of species for human posterity, research for human knowledge, education for human betterment, and for the pursuit of humans earning a living. Conservation, research, education and employment are noble ideals, but if you believe in animal rights then zoo animals have a raw deal.

    For & Against: argue your case

    Serving the Greater Good
  • Claim: Zoos conserve wildlife and educate the public. If a zoo animal can serve and broaden this scope then the life of that animal is well served.

  • Claim: Even the best reputable zoos do not serve the interests of their animal occupants. Zoos take away the right of animals to live free and determine their own lives.

  • Research
  • Claim: Through their research on animals zoos contribute valuable knowledge and expertise to our understanding of wildlife and its needs.

  • Claim: Research on abnormally disturbed animals kept in barren conditions can only provide reliable information on abnormally disturbed animals kept in barren conditions, not on wildlife. Wildlife is best studied in the wild.

  • Breeding Species
  • Claim: Zoos support conservation of endangered populations. They breed these animals so that they can return their offspring to the wild.

  • Claim: Only a tiny number of zoos breed animals effectively for conservation and release extremely few animals back to the wild. They do not justify the captivity of millions of other animals.

  • Life Quality vs Sanity
  • Claim: Zoo animals live good lives in elaborate enclosures, are able to socialise with fellow animals and fulfil their natural behaviour. They are fed good diets, looked after by dedicated staff and are healthy.

  • Claim: Good zoos are rare and millions of animals live in inadequate conditions. Many animals show aberrant behaviour, like listlessness, self-mutilation and abnormal repetitive behaviour and some are driven insane.

  • Longevity
  • Claim: Zoos animals are protected from danger by keeping them safe and they live longer than in the wild.

  • Claim: Animals may be protected but they have a poorer quality of life in confinement. Longevity is not a guide to good mental health.

  • Stewardship
  • Claim: The environment of many species is severely degraded or destroyed. The only hope of survival for these animals is in zoos and captive breeding centres.

  • Claim: All the zoos in the world cannot keep a large enough number of animals with sufficient genetic variation to save endangered species from going extinct. The only way to save species is to preserve them in the wild along with their natural habitat.

  • Taking Wild Animals
  • Claim: It is wrong for zoos or their agents to capture animals from the wild, kill their parents to get them, and destroy their communities.

  • Claim: That is largely in the past, for reputable zoos at least. Animals collected from the wild today are for specific conservation and educational purposes.

  • Power & Control
  • Claim: Zoos offer information and publications about animal exhibits to help visitors understand animals and their needs.

  • Claim: People look at caged animals and what they really learn is that humans have power and control over animals and that it is right to confine them, which it is not.

  • Education
  • Claim: Visitors to zoos are interested in learning about the animals they see and are therefore receptive to education. Zoos offer lots of educational material about their animals and nature.

  • Claim: If they bother to provide anything, zoos display the most meagre information about their animals. Most visitors drift from one exhibit to another. They hardly bother to stop and lean anything about them.

  • Creating Awareness
  • Claim: Zoos stimulate public interest in animals and their conservation by leading campaigns to save animals and by presenting exhibits to the public to get the conservation message across.

  • Claim: Many organisations effectively stimulate public interest in animals and their conservation without imprisoning animals. Local nature trusts and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are examples.

  • Zoos vs TV
  • Claim: You can understand animals better from TV films taken in the animals' natural surroundings without having to confine animals.

  • Claim: You can see and experience animals at zoos that you would have no other opportunity to meet. Television does not allow you to get close to live animals or smell them.

  • Surplus Animals
  • Claim: Zoos destroy surplus animals or send them to disreputable traders for base purposes, like canned hunts.

  • Claim: Reputable zoos send surplus animals to other responsible zoos and institutions. They practice birth control or regulate population size in some other suitable manner.

  • Money-pullers
  • Claim: Many zoo animals are not endangered so have no conservation value. Zoos use them merely to attract the paying public. These animal should not be in zoos.

  • Claim: Zoos must attract visitors for revenue so that zoos can carry our their research, conservation and education. These animals can double a zoo's income.

  • Business
  • Claim: Zoos exist to make a profit. The money goes to the zoo's owner or investors. There is no justification for zoos.

  • Claim: Zoos must make a profit if they are to run successfully and the best zoos invest in the welfare of their animal stock.

    © 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved