Can we appreciate in a serious and deep way the
aesthetic qualities of wild species in exemplars held captive for exhibition in
the artificial installations of a zoo? To answer this question I invoke
theories concerning the aesthetic appreciation of nature propounded by Yuriko
Saito and Allen Carlson. I then argue that zoos impose their story on animals,
thereby preventing us from appreciating the animals on their own terms. I claim
that captivity and its effects on the health, behavior, and appearance of
animals make serious and deep appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of wild species
animal aesthetics, biodiversity, captivity, environmental
aesthetics, wildlife, zoo
According to the IUCN, over 23,000 animal and plant
species are at risk of extinction because of human activity. In such a drastic situation,
zoological parks have come to defend a supposed role they play in animal
conservation. They affirm that exemplars kept in captivity act as ambassadors
for wild populations, as a visit to the zoo raises awareness of the need to
protect wildlife in their natural habitat. Zoos claim that the aesthetic appeal
of animals, alongside moral and scientific reasons, will inspire people to
protect threatened species.
The hope that aesthetic appreciation of nature will
lead to an ethical commitment is shared by many, from philosophers to environmentalists.
What is specific to zoos, however, is that they aim to show the aesthetic
qualities of animals through the menageries they hold captive. Several philosophers
and experts on wildlife have criticized the holding of animals captive in zoos
on moral and scientific grounds. I
completely agree with those criticisms but here I want to explore a question
that belongs to the field of aesthetics: Can captive exemplars in the
artificial installations of a zoo reveal to us the beauty, ferocity, elegance,
grace and monstrosity of their species in a serious and deep way?
In searching for an answer to this question, I have
come across a range of ideas. In his book, The
Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature, Malcolm Budd answers the question in the
At a zoo you cannot appreciate an animal in
its natural environment. But it does not follow that your appreciation must be
of a caged animal – an animal as caged. Rather, you can ignore its surroundings
and appreciate the animal itself (within the severe limits imposed by its
An opposing answer comes from Holmes Rolston III, who
compares the experience of seeing wild animals in their natural habitat to exemplars
in a zoo:
[T]he wildlife encounters are entirely off
the map. One needs proper habitat, of course, but habitat is necessary not
sufficient for encounter. You have hoped for six days of the Yellowstone trip
to see a bear, and on the last day, there one is, only a cub, but a bear
nevertheless, feeding in the Shepherdia bushes.
You never expected the coyote, and he
walked by the car, six feet away, taking you by such surprise that you couldn’t
get the camera from the back seat. … This explains why zoos do little to
preserve wildlife aesthetically. … a caged bobcat is aesthetically a bobcat no
Although I have found some answers to the question
that concerns me here, unfortunately I have not found any systematic analysis
or, even less, a discussion among several authors. This absence of debate is
symptomatic of the fact that the aesthetic appreciation of animals receives
little attention. Indeed, there are not enough publications on the topic for us
to be properly justified in talking of a specific research field with its own
tradition, a canon of fundamental papers and books, its own discussions, and
everything else that constitutes a specific field of research in philosophy.
Because there is not yet a proper field of animal
aesthetics, in order to articulate an answer to my question, I take the
theoretical framework for it from environmental aesthetics. First, I consider
Yuriko Saito’s idea that to appreciate a natural object means to appreciate the
object as it really is, not as if it were some other thing. Second, I examine
Allen Carlson’s thesis that in order to aesthetically appreciate a natural
element, we need to have scientific knowledge of it. Although both Saito and
Carlson mostly develop these theories as they relate to environments and only
briefly apply them to animals, I find them to be a sound foundation on which to
build a theory of animal aesthetics.
In the next section of this paper, I use Saito’s and
Carlson’s views to show why, at first glance, it seems that at a zoo we can
appreciate the aesthetic qualities of wild animals. Then, in the third section,
I continue working with Saito’s and Carlson’s theories to argue that, in fact,
if we explore this question in a more rigorous and critical manner, we come to
realize that at a zoo we cannot appreciate the aesthetic qualities of animals
in a serious and deep way. In the fourth section, I synthesize and discuss both
sets of arguments. Connecting with that discussion, in the fifth section, I
defend the necessity of developing a field of research on the aesthetic
appreciation of animals. Finally, I offer some conclusions.
Reasons why it seems that we can appreciate the
aesthetic qualities of wild species through exemplars held captive in zoos
2.1 In her paper, “Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms,” Saito
affirms that in order to appreciate nature aesthetically in an appropriate way,
we must appreciate nature as it is. If
we project our own stories onto nature, we negate the possibility of knowing
and appreciating the reality of nature. I find Saito’s idea insightful because
we often do instrumentalize nature as a vehicle to transmit human meaning. When
animals, natural environments, and other natural elements are depicted in art
or publicity, they are usually presented as metaphors for or symbols of human
emotions and ideas, not as what they themselves actually are. Saito claims that any natural element has its own
biological role to play, its own story, independent of the symbols we may
impose on it. Because of this, in order to appreciate nature in a deep way, we
should listen to nature’s own story.
I think this should be a fundamental idea in the
development of animal aesthetics. However, I wish to make one small point
explicit. Definitely, seeing a natural element “on its own terms” is more an
ideal to orient us than a goal that we can fully achieve. Complete objectivity
is impossible, as many philosophers have argued, because we humans always
appreciate nature from our own perspective, that is, from within our own
biological nature, our culture, and our subjectivity, and we cannot totally
free ourselves from that. Nonetheless, to assume that we should conceive of and
appreciate a natural element on its own terms is the appropriate attitude
because it implies a basic form of respect and fosters critical reflection on
our own appreciation of nature. The subject has to listen to the object, to its
otherness, and not to subsume it into his or her own desires and fantasies, not
to instrumentalize it as a mere metaphor for his or her own views, not to
reduce it to a mirror for self reflection. For example, the use of an image of
a desert in an advertisement to sell cars or an image of a hawk to sell
perfumes are clear cases of natural elements not being seen as what they are
but being instrumentalized as symbols of human values.
We can use this idea to answer our question. At first
glance, it seems that modern zoos do present animals as they are, as
ambassadors of their species, and not as fantasies or metaphors. In this sense,
zoos appear to be very different from other modes of exhibiting live animals,
such as the circus, which I mention in the next subsection, and also from
representations of animals, which I consider below in the third subsection.
It also seems that modern zoos, such as San Diego
Zoo in California or Bioparc in Valencia, Spain, put considerable thought into
their design. The animals are exhibited in enclosures that aim to recreate
their natural habitats, where we can observe them from a variety of angles and
appreciate many different aspects of their bodies and behavior. Well-designed
zoos offer visitors viewing conditions that they would never find in nature,
where most animals hide from us, and it is difficult to get close and observe them for long periods. In modern
zoos, we can even see what goes on inside some dens.
In her article, Saito also affirms that we should not
reduce nature to its visual appearance. The Western tradition of picturesque
painting and aesthetic formalism reduces natural elements to their pictorial
surface and formal design. In contrast,
Saito strongly defends the idea that we should appreciate nature with all our
senses. If we apply this approach to our question, we can claim that, in a zoo,
people hear the sounds animals make, smell them, and sometimes even touch them.
Appreciating animals in a zoo is a more bodily, multisensory, and interactive
experience than contemplating them in photographs or films.
2.2 It seems that at a zoo we can appreciate animals better
than in any other type of exhibition of live animals. At a circus, in contrast,
we find animals dressed up and forced to perform in unnatural ways to the
of music. In fact, what makes animal circus shows amazing is precisely that the
animals accomplish feats that they would never spontaneously perform in nature
and that are so astonishing as to seem unbelievable. To see wild animals
interact successfully with artifacts, like a bear playing a trumpet or a chimp
riding a bicycle; to see animals do dangerous things for no reason, like lions jumping through a
hoop of fire; to see
predator and prey interact in unnatural ways, as in a tiger riding a horse; and,
above all, to see animals perform all these acts because a person orders them
to, is so strange that it only seems possible in a magical world, and this is
the kind of emotion that the circus tries to provoke in its
audience. But the sad reality behind the magic is that this unnatural behavior
is the result of a long and cruel training that provides us with moral
arguments against this kind of practice.
From an aesthetic point of view, the problem is that
circus animals are not presented as themselves. Although the animals are
physically present at the circus, they are not acting as ambassadors of their
species but representing human fantasies about our ability to dominate and
transfigure nature. At a zoo, in contrast, although the animals are maintained
captive in enclosures designed by human beings, it seems that they are more
autonomous in their behavior.
2.3 Zoos also seem to offer a good opportunity to
understand animals because they present real animals, whereas society is full
of artistic and decorative representations of them. Although I think that art
has the capacity to recount animals’ own stories and educate us about them,
especially when it is allied with science, if we look at the history of art,
the vast majority of depictions of animals do not represent them on their own
terms but transfigured into symbols of something else. Nowadays, we are
surrounded by representations of animals in art, publicity, and artifacts that
we encounter in our everyday life. They are omnipresent as commercial brands,
as symbols of human ideas, as fantasy beings created to entertain children in
cartoons, and as mere ornamental figures, for example, in jewelry.
It is important to consider whether all these
representations of animals, in which they do not appear on their own terms,
could have the effect of making us forget what real animals are like, or could
lead us to confuse real animals with fantasy beings or metaphors. The team of
artists Transnational Temps, formed
by Fred Adam, Andy Deck, and Verónica Perales, deplore the fact that we are
surrounded by images of animals used as commercial brands, sometimes
representing companies that knowingly reduce biodiversity. The paradox the
artists denounce is that our world is full of images of fantasy animals, while
at the same time we ignore real animals condemned to extinction.
In her paper, “Aesthetic Value and Wild Animals,”
Emily Brady makes a point in defense of some uses of animals as symbols: “Some
cases of symbolism based on expressive qualities may therefore be appropriate
and reasonable because they are, in fact, connected to the character and
behavior of such animals.”
Even if we accept Brady’s idea, I find it problematic that the immense majority
of our artistic and decorative representations of animals do not show them as
they really are but transfigure them into something else, sometimes bound to
the animal’s nature and sometimes wildly arbitrary.
Also Thomas Leddy, in his article, “Aesthetization,
Artification, and Aquariums,” makes a defense of the metaphorical appreciation
But is seeing something in terms of a
category to which it does not belong necessarily a bad thing? Although
this is assumed to be true by most scientific cognitivists, the thesis limits
creativity. When we creatively see something, whether in art or in
science, we see it in terms of a category to which it does not literally
belong. We can call such seeing “metaphorical perception.” To say
“Man is a wolf to man.” is to see man in terms of a category to which he does
not belong. Nonetheless, when elaborated, this metaphor presents a
possibly valuable thesis concerning the nature of man. Many studies in
the philosophy of science, the philosophy of art, and linguistics show that
metaphorical perception plays an important role in cognition. Should we
exclude such perception from appreciation of the natural environment?
The very example Leddy uses shows the problem of this
view. Leddy uses “wolf” as a metaphor applied to human beings. By this
metaphorical sense of “wolf,” he means an irrational beast driven by egoism,
violence, and cruelty. However, when we scientifically observe the behavior of
wolves, we understand that they are intelligent and deeply social and emotional
creatures, capable of empathy and compassion, who develop a fundamental role in
the environments they inhabit. The real nature of wolves does not resemble this
metaphorical view of them as an evil beast. To see wolves as dark monsters can
be creative but to disguise reality with our fantasies can have real
consequences. When people believe that wolves are evil creatures, they will be
less disposed to respect and defend them. The current hate against wolves, and the
fact that they are massively hunted in many countries, has its roots in this
distorted image of them propagated in our culture that has nothing to do with
their real way of life.
us now consider Carlson’s proposal. In his book, Aesthetics and the Environment, Carlson, like Saito, defends a
cognitive aesthetics, but the difference is that Carlson has a more strict
conception of knowledge.
For Carlson, only natural science provides the framework we require to be able
to appreciate nature as it really is, just as the history and philosophy of art
provide us with the framework required to appreciate artworks.
Carlson claims that in the Western tradition, two
cultural factors have prevented us from appreciating nature as it really is: a)
religion, which views nature as embodying spiritual symbols; and b) pictorial
representation and aesthetic formalism, which reduce nature to images. In contrast,
Carlson defends a secular and scientific foundation for the aesthetic
appreciation of nature. It is also important to highlight the fact that in his
defense of scientific knowledge, Carlson is not referring to vivisection in a
laboratory but is invoking naturalists who familiarize themselves with
environments and their inhabitants, listening to nature’s own stories.
Carlson’s argument evokes the American tradition of nature writing, as
exemplified by Thoreau, Muir, and
Carlson’s idea that only natural science provides us
with the framework necessary to appreciate nature as it is has received several
criticisms. Different authors have claimed that science is not a sure way to
objectivity, and that, in spite of its quantitative approach and strict methodology,
science remains as cultural in its essence as art is. As
an example of the failure of science to offer an objective view, we should
remember that for centuries scientists defended a mechanical view of animals
I do not consider these criticisms as sufficient to
refute Carlson’s theory but they should be taken seriously. I think that one
sound response could be to maintain a critical and prudent attitude to the
particular scientific knowledge we are using, and not to forget the transient
nature of scientific theories. However, this attitude is already a proper part
of science, as scientific progress consists of continuously rethinking and
correcting previous ideas. Also, I
consider that defending science as the proper framework from which to
appreciate nature aesthetically should not exclude art. It excludes certain
kinds of art but not all art. I consider that good artistic representations of
nature that are scientifically informed, that bring together art and science,
can help us to appreciate nature aesthetically.
In the same way, I think that traditional knowledge based on accurate
observations of nature can also help us to get to know and appreciate nature
aesthetically, an idea that I think is similar to the one Yuriko Saito and
Thomas Heyd defend.
If we apply Carlson’s theory to our problem, we find
that modern zoos seem to offer a scientific framework within which to
appreciate animals. The distribution of animals within the zoo corresponds to a
scientific classification, and every enclosure includes information concerning
the name of the species and some scientific background, as in a natural history
museum. In the particular case of aquariums, Nola Semczyszyn
even claims in her paper, “Public Aquariums and Marine Aesthetics,” that “Aquarium
displays should be considered scientific representations of marine
So, at first glance, it certainly seems that at zoos
we can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of wild species. However, if we continue
to analyze this issue in a more rigorous and critical manner, we will see that
in fact we cannot appreciate the aesthetic qualities of wild animals in a
serious and deep way in a zoo.
Reasons why we cannot appreciate the aesthetic
qualities of wild species in a serious and deep way through exemplars held
captive in zoos
3.1 Displaying animals in zoos entails an object model of appreciation, which
Carlson has denounced as inappropriate, while defending the natural environmental model:
Natural objects possess what might be
called organic unity with their environments of creation: such objects are a
part of, and have developed out of, the elements of their environments by means
of the forces at work within those environments. Thus their environments of
creation are aesthetically relevant to natural objects.
The aesthetic qualities of animals are relational. It
is necessary to perceive the animal in her natural environment in order to
comprehend her. The external appearance of an animal, her form, color, and kind
of fur or feathers she has, the sounds she produces, and how she moves, all
evolved over thousands of years in particular environments. The color of a lion
is the color of the African savanna. The color of a polar bear is the color of
frozen seas. The fur of arctic foxes is a response to the freezing weather. The
shape of the beak of each species of bird depends on the food she
The way an ibex moves has to do with her ability to climb rocks. An animal is
not an object that you can just move from one setting to another, like a
sculpture. When you remove an animal from her natural environment, you no
longer have a complete animal, only a fragment.
3.2 Because of processes of globalization and
homogenization, all around the world most zoos exhibit the same delocalized
animals, “star species,” such as large mammals. This phenomenon is similar to
the omnipresence of certain international commercial brands in every big city
and airport, and it has an important consequence. The presence of the same
species in zoos all around the world instills in visitors the belief that they
know these animals, in the same way a shopper feels familiar with the products
of a commercial brand found in many different cities and countries. Because of
this, it is more difficult for visitors to understand that when they see an
orangutan in a zoo enclosure, they are only seeing a delocalized fragment and
not a complete animal. In fact, the more they see the orangutan in different
countries, the less likely they are to remember which environment the species
belongs to. The ubiquity of the orangutan in zoos in every continent generates
the illusion that she does not belong to any specific environment.
At the same time, this phenomenon exacerbates the
tendency for many people to neglect the local fauna of their own environments
because they find it too ordinary, in contrast with the spectacularity and
glamour of star species advertised by zoos.
3.3 Saito claims that in order to aesthetically appreciate
animals of a particular species, we should appreciate the distinctive
characteristics of that species: the cheetah-like-ness, the eagle-like-ness,
and so forth.
But animals display their distinctive characteristics through their natural
behavior. We appreciate the agility of a cheetah when she runs, and the elegance
of an eagle when she flies. The limited and artificial space of zoos makes it
impossible for animals to behave naturally.
Moreover, animals have to develop artificial behavior
in order to adapt to the designed spaces they are confined to. Their enclosures
are ruled by arbitrary human norms, and because animals are often moved from
one zoo to another, they may have to readapt to new arbitrary rules. When zoos
develop programs of captive breeding, they are creating exemplars that are only
able to survive in the artificial world of a zoo, governed by human whim.
Consider, for example, that zoos deny animals the
possibility of searching for their food. In zoos, humans decide when and how
often the animals eat, and also what kind of food they receive. Instead of
actively searching for food, the animals have to passively wait for it. Very
often, zoos give animals their food in front of visitors, although for a wild
animal it is unnatural to eat in front of people who applaud and cheer. We
should also take into account that most zoos prevent predation, and sometimes
it with very artificial behavior. For example, bears, tigers,
and lions are given food hidden inside toys they have to open. In this
particular case, zoos change behavior expressing ferocity, velocity, and
intelligence that shows the wild animal as the dangerous creature she is for
interaction with a toy that shows the animal to be passive, inoffensive, and
In the case of dolphins and orcas that are trained to
perform, they have to learn to obey human orders, to perform choreographed
sequences, and to learn that they receive their food when they do as their human
trainers command. Although zoos call this enrichment, the result is that the
animals have to adapt to the arbitrary rules that humans impose on them. In
this sense, although what zoos do to animals is apparently different from what
do to them, actually it is very similar. Zoos modify animals behavior to adapt
it to the very fact that they are exhibited to an audience.
Furthermore, captivity affects health, appearance, and
attitude. Captive animals often perform compulsive movements, behave
repetitively, and may also have wounds and bruises. Most of them look sad,
frustrated, stressed, depressed, or angry. Their native aesthetic qualities are
3.4 There are some specific aesthetic qualities of wild
species that it is almost impossible to appreciate at a zoo. Many wild animals,
such as big cats or crocodiles, are dangerous creatures; they are strong,
fierce, fast, imposing, and aggressive. The appreciation of these animals has
more to do with the sublime than with beauty itself. When we have the
opportunity to encounter them in their natural environments, they awaken our
admiration at the same time as our fear. We know that a bear or a mountain lion
could kill us, and the sensation of danger that we feel belongs to the
aesthetic experience. On seeing a wild crocodile, just as on witnessing the
power of a great storm, we experience ourselves as finite and humble creatures
before the forces of nature, and this can be a deep and meaningful aesthetic
experience. However, when we go to admire these animals at a zoo, we encounter
subdued animals caged in small spaces and passively waiting for their food; all
their force and power has disappeared. Then we go to the gift shop and find
bears portrayed as teddy bears, crocodiles used as a basis for funny designs on
children’s pajamas, or tigers adopted as motives for jewelry. In this way, zoos
neutralize the force and power of wild species and prevent us from appreciating
these animals as they really are. As Thomas Leddy affirms about the souvenirs
in aquariums shops: “Many of these artifacts are clearly kitsch; they play on
sentimentality and discourage serious reflection. … It is crass when people are
encouraged to reduce their experience of a seal to a furry purchasable item.”
The aesthetics of modern zoos is constituted from a
mixture of a natural history museum, an amusement park, and a mall to go window
shopping in, and they are specially designed to entertain children. Many zoos
combine animal enclosures with play facilities for children that are designed
using representations of animals. London Zoo has a carousel of toy animals;
Barcelona Zoo even has real ponies to ride. It is quite remarkable that in 2013,
the Barcelona City Council offered a combined entrance ticket for both its zoo
and an amusement park called Tibidabo; the publicity for the offer depicted a
real zebra in front of a toy horse. The audience was apparently invited to
identify a real animal with a toy whose function was to amuse children.
Zoo gift shops reinforce the perception of animals as
toys. The teddy bears they sell represent animals but have softer textures,
brighter colors, and other changes that make them more attractive to children.
Similarly, children’s books are full of animals represented as fancy imaginative creatures;
some real features are mixed with fantasy, and it can become difficult to teach
the difference between fantasy and reality. In addition, this infantilizing of
animals instills the idea that animals belong to a childish fantasy world that
should be abandoned when one becomes an adult.
Children are the most important public at zoos; they
visit zoos both with their families and with their schools. In contrast, it is
highly infrequent to encounter adults visiting zoos with no children. When I
visited several zoos in different countries to gather material for this paper,
I went alone and spent time in front of every enclosure taking notes. That made
me a very unusual kind of visitor, and was sufficient to awaken the attention
and suspicions of some caretakers who tried to find out just who I was and what
I was doing.
3.5 When we aim to appreciate nature aesthetically, we can
enjoy a huge range of aesthetic experiences of plants, geological elements,
meteorological events, environments, and so on, but only through animals is
nature able to look back at us. Animals are the only natural elements that can
perceive us, that can look at us when we look at them, that can react to us
with different emotions and behavior, and that, in some cases, can even
communicate with us. This is because animals, like us, are not objects but
subjects. To look into the eyes of an animal that looks back at you is one of
the most awesome aesthetic experiences that we can enjoy in nature. In the words
of Holmes Rolston III:
The aesthetic experience differs because of
the reciprocity. There is a ‘window’ into which we can look and from which
someone looks out. They have, so to speak, points of view. There is fire in
those eyes.…. (…) There
is kinship, as there may not be with aesthetic contemplation of flowers or
scenery. But there is never identity, and humans can but imagine what it must
be like to be a duck, a chipmunk, an elk, a plover. There is alien subjectivity
which stands over against human subjectivity, a mysterious other with
differences both of degree and kind.
Every animal is not only an ambassador for her species
but is an individual with a subjective life and a personal story. They are
subjects who feel pain and pleasure, who possess cognitive, emotional, and
communicative capacities, and who possess memory and form social links.
As a consequence, to be exhibited in a zoo causes them suffering. For example,
chimpanzees in a zoo become stressed, because there are so many people around
the cage all day long looking at them, pointing at them, shouting at them,
banging on the glass, taking photos, throwing objects, and making noise.
If we want to appreciate animals on their own terms,
then viewing them as subjects should be the central factor. But zoos do not
display animals as subjects. If they did, we would understand that the animals
are in the zoo against their own desire for freedom, and that they are
suffering physically and psychologically because of their captivity. Zoos only
attempt to show animals as ambassadors of their species, and they present them
in an objectified way. For example, on the information panels provided in the
enclosures, zoos usually offer general information about the species but it is
extremely rare for them to offer particular information about the individuals
exhibited, such as origin, history, personality, health, family, and so on. At
most, they will offer a name and some nice anecdotes aimed at children. In
contrast, in sanctuaries and rescue centers, such as the Fundación Mona, in Spain, that rescues chimpanzees and macaques who
were used in the circus and on TV shows and were severely abused, the focus is
on the stories of the rescued animals, their personalities, and the effects that
captivity and mistreatment have had on their physical and psychological health.
To present animals as individuals is necessary in order to understand what
animals are, to learn to respect them, and also to appreciate them
aesthetically, because every individual is unique.
I will begin the discussion with a brief summary of
the previous sections. In the second section, I presented some arguments in
defense of the idea that we can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of wild
species through captive exemplars held in zoos. That is, that zoos are
appropriate places to go if we want to admire the aesthetic qualities of wild
animals. Then, in the third section, I provided several arguments against that
thesis. Now, I wish to bring both sets of arguments together and play them off
against each other.
All the arguments in favor of zoos share a common
idea: that zoos offer us an objective, neutral, and unbiased frame that allows
us to appreciate animals as they are. According to these arguments, zoo
enclosures are windows into nature; zoos
frame a piece of nature for us, and give us enhanced conditions of
visibility that we could not find in the wild. In contrast, arguments against
zoos share an opposing idea, that beneath the appearance of objectivity zoos
are actually presenting us with an incomplete, superficial, and distorted view
of animals. In order to be exhibited in the zoo enclosure, the animals have
been extracted from the environments where they belong and without which they
lose part of their identity. In these enclosures, the animals cannot behave
naturally and, at the same time, are forced to perform artificially. Because of
all this, captivity affects the physical and psychological health of animals.
Furthermore, zoos are presenting animals as ornamental objects to contemplate,
as nice appearances to watch and photograph, but not as subjects who also look
at us and who suffer from stress when they see so many people looking at them
every day. The way in which zoos provide information on animals is deeply
biased in order to foster their infantilization. They are presented as fantasy
creatures and toys, not as the wild animals they are.
When we bring the two arguments together, the
following idea comes to the fore. What makes visitors believe that they are
appreciating the aesthetic qualities of wild species in zoos is the mere fact
that they are perceiving the real animals that are in front of them in the
enclosures. In this situation, it is easy to believe that zoos are windows into
nature. It is more difficult to understand that zoos use real animals to prevent
visitors from viewing animals on their own terms. What the arguments against
zoos are telling us is that zoos are not windows into nature but Procrustean beds. In order to comprehend
this, we need to compare the aesthetic appreciation of animals in the wild and animals
in zoos. At the zoo, we encounter the body of the animal in the cage but we are
missing the conditions in which that body can flourish. We are missing the
environment which the animal belongs in and where she can develop her way of
life. Furthermore, we are missing a correct framework that would allow us to
understand all this.
Zoos reduce animals to bodies, to a mere physical
presence, to ornamental objects that can be exhibited and contemplated, to
pleasant appearances we like to watch, but the true identity of an animal is
much more than her body. They are subjects with different capacities, who
develop and express their identity in complex behavior and through multiple
relations with their environment, and with all the other individuals of the
same and different species who inhabit it. This is the core of the problem. At
a zoo, we cannot appreciate in a serious and deep way the aesthetic qualities
of wild species because zoos are not showing us wild animals on their own
Zoos present the cage as an objective and unbiased
frame within which to view animals, but a cage encloses the animal far away
from her environment and her freedom. The cage is not an unbiased frame but a Procrustean bed, an artifact that
radically changes the life of the animal held in it. The cage contains the body
of the animal but has, in fact, mutilated her identity. Unfortunately, if
people have visited zoos since childhood and have always seen animals this way,
they are unlikely to be conscious of what they are missing.
In addition, we have to emphasize the fact that zoos
aestheticize captivity and normalize the image of wild animals behind bars in
artificial enclosures and displayed for our enjoyment. In a zoo, the audience
learns to accept the captivity of animals as a spectacle to watch, and this
reinforces the view of animals as our property, as commodities for us to use as
Although zoos claim that the function of holding animals captive is to convince
us to protect wild animals in their natural habitats, it is difficult to see
how the image of a caged animal can teach us the value of freedom. This
contradictory message that a cage can help to protect freedom actually becomes
a justification for holding the animal in the cage. When children visit zoos
with their schools and families, they learn that cages are the places where
The negative effects of zoos are not limited to
old-fashioned ones with animals confined in small and simple cages without
enrichment. Although modern zoos offer larger and enriched enclosures, the
animals are still captive in artificial spaces ruled by arbitrary human norms.
The aim of zoos is to exhibit the animals, and because of this, even the most
modern zoos treat animals as spectacles to watch, expose them many hours every
day to the noise and annoyances that people produce, and foster an objectified,
distorted, and infantilized view of them.
The need for animal aesthetics
After that brief discussion, I would like to consider
the specific question regarding the aesthetic appreciation of animals in zoos
from a broader perspective. As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper,
there is not yet sufficient literature on animal aesthetics for it to be
considered as a research field in its own right. What are the reasons for this?
In his paper, “The Aesthetic Value of Animals,” Glenn
Parsons sets out to identify and analyze the reasons philosophers could have
for not embarking on the study of animal aesthetics.
One of the reasons he examines is that the aesthetic appreciation of beings
that deserve moral respect, such as humans and other animals, quickly becomes
morally and politically problematic. According to Parsons, the problem is that
the aesthetic appreciation of animals or humans seems to focus only on their external
that is, it seems to reduce them to a superficial perspective. As a
consequence, it would seem that to defend the aesthetic appreciation of animals
could go against their defense as subjects who deserve moral respect. The
“immorality objection” for engaging in animal aesthetics, as Parsons calls
this, means that we should study animals as part of ethics, not within
I agree with Parsons that this may be one of the
reasons for the neglect of animal aesthetics, and I also sympathize with his
way of defending animal aesthetics against this objection. Parsons claims that
an appropriate animal aesthetics cannot be attacked via the “immorality
objection” because it does not reduce animals to their mere appearance and does
not relate with them in a shallow way. Quite the contrary. An appropriate
animal aesthetics takes into account the nature of animals in a significant
way. His idea is that to aesthetically appreciate animals means to appreciate
their functional beauty, to appreciate
how they are “looking fit for function.” For example, the body of a cheetah is
beautiful because it is functional, because it is constituted in such a way
that allows the animal to run at high speed, which is one of the principal
characteristics of the behavior of a cheetah. By appreciating the functional
beauty of animals, by appreciating how animals are indeed “looking fit for
function,” we appreciate their aesthetic value as it is intrinsically related
to their nature.
I also value a partially similar approach by Ned
Hettinger, in his paper, “Animal Beauty, Ethics, and Environmental Preservation,”
to the defense of animal aesthetics when faced with a set of arguments that run
along the same lines as the “immorality objection.” Although I do not agree
with some of his ideas, I do agree with his claim that the aesthetic
appreciation of animals is more rich and complex than a trivial appreciation of
the mere attractiveness of a body.
What I find is most important to defend here, however,
as an answer to this kind of objection, is that to develop animal aesthetics
could be enormously helpful to animal ethics. My point is that several forms of
exploitation and mistreatment of animals imply a shallow and distorted
aesthetic appreciation of them, and the claim I wish to make is that a critical
animal aesthetics would allow us to analyze and denounce such cases. The
problem posed by the appreciation of animals at zoos is just such an example.
The case of circus animal shows would be another, and I can imagine several
more: bullfighting, hunting, bird song competitions, horse and dog racing, and
so on. We could analyze how, in these cases, animals are reduced to their
external appearance and treated as mere ornamental objects, as spectacles to
watch, and we could contrast this with an opposing serious and deep aesthetic
appreciation of those animals.
In order to appreciate animals in an appropriate way,
as Yuriko Saito affirms, we should appreciate them on their own terms, as what
they are. We can respectfully visit their environments and view animals there
as subjects who are living their lives. We do not need to travel far away to
see “star species,” we can go to the nearest forest or beach and take delight
in the local fauna. If we feed our aesthetic appreciation with the knowledge
provided by natural science, as Allen Carlson recommends we do, and we
contemplate animals with some background knowledge of their physiology,
evolutionary story, behavior, capacities, and so on, then we can enjoy a progressively
deeper appreciation. In the behavioral patterns of every species, we will
appreciate the expression of a specific intelligence, and
of different ways to resolve problems, to express emotions, and to communicate
with others. And no matter how much knowledge we possess concerning them,
animals will always surprise us. Surprise is the gift that free animals offer
us and that zoos take away. Precisely because zoos can assure us that we are
going to see the animals, that the animals are waiting in their cages to be
seen, the magic of surprise, which is the magic of freedom, disappears.
With time and patience, we learn to recognize the songs
of different bird species, and we appreciate in this a plurality of aesthetic
qualities; we find some birdsong harmonious, some joyful, and another
melancholic. We see that every bird flies in a particular manner, and we judge
some flights to be graceful, others elegant, and others mysterious. We learn to
appreciate the subtleties of the facial expressions of mammals, who can look
beautiful to us but also terrifying. We enjoy the way animals hide in and mimic
the vegetation, so that sometimes, despite being so very near, they are almost
impossible to perceive. We follow stories, the stories of particular
individuals we recognize, whose behavior we observe over years, and we happily
follow stories of learning, when
young birds learn to fly, for example. But we also follow dramas, such as when
an individual is expelled from a group and has to set out alone. And,
unfortunately, we follow tragedies, as when one animal is killed by
another and mourned by her fellows. Seeing behavior such as predation, we find
that aesthetic appreciation of animals not only gives us pleasure but it can
also cause us displeasure and provoke in us suffering, sadness, and melancholy.
In her article, “Ugliness and Nature,” Emily Brady reflects
on the aesthetic appreciation of predation and defends the notion that some
animal species, some animal behavior, some individual animals affected by
disease, and the corpses of dead animals can be judged as ugly. She also reflects on
other aesthetic qualities that provoke different kinds of displeasure in us,
and affirms that the aesthetic appreciation of these qualities plays its own
role in our relation with animals and nature.
In summary, the aesthetic appreciation of animals is
not about ornamental objects or mere bodies and appearances, it is the
appreciation of subjects living their lives. As a consequence, the appreciation
of animals leads us to appreciate the networks of life to which they belong and
the environments they inhabit. However, we should face the problem of the
impact that may be caused by too many people visiting some environments. One
solution could be to combine the visits with other strategies, like the
installation of webcams in the environments that allow us to watch wild animals
without disturbing them and can be used for scientific and educational
purposes, be commented on in social networks, and so on.
The diversity of animal species is so huge that we
still do not even know how many currently inhabit this planet. When we concentrate on appreciating dragonflies, for
example, we find that there are currently more than 3,000 species. By comparing
different dragonflies, we can admire multiple combinations of forms and colors
and also variations in behavior. In this way, aesthetic appreciation of animals
teaches us to take delight in difference and plurality, that is, biodiversity.
Biologists tell us that biodiversity is the fundamental measure of the health
of an environment. If there is a wide
variety of species, and also a wide genetic variety
within every species, then it is a healthy environment. If there is a low level
of biodiversity, the environment is stressed and can be more easily affected by
disease. In a similar way, we can state that biodiversity is a measure of the
aesthetic richness of an environment.
That we aesthetically appreciate animals does not mean
that we should protect the species we judge to be beautiful and eliminate those
we judge to be ugly. Precisely what aesthetic appreciation of animals teaches
us is that beautiful and ugly are only two of the great diversity of aesthetic
qualities we value in different species, and also in the different behavior
exhibited by the same species, which can be judged as elegant, harmonious,
joyful, playful, graceful, fierce, majestic, imposing, delicate, fragile,
tender, colorful, monstrous, comic, mysterious, enigmatic, interesting, melancholic,
disgusting, terrifying, sublime, and so on. Some of these qualities prompt
different kinds of pleasure in us, like joy, serenity, vitality, amusement,
surprise, and so on, and others provoke different kinds of displeasure in us,
for example, sadness, fear, or disgust. This plurality of aesthetic qualities
is the appropriate way to admire biodiversity, which is the very core of
nature. It is appropriate to find aesthetic value in every species, and because
each one is unique and plays her own role in her environment and has a
particular way of life, in every species we can admire a different combination
of aesthetic qualities.
To classify species as beautiful or ugly would be to
reduce the immense diversity of nature to a simplistic binary system. To protect
the animals we judge to be beautiful and eliminate those we find ugly would be
to subject the plurality of nature to the monopoly of a very particular taste
imposed by one species. An environment will always be aesthetically richer if
it has a high level of biodiversity, and it will be aesthetically poorer if it
is dominated by one species that imposes her particular criteria on it. The
cause of the present aesthetic impoverishment of nature is the
extinction of species and destruction of habitats brought about by humans. I
should add, nonetheless, that people do not only damage species they find ugly,
they also damage the ones they find aesthetically attractive because they hunt
them to gain a trophy or to display them in their collections, and here we once
again run into to the problem with zoos.
Furthermore, I think that a serious and deep aesthetic
appreciation of animals can instill moral respect in us. That aesthetics could
lead to ethics is an old hope in philosophy that has been defended in several
ways and criticized in many others. It is a tricky topic that, no doubt, we
will continue to discuss forever. We can look, however, to what happens in
environmental philosophy. In the field of environmental aesthetics, we find a
common expectation shared by many authors that a serious and deep aesthetic
appreciation of the environment can lead to an ethical commitment. Every
environmental philosopher defends this idea in his or her particular manner,
and some may be more optimistic than others. But
there is a shared intuition that aesthetics and ethics can reinforce each other
and that they should work together to protect nature. I
have the same expectation and the same hope of animal aesthetics working
together with animal ethics.
Notwithstanding, some philosophers defend the need for
animal aesthetics but not this strong connection with ethics. This is the case,
I think, with
Stephen Davies. In his book, The Artful
Species, Davies offers an interesting contribution to animal aesthetics,
studying the evolutionary roots of our appreciation of animals. He describes
many different ways of appreciating animals aesthetically. But when it comes to
the relation with ethics, Davies denies any direct connection between a
superficial appreciation of animals and morally wrong behavior towards them,
and claims that a superficial appreciation of animals can also be valuable.
Discussing the idea defended by Carlson and Parsons that we should appreciate
animals for what they are, Davies affirms:
I share the thought that we can take
pleasure in an animal’s suitedness to its environment and way of life, but I
think alternative approaches to animal beauty are not inappropriate or immoral
in the way that is suggested. For instance, we might consider a bird as if it
is a mobile sculpture. …so long as it does
not lead to immoral behavior, there need be nothing untoward in pursuing and
enjoying an aesthetic response that is shallow. … There is no doubt
that animals can be and often are morally wronged by humans. But I doubt that
there’s a direct connection between that fact and the adoption of an aesthetic
attitude to an animal’s appearance that is partial or even shallow.
I believe that such a connection does exist. To see a
bird as a mobile sculpture, as in the example Davies proposes, means seeing the
bird as an ornamental object and not as a subject. Objectifying a subject in
this fashion is a way to prepare the terrain for her exploitation. The problem
is not an isolated case but the fact that in our society the appreciation of
animals as ornamental objects is systematic, and this kind of appreciation
fosters an attitude that makes it easy to exploit and mistreat animals.
Viewing an animal as what she is, viewing an animal as
a subject developing her own way of life, entails a basic form of respect, and
it is this basic form of respect that can lead to an ethical commitment. To
appreciate an animal as what she is requires an effort on our part to give primacy
to the animal over our desires and interests; it requires an attitude of
humility. It means listening to the animal instead of imposing our own voice.
In contrast, when we have a distorted and superficial view of animals, we give
primacy to our own desires and interests over those of the animal. We want the
animal to look like and to mean what we want it to, and this attitude is a will
for dominance over the animal. We conceive the animal as a mere instrument for
our own ends, as an aesthetic instrument. We want to dissociate the
appearance of the animal from her identity, and use her appearance to dress our
How can the appreciation of a bird as if she were a
mobile sculpture lead us to behave in a morally wrong way towards that animal?
I think it could lead to killing the bird, dissecting her, and exhibiting her as
a sculpture in a literal sense. Or it could lead to putting the bird in a cage
for the rest of her life, as many people do. If we conceive and appreciate the
animal as an object, it is easier for us to treat her as an object. In contrast,
if we appreciate the bird as a subject who has her own interests, desires, and
emotions, and her own life to live, then it is easier for us to develop an
attitude of respect for her life and her freedom, easier that we step back and
renounce dominance over her, stop reducing her to an instrument for our own ends.
To impose our fantasies on an animal is a form of
aesthetic domination, and it has a strong connection with real domination and
real abuse. There is a connection between the aesthetic appreciation of animals
as toys and the exploitation of animals in circus shows, where they are forced
to perform as if they were toys. There is a connection between the aesthetic
appreciation of a bull as a dark monster that symbolizes night and death, and
cruelly killing him in a bullfight. In several cases of exploitation and
mistreatment of animals, we are forcing them to incarnate our fantasies,
metaphors, and symbols. We impose our stories on animals with such conviction
and intensity, we impose our stories on so many animals and so often and in
such a systematic way, that we finally forget the identity
of the animals and believe that our fantasies are their true identities. This
is exactly what I think happens in zoos.
For all these reasons, I believe that at a zoo we
cannot appreciate the aesthetic qualities of wild species in a serious and deep
way. Furthermore, I argue that the fact that zoological parks cannot reveal the
aesthetic qualities of animals to us in a serious and deep way sharply brings
into question the effectiveness of zoos at raising awareness concerning
endangered species. I think that this criticism should be added to the moral
and scientific criticism that philosophers and experts on wildlife level
Of course, different arguments could be raised against
my claims, and further discussion will be necessary. However, the only way to
discuss all this in detail is to give animal aesthetics the attention it
deserves. Environmental aesthetics is a rich field that enters into fertile
dialogue and collaboration with environmental ethics. Animal aesthetics could
play a similar role in relation to animal ethics. In fact, I think that the
four disciplines could work side by side towards a deeper understanding of our
relation with animals and nature, and help us to find a way to a better life
I think, further, that animal aesthetics should enter
into dialogue with non-philosophical disciplines that also focus on our
relation with animals and take into account aesthetic perspectives.
Ecocriticism, critical animal studies, and visual studies applied to animals
are clear cases in point. In fact, it is interesting to see how, in these
fields, reflection on animals is rapidly growing. Animals
are becoming the center of interest of many disciplines, and it would be a
regrettable loss if philosophers were not to develop animal aesthetics.
Marta Tafalla is lecturer on Philosophy at the
Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona and her research focuses on the aesthetics of
nature. One of her recent publications is: “Smell and Anosmia in the Aesthetic
Appreciation of Gardens”, Contemporary
Aesthetics, 12 (2014).
Published July 11, 2017.
 David Hancocks, A Different Nature. The Paradoxical World of Zoos and their Uncertain
Future (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Dale Jamieson,
“Against Zoos” in Morality’s Progress:
Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2002), pp. 166-175. Sue Donaldson & Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis. A Political Theory of Animal
Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Malcolm Budd, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2002), p. 8.
 Holmes Rolston III, “Beauty and the Beast:
Aesthetic Experience of Wildlife,” The
Trumpeter, 3, 3 (1986), 30.
 Yuriko Saito, “Appreciating Nature on Its
Own Terms,” Environmental Ethics, 20
 Emily Brady, “Aesthetic Value and Wild
Animals,” in Environmental Aesthetics,
ed. Martin Drenthen and Jozef Keulartz (New York: Fordham University Press,
2014), p. 195.
 Thomas Leddy, “Aesthetization, Artification,
and Aquariums,” Contemporary Aesthetics,
4 (2012), part II, Section 3.
 Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment (New York: Routledge, 2000).
 See, for example: Emily Brady, Aesthetics of the Natural Environment
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003); Allen Carlson and Arnold
Berleant, eds., The Aesthetics of Natural
Environments (Toronto: Broadview Press, 2004).
 Marta Tafalla, “From Allen Carlson to Richard Long:
the Art-Based Appreciation of Nature,” Proceedings
of the European Society for Aesthetics, 2 (2010), 491-515.
 Thomas Heyd, “Aesthetic Appreciation and
the Many Stories about Nature,” The
British Journal of Aesthetics, 41, 2 (2001), 125-137.
 Nola Semczyszyn, “Public Aquariums and Marine Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics, 11 (2013), Section 4.3.
 Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment, p. 44.
 I thank Yuriko Saito for this idea.
 Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), chap.
 Thomas Leddy, “Aesthetization, Artification,
and Aquariums,” part II, section 4.
 Holmes Rolston III, “Beauty and the Beast:
Aesthetic Experience of Wildlife,” p. 31.
 Of course, these
capacities vary according to the species. Whereas a gorilla is a highly
conscious and intelligent animal, we are not sure what kind of consciousness
insects may have. If we stay with vertebrates, there is little doubt that they
 Lori Gruen, “Dignity, Captivity, and an
Ethics of Sight,” in The Ethics of Captivity,
ed. Lori Gruen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 231-247.
 Ralph Acampora, “Zoos and Eyes: Contesting
Captivity and Seeking Successor Practices,” Society
& Animals, 13, 1 (2005), 69-88.
 Glenn Parsons, “The Aesthetic Value of
Animals,” Environmental Ethics, 29
(2007), 151-169. See also Glenn Parsons & Allen Carlson, Functional Beauty (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2008), pp. 112-124.
 Ned Hettinger, “Animal Beauty, Ethics, and
Environmental Preservation,” Environmental
Ethics, 32 (2010), 115-134.
 Emily Brady, “Ugliness and Nature,” Enrahonar, 45 (2010), 27-40.
 Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott eds., Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism.
From Beauty to Duty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
 Stephen Davies, The Artful Species. Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2012), p. 23.
 See, for example, the classic: John
Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” in About
Looking (London: Bloomsbury, 1980); and the recent: Randy Malamud, Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and
Captivity (London: Macmillan Press, 1998); An Introduction to
Animals and Visual Culture (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Previous versions of this paper were presented at the
2015 conferences organized by the International Society for Environmental Ethics
in Kiel, and by the American Society for Aesthetics
in Savannah. I am grateful to both audiences for discussion, and especially
thankful for their insightful comments to Yuriko Saito, Allen Carlson, Glenn
Parsons, Emily Brady, Stephen Davies, Larry Shiner, Thomas Leddy and Jonathan
Maskit. I also would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for valuable
suggestions that helped me to prepare this final version.