Sandra the orangutan now lives in Florida at the Center for Great Apes after being transferred from the Buenos Aires Zoo. Photo by Yadid Levy from

There are several types of living museums from botanical gardens, cell cultures, zoos, as well as living history and open-air museums all of which present specific and nuanced benefits and challenges. These challenges come in the way of ethical considerations, logistic difficulties, and potential public safety concerns.  Firstly, I think it is important to discuss the ethics of keeping a living collection (ex. Zoos/aquaria). Are the specimens being held in a responsible manner? Are their living/food conditions favorable? What (if any) are the consequences that having captive specimens in collection have on the wild population? A bit controversial, but are they happy? I recently read an article entitled The Battle for the Great Apes: Inside the Fight for Non-Human Rights. In the article, the author discusses the living conditions of an orangutan in captivity. Beyond the conditions of her enclosure, the author also discusses the social needs of orangutans and her mental health. While some might not agree, I think animals can and do suffer from poor mental health if they cannot behave in a way that they have evolved to behave. While I’m not sure that their mental health is the same as humans, I believe that they do experience it. Also in the article, the author talks about granting non-human rights to certain animals (such as legal rights, etc.). Do we extend these rights to only the species that are most closely related to humans (the great apes)? Or do other species deserve these rights as well? Do all? I think it raises a very interesting point about the human tendency to “rank” or “categorize” things. Reminiscent of the medieval idea of “The Great Chain of Being”, are some species more deserving of rights than others? What’s the cut-off? Only mammals? Do insects deserve the same or similar rights?

Another similar aspect to consider is the environment from which the captive specimens came. Most communities’ ecosystems are incredibly complex. How well is the environment being replicated in an artificial setting? Similarly, is the presence of the living exhibit affecting the environment of its location? We touched on this during the meet up when we discussed local, regional collections. Should for example an Alaskan exhibit contain only native flora and fauna? What about urban areas that don’t have incredibly diverse native flora and fauna, an example that Kyndall used was Washington D.C. While I definitely believe that native flora and fauna should be focal in a collection, there is benefit in having nonnative species. They can benefit education and even play a part in retaining genetic diversity of a species. I think the major concern that should be had is when a species is being negatively affected by being in an unnatural environment, ex: an elephant in Alaska.


Question this week: Do you think all species deserve certain rights? If not, which species do you think deserve more rights than others?

One Thought to “Complications of Living Collections”

  1. Angela Linn

    Wow, what a hard question Tony… you get right to the heart of the matter. History has shown us that humans tend to think that their rights and privileges outweigh those of all other creatures. This quickly turns to a question of morals, doesn’t it? We are still struggling to see all HUMANS granted equal rights and privileges. What happens when the rights extended to animals is in direct conflict with those of humans? This is hard to think about – maybe Chidi Anagonye from “The Good Place” could give us some tips from his ethics and moral philosophy training?

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