When I was a kid, I loved animals and would have been overjoyed at any chance to pet a lemur at a petting zoo. Now, still a passionate animal lover, I want very little to do with such establishments. Most people love the idea of petting cute animals, especially “exotic” ones such as lemurs, wallabies and snakes. This idea is why many Rice events use exotic petting zoos as an attendance draw despite the many ethical considerations with such activities. Petting zoos for entertainment do not reflect the values of the Rice community. They are ecologically irresponsible, ethically disrespectful and thus, wholly unreasonable.
There are important and appropriate ways to physically interact with wild animals. For example, I support an organization that takes ambassador cheetahs to schools and other settings to educate people on conservation issues. Seeing the animals up close draws attention to them and makes threats to the species seem more tangible. Most ambassador animals have been raised partially or wholly in captivity. Their safety and well-being is of paramount concern. Sadly, the exotic petting zoo animals at your college or club event most likely are not cared for as well.
U.S. animal welfare and captivity laws are generally so lenient that across the country, animals live in deplorable conditions within many roadside zoos and safari parks. No matter how ethically the zoo itself is run, the act of attendance is exploitation if the Rice event uses petting zoo animals purely for entertainment. The animal is reduced to a prop with no regard for how this impacts the individual animal or the entire species. The fact that these animals appear in countless selfies and profile pictures normalizes this act for all who see it. These social media photos help craft a culture celebrating human-wildlife interactions that ignores where these animals came from or the impacts such interactions have on them. Making these exotic animals accessible causes people to forget that the species as a whole may be diminishing in number in the wild.
Perhaps most importantly, organizations should not hire zoos that include endangered animals (a ring-tailed lemur is an example I have seen often) because sourcing these animals from nature hurts wild populations — to where you can trace any captive animal’s lineage. Even if the trade in an animal is legal, it still may harm wild populations because legislators do not always listen to the recommendations of ecologists.
Lemurs at a campus event or camel rides as part of college night are just a small aspect of the problem. The greater issue is a lack of a culturally ingrained analysis of our actions from an animal ethics perspective. Campus organizations, firstly, could perhaps consider not hiring petting zoos at all. If this somehow still feels like a necessity, they should check the ethics background of the organization and try to avoid endangered species. If anyone is more interested in these ethical concerns, the World Wildlife Fund website has interesting and digestible content on the wildlife trade and would be a great place to begin reading. I hope Rice students can think about this issue with a much more nuanced perspective.