Is this big zoo better for animals than the wild?

On a visit to South Africa, where I was for a CEVA effective vegan advocacy training, I had a few days off and tried what was called a safari. It wasn’t that I really had to see lions and tigers and bears, but I believed the experience might give me some new ideas on the issue of wild animal suffering, on which I have written before. And it did.

What Aquila Safari offered cannot by any stretch be called an experience of the wild. After we reached it – it’s about two hours northeast of Cape Town – we had lunch and then departed on an open truck together with some six other passengers and a guide. The domain – which they call a “private game reserve” – is about 10.000 hectares in surface area. That may sound big, but it’s small compared to the two million hectares of the famous Kruger National Park in the same country.


As we drove around, I asked some questions, and it became clear that this was actually some kind of very big zoo. The animals present included the so called “big five”: the African lion (they had about seven), African elephant (two), buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Flora catered to the majority of the animals’ diets, with about ten percent supplemented by the reserve. They had ample space, and not all animals could easily be found, but they obviously couldn’t leave the area because of fences. There was a vet on the property providing medical care when an animal got sick. Herbivores and carnivores were separated: the lions could not hunt the springbok, for instance, but were fed cow’s meat and antelope meat once a week.

Later, I asked where the animals came from: they had been bought and transported to the area. Some had been saved: lions from the horrible practice of “canned hunting”; a leopard from somewhere else. There was a rehabilitation center. So, I started to think of this venture more as a sanctuary.

Again, this is not “the wild”, and I’m sure many people would not feel entirely happy with such a situation. They would probably prefer an environment for the animals in which they had full autonomy and life was as close to natural as possible. I think, however, that an important, or the most important, question here is: what would the animals prefer: this big zoo-slash-sanctuary or the wild? I believe that if we answer the latter, we might  inadvertently be thinking in an anthropocentric way. There might be less autonomy, for sure, but on the other side, there seemed, at first sight, to be less suffering. Read my previous article on wild animal suffering (and watch the video), if you are convinced that life in nature is idyllic for most animals. Here are some examples where life in Aquila game reserve might be better than in the wild.

  • Animals didn’t have to worry about food. If their environment didn’t provide enough, the humans would supply additional food.
  • Animals, like I said, didn’t have to worry about being eaten. The guide estimated that of the 24 young an ostrich mother had just brought into the world, about twenty would survive – much more than in the wild.
  • A newborn rhino was rejected by her mother. In the wild, if no one else adopted it, this animal would die a pretty miserable death. At the Aquila game reserve, the animal was put in the rehabilitation center where it was fed and cared for, and became good friends with a goat. It will be released into the domain later.
  • Lions normally have a fifteen year lifespan in the wild. Here, the guide told us, they live up to twenty. Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about how happy these animals are, but it may give us an indication about their physical thriving.
  • Elephants normally die after having gone through their sixth set of teeth, when they cannot chew food anymore. Here, if the animals are still be around at that age, they receive liquid food.

It wasn’t that there were no problems at all. We saw a few springboks that seemed to be a bit misshapen (one of their horns had grown completely askew), which the guide told us was the result of inbreeding (which obviously can also happen in the wild). I’m also not sure if the compounds were large enough for all the animals we saw there. They definitely had a lot more space than in the biggest zoo, but my guess is that migratory animals, like the buffaloes, may not find all their needs met there.
Lions cannot hunt here, but do they need to? Does this need trump the need of a springbok to stay alive? Of course, the lions were fed meat from other animals, whose needs weren’t met by being killed. But in this case, I can imagine that clean meat (cultured meat) could bring a solution. I can even imagine future technology where this kind of meat would grow on some kind of artificial tree in the wild. Or maybe these things can even be fast moving robots, which can actually be chased by predators.
I also wondered about overpopulation. If there are no natural predators, and if the animals get enough food, how long before there are too many of one species or another. When I asked this question, the guide didn’t see the problem and said: “more animals is good for business” (cause yes, this was a business).

It’s not that I think this big reserve/zoo/sanctuary is a complete solution for the problem of wild animal suffering. Most importantly, I’m just talking about a few dozen animals (the lions, buffaloes, giraffes, springbok, oryx, rhinos, etc. that we saw). These numbers probably pale in comparison with other wildlife who were present on the domain, but which were so small as to be invisible for us. These other animals basically still experience pretty much a wild situation, as they are not getting fed or cared for, and aren’t free of predators.

Still, for the larger fauna, the animals whom people actually come to see, this game reserve to me offered a glimpse of what some day could be a reality for many other wild animals: a controlled environment that is so big that animals experience (enough) freedom, and live their lives in relative peace and harmony. The lion does not exactly lie down with the lamb, but at least doesn’t have a chance to gobble it down.
Moreover, at least with these kind of animals (with farmed animal sanctuaries, it’s much more of a challenge) this situation is economically viable; so, that continuation can be guaranteed.

I know the objections many readers will make: that this is another hubris-like attempt of humankind to regulate nature, that it is unnatural, it’s not real, that the animals have no autonomy, that we are infringing on their rights, etc. Many of these objections can be partly true, but again I would like to ask the question: what do the animals prefer and care about?

We should be wary of assuming too quickly that we know what that is.

8 thoughts on “Is this big zoo better for animals than the wild?

  1. It is a really tough subject.
    For preys, sure, it is better for them to be protected from predators.
    But for predators, I’m not so sure… We can see with domestic cat that providing them food does not make them stop hunting. It is part of their life. So predators could experience frustration by not being able to hunt and by eating meat of farmed animals instead of a freshly killed prey.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this matter.

    I’m wondering if “a controlled environment, that is so big that animals experience (enough) freedom, and live their lives in relative peace and harmony” is what they really want, or what we would want for ourselves. If there would be no fences, would they stay?

    1. it’s hard to know. also, even if some animals would not stay, it’s hard to derive from that that they are necessarily VERY unhappy staying where they are…

  3. je vous ai découvert grâce à l’association végétarienne de France ; j’apprécie votre façon de voir réfléchie. J’attends la parution de votre livre. Merci pour cet article sur les animaux ; vos réflexions m’aident à mieux réagir avec mes amis non végétariens et la famille.

  4. I’m just thinking of the resources needed to create large scale controlled environments and welfare services for wild animals. I suppose it might be feasible to reduce the actual numbers of wild animals so that projects have some realistic limits. Obviously things couldn’t all be done on a commercial basis because there must be limits on the market.

    So, I ask what kind of global political and economic revolution will enable the necessary flow of resources into this? First of all, it would require a radical change to the exploitation of natural resources so as not to encroach or undermine these controlled “wild” environments – so, no mining, felling, damming, agriculture. This would be an absolute reversal to the current order where increasing exploitation of natural resources is necessary to keep the system going – new oil, new minerals, etc. This destruction of the current order would have enormous political consequences – how could it be achieved peacefully and voluntarily? Wouldn’t it be necessary to actually have a new political order so that all humans were equitably treated? Otherwise there would be the somewhat bizarre situation where resources were going into wild animal nurturance while millions of humans were still enduring poverty and starvation. Would you have the situation where prey animals are protected from predators but at risk from human poachers, people needing to poach to survive but risking prosecution?

    So, I repeat, what kind of global revolution is visualised?

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