Book Reviews

Lori Gruen (ed.), The Ethics of Captivity, Oxford University Press, 2014

While political and ethical philosophers today are familiar with critiques of confinement in both critical prison studies and critical animal studies, The Ethics of Captivity is unusual in that it brings these critiques of incarceration together, bridging human and nonhuman animal liberation movements. While Lisa Guenther’s recent book, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (2013), also critiques the mass incarceration of both human and nonhuman animals, it is far more common to see human and animal liberation movements opposed on this issue, as when the incarceration of humans is deplored for treating those individuals like animals. As Guenther argues, however, this humanistic language is misguided since incarceration is not so much dehumanizing in its effects as it is de-animalizing, undermining not a prisoner’s humanity but, more fundamentally, their animality. Moreover, as Guenther shows, nonhuman animals are harmed by intensive conditions of captivity in the same ways that humans are (see also Struthers Montford 2016). In this sense The Ethics of Captivity—like Guenther’s monograph—is expansive, and multiple chapters as well as the volume as a whole provide insights into what is wrong with captivity per se, rather than what is wrong with a particular institutional set of practices.

While in this sense The Ethics of Captivity is broad and extends our moral vision across multiple species boundaries, including the human-nonhuman animal boundary, it is also unusual and important in its attention to species specificity. While Lori Gruen’s own chapter offers an inter-species analysis, and chapter 10, Alasdair Cochrane’s “Born in Chains? The Ethics of Animal Domestication,” provides an ethical evaluation of the context in which the vast majority of nonhuman animals are kept captive—domestication—each of the other chapters attends to the effects of captivity on a particular species of animal, and ethically evaluates these practices at a species-specific level. In this manner the volume avoids the human exceptionalist move of assuming that all nonhuman species of animals are the same, primarily characterized by the fact that they are not human. Attention to particular species suggests that non-exploitative confinement may be essential to the flourishing of dogs, whereas it is never justifiable to confine dolphins, whales, and elephants, who are inevitably damaged by conditions of captivity. Individual chapters of the volume are devoted to dogs (chapter 1: Alexandra Horowitz’s “Canis Familiaris: Companion and Captive”), dolphins and whales (chapter 2: Lori Marino’s “Cetacean Captivity”), elephants (chapter 3: Catherine Doyle’s “Captive Elephants”), chimpanzees (chapter 4: Stephen Ross’s “Captive Chimpanzees”), rabbits (chapter 5: Margo DeMello’s “Rabbits in Captivity”), humans (chapter 7: John Byrant et al.’s “Life Behind Bars”; chapter 8: Lauren Gazzola’s “Political Captivity”; and chapter 15: Lisa Rivera’s “Coercion and Captivity”), and cats (chapter 9: Clare Palmer and Peter Sandøe’s “For Their Own Good: Captive Cats and Routine Confinement”). Other chapters consider particular contexts and ends of captivity, such as captivity in the form of sanctuary for rescued agricultural and laboratory animals (chapter 6: Miriam Jones’ “Captivity in the Context of a Sanctuary for Formerly Farmed Animals,” and chapter 13: Karen S. Emmerman’s “Sanctuary, Not Remedy: The Problem of Captivity and the Need for Moral Repair”), captivity for the purpose of laboratory research (chapter 11: Robert Streiffer’s “The Confinement of Animals Used in Laboratory Research: Conceptual and Ethical Issues”), and captivity for the purpose of conservationist breeding (chapter 12: Irus Braverman’s “Captive for Life: Conserving Extinct in the Wild Species through Ex Situ Breeding”).

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, “Conditions of Captivity,” includes eight chapters which provide species-specific overviews of captivity in our homes, entertainment, research, fashion and meat industries, sanctuaries, and human prisons. Each chapter pertaining to nonhuman animals broadly covers the history of that particular form of captivity, the effects of this, and the ethical questions specific forms of captivity raise. Reflections on the future of captivity are also offered. The strength of this approach is that the reader is given background information on the proclivities and characteristics of the species discussed in each chapter, which provides a foundation for understanding how captivity differently affects those held captive in various institutions. The chapters (7 and 8) addressing human captivity are written by prisoners, and therefore contribute first-person perspectives on the experience of captivity, perspectives we cannot know from those whose captivity is discussed in chapters 1-6.

Chapter 1, “Canis Familiaris, Companion and Captive” by Alexandra Horowitz, provides an historical and contemporary account of canine captivity. Horowitz’s valuable contribution is to highlight the interdependence of captivity and domestication that shapes the lived realities of dogs today. Domestication is the constitutive condition of the species designation of canis familiaris. There is no possibility of truly ‘wild’ dogs, or freedom for dogs that would entail complete liberation from humans since domestication has resulted in their social group, including both humans and other dogs. The ethical question raised for Horowitz is then: what would freedom entail for dogs? Her response in part is to impose human culture and norms to the least degree possible in our relationships to dogs, to embrace their ‘dogness’ despite our embarrassment, disgust, or offense at their behavior. For Horowitz, we must recognize that we are in interdependent relationships with dogs and are obligated to provide the conditions for their flourishing.

Chapter 2, “Cetacean Captivity” by Lori Marino, focuses on captivity in for-profit institutions such as marine parks, aquariums, and therapy programs (e.g., swim-with-dolphins, dolphin-assisted-therapy). Unlike chapter 1, where captivity in the form of pet-keeping can be understood as limiting the freedom of individuals to the benefit of the species, Marino argues that captivity and cetacean well-being are fundamentally incompatible. Cetacean captivity entails the physical deprivation of liberty, boredom, frustration, and denies cetaceans their ability to engage in social relationships (if they do have company, it is not of their choosing), as well as to hunt and travel. Like zoos, marine parks market themselves as institutions of education, research, and conservation. This is a tactic that masks the fact that these are businesses that commodify captive bodies, while also failing to educate the public, contribute to research, or conserve the species as they claim. Instead, this form of captivity reproduces the idea that this is the natural and proper environment for whales and dolphins. Marino therefore argues for an ontological shift in how we view cetaceans, from property to persons.

Like cetacean captivity, Catherine Doyle (chapter 3, “Captive Elephants”) argues that there is no ethical way to keep elephants in for-profit institutions of captivity like zoos and circuses, as these settings can never meet their needs. In these institutions elephants are denied their bodily integrity, are often kept alone (or with companions not of their choosing) despite their very social nature, have very limited space relative to their needs, and suffer a litany of health, psychological, and emotional harms resulting from captivity. Like marine parks, zoos traffic in the rhetoric of scientific advancement and species conservation, but in reality for every elephant born in a zoo and survives, two die from health, psychological, and/or emotional issues that are directly related to captivity. Furthermore, zoo breeding programs are not undertaken to reintroduce elephants to the wild, but to maintain elephant populations in zoos. Doyle also considers the ethics of captivity in the case of elephant sanctuaries, and argues that while elephants are certainly captive in these settings, the material realities and philosophy of sanctuaries differ from those of zoos and circuses. Unlike circuses and zoos, sanctuaries do not seek to extract profit from captivity, but aim to provide elephants with the best quality of life possible. They are not founded on the belief that elephants belong in captivity, but exist to provide a home if animals are released from circuses, zoos, and other exploitative and abusive settings once wildness is no longer an option.

Chapter 4 by Stephen R. Ross provides an overview of chimpanzee captivity in zoos, circuses, research labs, entertainment industries, private ownership, and sanctuaries where chimpanzees are placed because of their former captivity. Outside of captivity, chimpanzees have a rich social life and live in large kin groups; those held captive suffer from isolation, self-harm, developmental deficiencies, and negative health outcomes. Their similarity to humans has rendered them especially exploitable as bodies for medical testing and as ‘funny’ humans used for our entertainment. Like elephant sanctuaries, chimpanzee sanctuaries respond to the failure of other institutions of captivity. Established approximately forty years ago, chimpanzee sanctuaries are a relatively recent phenomena. Ross expects that sanctuaries will be needed for the next 50 years in response to the end of invasive chimpanzee research in the US and government policy that requires chimpanzees be retired. Unlike Marino and Doyle, Ross does not anticipate the end of chimpanzee captivity. Instead, he writes that chimpanzees can thrive in captivity, so the question for Ross is not when chimpanzee captivity will end, but the conditions under which these beings are held.

Chapter 5, “Rabbits in Captivity” by Margo DeMello, shows that rabbits are held captive for various human uses: medical and drug testing, fur, meat, and as pets. Rabbit meat and fur also index conflicting social statuses. Rabbit captivity and exploitation is increasing: their fur is considered ‘cheap’ and ‘fun’ fur by the fashion industry and is the fastest growing sector of the global fur industry. Rabbit meat, once a marker of poverty and rurality, is becoming a gourmet item and locavore ‘superfood.’ DeMello argues that because rabbits, as a species, are quite unknown to humans, we assume that there simply is nothing to understand about rabbits and their lives, and therefore that they are unworthy of ethical treatment. However, DeMello is critical of our attitudes toward rabbits and how we treat them. While there has been some traction in providing ‘enrichment’ for captive rabbits (with the result that they are healthier and/or more docile captives and research subjects), DeMello is adamant that this will never provide the same joy for rabbits as running and jumping outdoors, playing in the dirt, sunbathing, grooming, eating grass, and living in ways of their choosing.

Miriam Jones (chapter 6) extends the consideration of the ethics of sanctuary captivity that authors gesture toward in previous chapters. Jones is a cofounder of a sanctuary for formerly farmed animals, and argues that sanctuary captivity is ethical in terms of its intentionality, and because the alternatives for these animals would be further suffering, exploitation, or death. Jones outlines that the conditions for ethical captivity include: the continual observation of residents so that they can live lives that are as free as possible; contact with human caretakers is initiated by the residents, with forced contact occurring in extreme or dangerous situations only; and the recognition that this form of captivity is only ethical because animals are not free to live as they choose.

Chapters 7 (Bryant et al.) and 8 (Gazzola) are written by prisoners who discuss the politics of human confinement. The authors show that the conditions of confinement include constant noise, humiliation, and the loss of personal identity, autonomy, dignity, privacy, intimacy, and intellectual stimulation. Bryant et al. argue that incarceration is always already a specific political response to deviance, and Gazzola furthers this statement by arguing that though she herself is considered a political prisoner, we ought to do away with this distinction as all captivity is a political exercise of power of one group over another, the most profound exercise of power being to determine the lives and purposes of those held captive. Bryant et al. argue that while incarceration can never be ethical, the manner in which prisoners are treated can be. For these authors the ethical treatment of prisoners would entail that the dignity of prisoners be recognized and maintained, that rehabilitation resources be available for all prisoners, that intergenerational criminalization be prevented, and that the disenfranchisement of criminalized persons cease.

Ethical questions and tensions arising from various logics of captivity, such as keeping cats indoors, domestication, research using animals, sanctuaries, and conservation efforts comprise Part II, “Challenges of Captivity.”

Chapter 9, “For Their Own Good: Captive Cats and Routine Confinement,” written by Clare Palmer and Peter Sandøe analyzes the claim that it is to the benefit of cats that they be kept indoors—an argument that is seldom used to justify other forms of confinement. While this argument pivots on two claims—that cats face dangers outdoors and that cats are happy indoors—the authors argue that routine cat captivity should not be taken as a universal good for all cats. Routine cat confinement can also have detrimental effects for cats, such as increased risks of diseases associated with sedentary lives, boredom, stress and ‘problem’ behaviors such as marking and scratching. The latter are behaviors which may cause these cats to be abandoned or surrendered to organizations that deem them unadoptable and will euthanize them. As such, this form of captivity carries risks which are not considered when the routine captivity of cats is justified by a paternalistic assumption that we know what is best for them.

Alasdair Cochrane’s “Born in Chains? The Ethics of Animal Domestication” (chapter 10) analyzes the common philosophical and environmental frameworks—domesticated animals as artifacts, strategists, slaves, or not citizens—which inform current debates about this logic of captivity, and concludes that these approaches are problematic. Cochrane argues that to focus on the transformation of a species through domestication, from a being found in nature to a ‘man-made thing’ too narrowly views all transformation or adaptation as morally problematic. The view that domesticated animals descended from strategists who domesticated themselves in order to access food and shelter, on the other hand, does not attend to unequal power relationships informing domestication on a massive scale. For example, this approach would consider factory-farming mutually beneficial to humans and animals since these species exist in large numbers, are provided food, and are protected from predators. Yet, if we consider that these animals lead lives of immense suffering and solely exist to become food for humans, we see that domestication allows humans to be the ultimate predators. To consider domestication as akin to slavery supposes that the dependence entailed in domestication results in a tragic and impoverished life. Contra abolitionists, Cochrane argues that we are all in relationships of interdependence, and that domesticated animals can flourish given the opportunity to do so. While animal rights scholars such as Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that citizenship ought to be extended to domesticated animals on the basis that species difference is merely a biological trait like hair color or skin color (2011), Cochrane cautions that citizenship is used to demarcate the boundaries of political communities in problematic ways. The notion that domesticated animals merit political inclusion based on their proximity to humans (i.e., that we share domiciles and are in interdependent relationships) has worrisome complications for wild and feral animals, who would remain outside of political protection. As such, Cochrane argues that we need an ethical framework that does not advance the interests of domesticated animals at the expense of undomesticated animals. This approach should assess the interests of animals on an individual basis, and it is these interests that should determine their treatment.

Robert Streiffer’s “The Confinement of Animals Used in Laboratory Research: Conceptual and Ethical Issues” and Karen Emmerman’s “Sanctuary, Not Remedy: The Problem of Captivity and the Need for Moral Repair” each address how captivity before, during, and after laboratory research must factor into and play a larger role in our decision-making about the use of nonhuman animals as research subjects in the first place. Emmerman (chapter 13) responds to leading scholars critical of animal confinement who position sanctuaries as the remedy to animal exploitation. Specifically considering the case of chimpanzees formerly used as research subjects, Emmerman posits that the sanctuary, though viewed as a solution to the unethical treatment of chimpanzees, permits our use of nonhuman animals because we view sanctuaries as sites of restitution. Emmerman does not agree that these are sites of restitution because sanctuary conditions are an inadequate substitute for the natural habitats of animals, and residents remain lifelong captives even though sanctuaries may provide the best conditions possible. As such, the author urges us to adopt a framework of moral repair where sanctuaries are one component, with an ultimate aim of ending animal exploitation.

Iris Braverman’s chapter, “Captive for Life: Conserving Extinct in the Wild Species through Ex Situ Breeding” (chapter 12), takes up the co-articulating relationship between in situ and ex situ conservation programs and advises that this dualism is outdated and inaccurate. Instead, we have to recognize that conservation efforts exist upon a continuum of management with little ‘wild’ spaces remaining. Zoos strategically claim to perform ex situ breeding programs as conservation measures, but the harms done to animals because of zoo captivity coupled with the zoo’s lack of resources make conservation an untenable objective. In other situations, there is no ‘wild’ in which animals bred in captivity could be placed. As such, Braverman asks: what ethical measures will be used to decide which animals will be kept captive for the entirety of their lives, so that the species is conserved, and which animals will remain unmanaged?

Finally, Lori Gruen’s chapter, “Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight” (chapter 14), is the only chapter in the book that focuses equally on human and nonhuman animals. In this chapter, Gruen takes the examples of human captives in prisons and nonhuman captives in zoos in order to understand the ways in which the dignity of both sets of captives is threatened. Gruen begins the chapter by arguing that dignity is not a status or quality that a being possesses, but is rather a relational property or, we might say, a way of being treated and perceived. It will thus not be the case, for Gruen, that human prisoners and zoo animals have lost their dignity, nor that they lack it, but rather that they are treated by their captors in ways that deny, disrespect, or undermine their dignity. Gruen acknowledges that, unlike humans, it is likely the case that other animals do not care about dignity. Because dignity is relational, however, we can still speak of dignity as something that nonhuman animals are denied, even if they are unaware of this and even if they do not suffer as a direct result. Although an animal may suffer from being treated in undignified ways—such as being put on display, or forced to perform ridiculous tricks for human entertainment—it is not the lack of dignity itself that bothers the animal. Gruen nevertheless argues that we should be morally concerned by situations in which a nonhuman animal’s dignity is denied, because these are usually situations in which animals suffer. Our concern that their dignity is being denied is one more reason to resist situations of species oppression. Gruen also considers the role of sight in undermining the dignity of captives, taking as her examples prisoners of penal institutions and zoo inmates. Prisons and zoos both have an interest in keeping the bodies that are captive within their walls permanently visible: in the case of prisons, the interest concerns surveillance and security, while in the case of zoo animals, constant visibility is important to maximize the entertainment value of the animal captives. Gruen argues, however, that being constantly visible to their captors denies the dignity of both human and nonhuman captives. In the case of human prisoners, lack of privacy is often experienced as humiliating. In the case of zoo animals, the absence of places to hide and inability to escape the gaze of visitors constructs these animals as debased ‘objects’ for human consumption. For Gruen, the fact that prisons and zoos systematically deny the dignity of the bodies they hold captive is a reason to morally object to these institutions. In so far as situations of captivity will, however, continue and, in some cases, may be the best available option for certain animals, Gruen argues that we need to be attentive not only to the welfare but also to the dignity of the captives, and this means ensuring them privacy and places to hide.

In sum, The Ethics of Captivity is an important contribution to both animal ethics and critical prison studies. Most importantly, however, it puts these two movements in conversation.

Kelly Struthers Montford and Chloë Taylor
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB, Canada


Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2011. Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guenther, Lisa. 2013. Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota University Press.

Struthers Montford, Kelly. 2016. “Dehumanized Denizens, Displayed Animals: Prison Tourism and the Discourse of the Zoo,” philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism 6 (1).