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Caregiver/orangutan relationships at Auckland Zoo: empathy, friendship, and ethics between species

By A. Palmer, N. Malone, J. Park

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Drawing on ethnographic, ethological, and historical data, we examined the relationships between orangutans and caregivers at Auckland Zoo. Caregivers displayed high levels of empathy and adjusted their husbandry routines to their interpretations of the orangutans' moods. Caregivers experienced conflicts arising from their efforts to empathize. Although they agreed their husbandry approach improved welfare, they worried their interpretations of orangutan behavior were inaccurate anthropomorphic projections. However, caregivers' interpretations aligned well with ethological observations and with current knowledge of orangutan behavior. Caregivers' shared view of great apes as moral persons led to personal conflicts about the ethics of sacrificing individual orangutans' freedom for the greater good of the species. By exploring caregivers' personal conflicts, we aimed to inform debates about the politics of empathizing with animals, the role of zoos, and the ethics of keeping great apes in captivity. We argue the use of empathy is essential for engaging in intersubjective relationships.

Publication Title Society & Animals
Volume 24
Issue 3
Pages 230-249
ISBN/ISSN 1063-1119
DOI 10.1163/15685306-12341406
Language English
Author Address Anthropology, University College London, London,
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animals
  3. Animal welfare
  4. APEC countries
  5. Attitudes
  6. Australasia
  7. Behavioral research
  8. Belief
  9. Commonwealth of Nations
  10. Countries
  11. Developed countries
  12. Ethics
  13. Great ape
  14. Mammals
  15. New Zealand
  16. Oceania
  17. OECD countries
  18. opinions
  19. orangutans
  20. Primates
  21. Psychiatry and psychology
  22. Relationships
  23. Social psychology and social anthropology
  24. vertebrates
  25. Veterinary sciences
  26. Zoo and captive wild animals
  27. Zoological gardens
  28. Zoology