Compassionate conservation advocates for minimizing individual suffering in conservation practice and adheres to the principle “individuals matter”—intrinsically, in and of themselves. Our objective is to determine the extent to which, and how, zoos recognize the intrinsic value of wild individuals beyond their status as members of species or ecosystems. We analyzed discourses surrounding the Smithsonian National Zoo in the U.S.A., the zoos of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in France, and the Seoul Grand Park Zoo in South Korea. Using existing literature on zoos, conservation, animal welfare, and rights, we distilled two discourses (justificatory and abolitionist). Through interviews with professionals in the zoo, conservation, welfare, and animal rights communities, we demonstrate how actors frame individual zoo animals as (1) sentient persons, (2) reproductive components, and (3) species ambassadors. Our analysis shows how actors’ views shape three zoo practices related to ex situ conservation: (1) captivity, (2) captive breeding, and (3) culling. This analysis revealed two significant findings. First, actors representing the justificatory discourse fail to frame animals as intrinsically valuable individuals. Second, within the constraints of the zoo, the intrinsic value of individual animals is recognized through welfare practices and education focused on fulfilling animal interests.
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