Idle Hooves and Devilish Playgrounds: A Look at Animal Work in the Sanctuary
Idle Hooves and Devilish Playgrounds: A Look at Animal Work in the Sanctuary

Idle Hooves and Devilish Playgrounds: A Look at Animal Work in the Sanctuary

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Rihanna makes a good point when she says, “I have to work, work, work, work, work, work.” Although perhaps Britney put it best when she said, “you better work, b*tch.” These 21st century philosophers both clearly understand the value of work, not just as a means of success, but to flourish, thrive, shine like a diamond.

If we understand work, along with play, as an important part of human fulfillment, then what about the fulfillment of our animal brethren? Shouldn’t they keep busy with some work too? Is assigning work a good way to cure captive animals of chronic boredom?

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Some sheep in the heat | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

Wildlife preserves, farm sanctuaries, and zoos all have their own unique philosophies. With new farm sanctuaries popping up every year, and continued debates over the role of the zoo in modern society, new questions continue to be raised regarding what these institutions should aim to do and what constitutes adequate animal care. The old-school interpretation of adequate care is akin to taking care of animals’ basic needs: food, water, and shelter. These days, however, people have begun to ask not just how we should care for these animals, but also how we should help these animals flourish.

There are a few ways to help captive animals thrive in their caged habitats. Facilitating play. Encouraging social bonding within and between species. And the rarely considered third option: work, work, work, work, work, work.

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Two horses at Riverdale Farm trying to avoid the flies | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

To understand why work isn’t often considered to be a live option, we should understand what it is that these institutions aim to do. Animal sanctuaries are often places for recuperation from abuse and injury. A safe haven for exotic animals to escape the perils of a Darwinian life in the wild; for ex-farm animals to break free of the perils of meat and dairy production; for abandoned pets to avoid an unfamiliarly undomesticated life on the streets.

In the world of animal captivity safety is king.

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What are you looking at? | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

Every zoo, farm sanctuary, or animal attraction emphasizes their commitment to safety, but being overly committed to security has a big downside: it makes for a boring life. A life without danger is a life void of dynamism. We’ve got to take some risks, otherwise the whole enterprise (a.k.a. life) feels a bit empty.

But what exactly is that empty feeling at the bottom of boredom?

Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, thought that to be bored one must experience a lack of meaningful engagement in a task or in one’s life more generally. I find basketball boring because there’s nothing meaningful at stake for me when I watch it. I’m not personally invested in the result. Tedious work is also a common source of boredom. If our work has no real effect on the world, our own life, or the life of our friends and family, then boredom creeps into our consciousness.

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A moment to one's self | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

So can animals experience boredom?

Researchers at the University of Guelph recently tried to answer this question by developing an experiment featuring two sets of caged mink. The first set had “enriched” cages with various stimuli such as water to wade in and manipulable objects, while the unenriched cages were more bare and stripped down, housing little to catch the animals’ attention.

They found that the mink in the bare cages presented more outward signs of boredom – they had stronger cravings for stimulation; investigated objects faster and for longer than the mink in the enriched cages. While this is by no means definitive proof that animals can be bored in the same way humans can, it does lend credence to the suspicion that the glassy-eyed tiger staring off into space in its pen is, in fact, bored. It’s the same thousand-yard stare that you see in a busy checkout line on both the cashier and the customer.

So what should we do to cure boredom in captivity?

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A "jolly ball" for the pigs to play with | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

The typical approach for keeping captive animals occupied is by engaging them in play. “We give them all kinds of activities to do to keep themselves busy, and we’re developing new activities all the time,” says Chris Diceman, a member of Friends of High Park Zoo, an organization created by Toronto City Councillor Sarah Doucette to save the zoo when its funding was cut in 2012.

The bison enjoy ramming on hanging garbage cans; the capybaras have their hula hoop and volleyball; rams have a tiered and bouldered mound to climb; llamas use a wading pool (and some seasonal mating to keep things spicy). The focus is mainly on object-based play, rather than games or puzzles.

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To wade or not to wade? | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

One alternative to unstructured play is productive labour, but in the world of sanctuaries there is a clear aversion to the idea of having captive animals do any actual work. There are a few reasons for this.

One reason is the assumption that idleness is what everybody wishes for. “They’re on permanent vacation,” says a visitor of the High Park Zoo. “Wish I had it that good.”

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Liability manifest | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

Another reason that these institutions shy away from working the animals is for liability reasons.

Again, the safety of the animals is paramount, so risking injury for the sake of having the animals do some unnecessary work seems like a bad idea. Riverdale Farm, located on the eastern edge of Toronto in Old Cabbagetown, used to have their clydesdales pull plows and engage in other farm work activities, but it became too risky. If an animal sustained injuries the farm could lose public support, which is integral to the farm’s budget, and thus its survival.

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Directions at Riverdale Farm | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

There’s another source of skepticism regarding animal work in the sanctuary, though it’s a bit more philosophical. Having animals in captivity contribute with their labour seems like a form of exploitation. There’s a lingering thought akin to: we understand that you didn’t choose to be here, and we’re not going to force you to work. That would be cruel.

But is productive work necessarily exploitation? When it comes to farm sanctuaries, political philosophers Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka aren’t so sure.

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Signs of work | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

If it stands that animals have the capacity to cooperate with each other and other humans, their lives would be enriched with purposeful contribution in the form of labor. Picture a workhorse plowing a field, a dog herding sheep, or a lamb contributing its wool to be used for insulation of the barns or making yarn. Beavers build dams and gophers burrow – these productive activities are far from play. They help define these beings.

The straightforward definition of ‘work’ applies more easily to animals in a farm sanctuary, but forms of work in a zoo environment could create a kinship between animals and their caretakers and between animals themselves, and contribute to the animals’ living situation and, ultimately, their happiness; their flourishing.

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Birds of a feather | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

The problem of exploitation most visibly rears its head when animals are forced to work, and when the work practices are institutionalized and rigorous to the point of the tasks becoming menial, repetitive, tedious, or dangerous.

To prevent this, we can model our work programs in the sanctuary from our common sense expectations of human work: we don’t want to work too much or for too long; we don’t want our work environment to be too restrictive; we don’t want our boss to micromanage us; we don’t want to do the same things day in and day out; we want there to be room for creativity. And, perhaps most importantly, we want our work to matter, to have meaning.

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Keeping cool | Photo Credit: Ivana Dizdar (c) 2016

Otherwise, life’s a bit of a bore isn’t it?


Many thanks to Sarah Doucette and Chris Diceman for speaking to me on behalf of the Friends of High Park Zoo, the people I spoke with at Riverdale Farm, and to Ivana Dizdar for the beautiful photos.

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