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Introduction to Anthropology

18.5 Animal Industries and the Animal Trade

Introduction to Anthropology18.5 Animal Industries and the Animal Trade

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the evolution of zoos.
  • Recognize the benefits of ecotourism.
  • Define the use value of animals in biomedical research today.

In the past two centuries, Western societies have increasingly taken the approach of treating animals as a commodity—a raw material or resource for human use, a thing instead of a being. When we consider the relationships that many Indigenous societies have with animals, we can better realize how different the Western idea of animals is. Approaching the world and nature primarily as consumers rather than coequals, Western cultures face increasing environmental, socio-emotional, and resource-related challenges in all areas of life.


Zoos have long been part of human societies. The earliest evidence of a zoo has been found in Hierakonpolis, the capital of Upper Egypt during the Predynastic period, today called Nekhen. Here, archaeologists have unearthed the mummified remains of a collection of wild and domesticated animals from about 5,000 years ago that included baboons, hippos, gazelles, crocodiles, a leopard, and cats and dogs. Some of the animals had injuries likely caused by being tied or enclosed in some way. Many of them were buried in the same way that humans were buried, and some were found inside human burials (Boissoneault 2015). Another famous historical zoo was that of the Aztec king Montezuma. When the Spaniards arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519, they were surprised by the vast collection of animals housed in enclosures and rooms within the king’s palace complex, including jaguars, bears, eagles, deer, fowl, ocelots, and little dogs. According to the Spanish chroniclers, the zoo had some 300 keepers to care for the animals. Similar to early pet keeping, zoos were typically associated with wealth and status.

Modern zoos emerged in the late 18th century during the period known as the Enlightenment, characterized by the development of science and the expansion of colonial empires. European zoos were filled with wildlife from new colonies and “foreign” lands and were considered places to see strange and exotic animals. The first modern zoos opened in Paris in 1793, London in 1828, and Philadelphia in 1874. These were all very popular public institutions that exhibited animals for entertainment and observation. The zoos were laid out like public parks, with small animal enclosures that allowed people to get up close to see.

There have been many changes in zoos over the last 50 years. With the signing of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) in 1973 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in the United States the same year, wild animal imports to US zoos declined sharply. This coincided with the development of breeding and conservation programs at zoos, some of which involve breeding rare and endangered species to be released back into the wild as part of a sustainable population. One species for which breeding efforts are currently underway is the giant panda. Animals are commonly moved from one zoo site to another and shared for breeding purposes in an effort to fortify the breed. Animals that are endangered may be part of a zoo preservation program. In some cases, critically endangered animals are cared for by zoos when they are young and vulnerable to predators and then reintroduced into the wild. The website of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) features a long list of animals whose populations have been preserved through the efforts of zoos, including the black-footed ferret, the California condor, the Ohio River basin freshwater mussel, the golden lion tamarin, and the Oregon spotted frog. Zoos also sponsor research programs with goals such as creating sustainable populations in the wild, conserving wildlife habitats, improving animal health, or even collecting endangered species’ genetic material (DNA) (DeMello 2012, 106).

What should be the role of zoos in contemporary Western societies? Should the zoo be closer to a theme park or a museum? Should the goal of a zoo be animal conservation or human recreation? These questions guide us as we continue to rethink the mission of zoos today.

Profiles in Anthropology

Barbara J. King

A woman pets a goat, which looks up into her face. In the background, people walk toward a large barn.
Figure 18.13 Anthropologist Barbara King with Cynthia Goat at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York (credit: Charles Hogg)

Personal History: Born in New Jersey, King earned her BA from Douglass College (Rutgers University) and her MA and PhD from the University of Oklahoma, where she specialized in biological anthropology. Her doctoral field research in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, focused on foraging and social behaviors among yellow baboons. From 1988 to 2015, she served as professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she received numerous awards for outstanding teaching and mentorship. She is now a professor emerita, although she continues to have an active role in academia, research, publishing, and mentorship.

Area of Anthropology: King’s research and contributions to the field are notable for their broad-ranging relevance across anthropological subfields and disciplines, among them linguistic and communication systems in primates, social relationships between species, the primate origins of religious thought, and the social and emotional lives of various animal species, including those being factory farmed. Her anthropological focus is often on the continuities between humans and other animals and the ethics of human-animal relationships. She has published seven books and numerous scholarly articles.

Accomplishments in the Field: Given the four-field scope of much of King’s research, she has had considerable impact on many areas of academia. In 2002, King was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for “exceptional capacity for productive scholarship” and creativity. Two of her works, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (2007, Doubleday) and How Animals Grieve (2013, University of Chicago Press), have received prizes and awards as outstanding contributions to the field.

King is also an active public anthropologist, bridging gaps between academic research and the public. A contributor to the National Public Radio blog Cosmos and Culture from 2011 to 2018 and a full-time science writer since her retirement in 2015, King, through interviews, articles, and blogs, communicates the importance of science for public good and social change. Her research on animal grief, How Animals Grieve, was highlighted in her 2019 TED Talk, “Grief and Love in the Animal Kingdom.” King also regularly reviews books for various media outlets, including NPR, the Washington Post, and the Times Literary Supplement, and publishes in Sapiens, an online anthropology magazine devoted to public outreach. She is a self-described Twitter addict (@bjkingape).

Importance of Their Work

In her public role, King seeks to educate and incentivize people to make positive change for human and animal lives. In her newest book, Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild (University of Chicago Press, 2021), King issues a call to cultivate compassionate action toward all the animals sharing their lives with us. She challenges us to widen our lens on the world around us and become animals’ best friends, whether they are in our homes, in the wild, in a lab, in a zoo, or destined to be thought of as food. “When we still ourselves and genuinely see the more-than-human-world, possibilities for helping animals bloom all around us—we may rescue rather than squish a spider in our home; resist an urge to crowd wild animals in order to snap selfies; advocate for non-animal models in laboratory science; refuse to support roadside zoos or swim-with-dolphin programs; and increase our plant-based eating” (Snipes, personal communication, 2021). For more on King’s recent work, see her interview with nature writer Brandon Keim on Earth Day 2021.


Another way in which contemporary Western societies are attempting to address the damage caused by a commodified view of the natural world, including the animals living in it, is through ecotourism. This is tourism designed to be sustainable and to help preserve the flora and fauna of endangered natural environments. Often, the focus is on visiting threatened environments and observing wildlife in its natural habitat. Such tourism can earn money to aid in the conservation of these areas, provide employment for local residents, and raise awareness of the importance of biological, as well as cultural, diversity. Ideally, care is taken to ensure that tourists visiting natural areas do not disturb or damage the environment; however, there are no global standards for ecotourism, and some sites are more successful at protecting sensitive environments than others. The term greenwashing is sometimes applied to sites that promote the natural environment as an attraction while engaging in exploitative and environmentally destructive behavior.

A very large tortoise walks across a rocky landscape.
Figure 18.14 The Galapagos giant tortoise is found only in the Galapagos Islands. It is being preserved today through ecotourism and conservation efforts. (credit: “Pinta Island Giant Galapagos Tortoise” by Arturo de Frias Marques/flickr, Public Domain)

An example of effective and increasingly responsible ecotourism is provided by the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos island chain was made famous by English naturalist Charles Darwin, who used his observations of the diversity of the ecosystem’s animals to develop the theory of natural selection. Located 563 miles west of the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1978. Prior to that, the islands were only partially protected. Some of the Galápagos Islands were designated as wildlife sanctuaries in 1934, and the island archipelago became an Ecuadorian national park in 1959. Around that time, a few wealthy tourists began to travel to the islands to view their extraordinary biodiversity. By the 1990s, tourism had become very popular and a tourist industry had developed, with hotels, restaurants, and transportation. Today, the Galápagos National Park Service, which manages 97 percent of the island lands (the other 3 percent are contained settlements where local people live), has strict policies limiting the daily number of visitors. Local people serve as employees in the park and teach the value of conservation to tourists. It is the hope of the Galápagos National Park Service and the local people that this island ecosystem and its living inhabitants—such as the Galápagos giant tortoise, the Galápagos penguin, the blue-footed booby, the flightless cormorant, and the waved albatross—will be preserved for future generations.

Animals and the Medical Industry

In 2015, there were estimated to be some 192 million animals being used in biomedical laboratories across 179 countries worldwide (Taylor and Alvarez 2019). These animals are used for medical experiments, drug testing, product testing, and psychological research. The most commonly used animals in US labs are mice, rats, and birds, though a range of other animals—including rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, farm animals such as pigs and sheep, cats, dogs, and nonhuman primates—are used as well (Humane Society of the United States 2021). These animals come from various sources, including breeding programs within the biomedical labs themselves.

Although biologists, chemists, animal behaviorists, psychiatrists, and psychologists tend to be more frequently involved in medical research with animals, anthropologists—especially primatologists and linguistic anthropologists—also have a history of working with animals in laboratory settings. Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh carried out long-term cognitive studies of two bonobos, Kanzi and Panbanisha, from birth. Savage-Rumbaugh was interested in understanding how bonobos, which are closely related to humans, learn communication. She developed a computer-based language program using lexigrams, or symbols representing words, printed on a keyboard. Although lacking the vocal apparatus of a human, Kanzi and Panbanisha demonstrated advanced cognitive linguistic skills by responding to human speech and generating language by pressing lexigrams. In one study comparing Kanzi’s language competence with that of a two-year-old human child, Kanzi scored significantly higher: 74 percent accuracy, compared to 65 percent accuracy for the two-year-old human (Savage-Rumbaugh et al. 1993). Studies such as this one shed light not only on animals’ abilities but also on the continuities that exist between humans and animals.

There are two primary regulations in the United States that pertain to biomedical research animals: the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (PHS Policy). The AWA is a law passed by Congress in 1966 that originally covered the transport, sale, and handling of some animals and advocated for more humane animal practices in laboratories. The act has been amended several times (1970, 1976, 1985, 1990, 1991, 2002, 2007, 2008, 2014), including to add a requirement that researchers register their use of animals and also consider a database of alternatives if the procedure can cause any distress or pain. The act cover animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, and nonhuman primates, but it does not cover those animals most commonly used in laboratory experiments: rats, mice, and birds. The PHS Policy applies to all research facilities that perform animal research and receive any type of federal funding; though not itself a law, its creation was mandated by the Health Research Extension Act, passed by Congress in 1985. This policy states that each institution conducting such research must have an institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) that reviews all proposed animal research experiments. This committee must include at least five members, one of whom must be a veterinarian and another a person not affiliated with the institution. When reviewing research proposals, the IACUC is expected to evaluate whether (1) basic standards are met, (2) the use of animals is justified, (3) the research is not duplicated, and (4) pain and discomfort for the animals are minimized. The United Kingdom and the European Union have similar measures to regulate and oversee animal laboratory research.

Animal research has been critical to many advances in medicine, including the development of the first human vaccine to successfully eradicate smallpox, the polio vaccine, and treatments for HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, hepatitis, and malaria. Animals have played a crucial role in the development of many new drugs and therapies, and a significant amount of research conducted on animals also benefits veterinary medicine and other animals as well. However, the use of living animals for experiments and testing raises many ethical issues and has inspired a great deal of conflict and controversy.

Animals in Our Lives

Humans share their lives with animals in many ways, and how we think about ourselves as human beings rests primarily on the distinctions we see between ourselves and other species. English art critic and poet John Berger writes, “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species” ([1980] 1991, 6). Across cultures and across time, humans have looked toward animals as fellow participants in their lives. They actively participate in the ways we define ourselves. They feed us and accompany us. They work for us and protect us. They also serve as symbols and messengers that help us better understand our world. Our lives are intertwined in multiple ways.

What is an animal? What is the value of nonhuman animals in our lives? How do our attitudes about animals define who we are as human beings? Anthropologists and other researchers increasingly see the value of bringing animals into their research because animals are critical to understanding what it means to be human.

Ethnographic Sketches

Animal Familiarity

Experience of Marjorie Snipes, chapter author

A goat kid nurses from its mother.
Figure 18.15 A young female goat and her kid. (credit: “Nursing Kid” by swallowsan/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

During fieldwork in northwestern Argentina, I lived with a community of herders who tended goats and sheep, interviewing every day and taking copious notes. After six months of research, I took a two-week break from the field to return to the United States to welcome my new niece. When I returned to the field site, I had an accidental breakthrough.

However, let me back up. In this Andean community, herders believe that their flocks are gifts from Pachamama (Mother Earth), and women are the primary caretakers and shepherds for the animals. After I had lived in the community for about six weeks, one of the families gave me a small kid, or young goat, which I named Maisie. I suspected that this gift was a test to see if I was planning to be part of the community. I took care of Maisie every day, even though she remained a functioning member of another family’s herd.

Goats normally reproduce toward the end of their first year, and Maisie was pregnant when I left for my two-week absence from the field. While I was gone, she gave birth to a male that the family named Vicente Beda, after a Catholic saint. When I arrived back at the household where I was staying, late in the day, Doña Florentina was eager for me to meet the newest member of my herd. We entered the corral, and the young kid came running up to me with no fear. When I commented about the familiarity, as young animals tend to be skittish around new people, Florentina responded, “But he knows you, Margo.” And so I learned about the librito (little book) that they believe is located in the stomach area of each of their herd animals.

The librito contains information about an animal’s life: who loves it, where it belongs, and when it will die. It is the shepherd’s duty to discern the contents of the book through the animal’s behavior, as she cannot openly read it. Animals who get lost frequently or have trouble bonding with the herd will be traded, as families believe such animals do not belong to them. And when it is time to select an animal for slaughter, the shepherd chooses an animal whose behavior indicates that the time is appropriate. While the signs vary according to the animal’s disposition, it is normally a change of demeanor that the shepherd interprets as acquiescence. During slaughter, a woman typically holds the animal while a man cuts the throat. In all slaughters that I attended, the goat or sheep was killed peacefully, and butchering occurred quickly afterward—except one. The animal was a large ewe, and she was initially compliant with being handled, but at the moment that her throat was cut, her back feet scrambled and she tried to rise up. Everyone around me became very still and began to lower their voices, saying that it was not the right time for the ewe, that there had been a mistake. The shepherd had “made a mistake.”

The ewe was not butchered. She lay there for about an hour while the family discussed where to take her for burial. She was buried far away from the corral and household.

Mini-Fieldwork Activity

Multispecies Animal Observation


Ethnography increasingly utilizes methods aimed at incorporating a multitude of diverse voices. The purpose of this is not diversity for diversity’s sake but to more accurately reflect and understand the various interactions that may occur within any field encounter. In this fieldwork activity, you will experiment with multispecies ethnography. Choose a wild animal (e.g., pigeon, duck, squirrel, insect, etc.), and observe it (with no interaction) for at least 15 minutes. During the observation, make consistent notes every 30 seconds to one minute, writing down the animal’s behavior incrementally and how it interacts with its environment. Note also whether the animal seems to notice your presence or interact with you. Following the observation session, write up a multispecies ethnographic account, using the data you have collected to inform you of the possible intentions and thoughts of the animal as well as your own thoughts and reactions. Your write-up should be 500 to 750 words and should end with a paragraph reflecting on the experience of trying to write from an animal’s perspective (based on human observation). Turn in the original timed notes along with the final paper.

Suggested Films

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 2010. Directed by Werner Herzog. Creative Differences.

Eduardo the Healer. 1978. Directed by Richard Cowan. Serious Business Company.

People of the Seal. 2009. Directed by Kate Raisz. NOAA Ocean Media Center.

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