Ethics of Petting Zoos: Was The On Campus Alpacalypse Necessary?

On the 17th March, students were lucky enough to be greeted by the bizarre sight of alpacas outside the memorial gate. The “Alpacas on Campus” event was a follow up to last years’ hugely successful “Paws for stress”, or “Dogs on Campus”. Yet, despite the charitable nature of the event, with proceeds going to “Pets as Therapy”, controversy arose over the ethical nature of the event. While many immediately felt their stress melt away at the thought of cuddling cute alpacas, dozens of concerned parties spoke up to question the morality of the domestication of these ‘exotic’ creatures.

Historically, petting zoos – especially travelling ones – have acquired a rather dim reputation. Numerous animal welfare groups have attacked the ways these institutions are run, condemning everything from animals’ confinement during travel – often leading to neurotic behaviour – to the infrequent feeding and watering of the animals. These concerns were apparently shared by students as an ‘alpacalypse’ broke out on social media sites prior to the event. People righteously tagged, tweeted and hashtagged their indignation at the exploitation of these creatures.

In some respects peoples’ fears were not unfounded as, days before the event, the Facebook page estimated the attendance of over nine hundred people with an additional 2,100 ‘interested’ parties. Even now, after this event has passed, the idea of letting loose a tsunami of students on groups of helpless alpacas makes me personally a little nervous.

However, it is clear that the event managers were well-prepared, despite the affairs’ unprecedented popularity. Even on the initial Facebook post, strict ground rules were laid out: “there will be limited access to (the alpacas)… at any one time. If necessary, a queue will form a safe distance from the alpacas as not to undermine their wellbeing. Access will be one way.” To further settle people’s fears event organisers screenshotted an email from the alpaca owners stating that, having attended numerous breeding shows, the alpacas were used to travelling and more like pets to the owner than livestock. Also, coming from South Lankarksire (Netherfield Alpaca Farm) the alpacas were fully acclimatized to our less than Peruvian conditions.

The event proved to be a success; well-co-ordinated with the well-being of the alpacas as the clear priority. Perhaps, as long as this level of care for animals is maintained, similar events can continue in the future. Maybe we should recognise these events as the mutually beneficial schemes they can be: helping students to de-stress, allowing the alpacas to fulfil their sociable nature, and meanwhile raising money for other worthwhile charities.

[Ilona Cabral]

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