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Improving ethical attitudes to animals with digital technologies: the case of apes and zoos


This paper examines how digital technologies might be used to improve ethical attitudes towards nonhuman animals, by exploring the case study of nonhuman apes kept in modern zoos. The paper describes and employs a socio-ethical framework for undermining anti-ape prejudice advanced by philosopher Edouard Machery which draws on classic anti-racism strategies from the social sciences. We also discuss how digital technologies might be designed and deployed to enable and enhance rather than impede the three anti-prejudice strategies of contact and interaction, enlightenment, and individualization. In doing so, the paper illuminates the broad potential and limitations of digital technology to both harm and benefit animals via its effects on human ethical attitudes. This examination provides guidance for future projects and empirical work on using digital technologies to promote moral respect for a range of nonhuman animals in different settings.

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  1. Machery’s chapter had no Google Scholar citations at the time of writing.

  2. Most digital technology in zoos is directed at nonhuman ‘great apes’ (chimps, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas).

  3. Many other nonhuman animals share some of these characteristics, though great apes clearly possess highly humanlike cognitive, emotional, and social capacities.

  4. Later, we complicate matters by problematizing zoos and returning to moral criticisms of them.

  5. Note that KWO was installed in an indoor (non-naturalistic) area of the animal exhibit, and visitors might have found the use of digital technology more jarring in the outdoor exhibit area which simulates a rainforest habitat.

  6. Dogs may be surrendered for many serious reasons, including safety, when the dog is aggressive, uncontrollable, etc.


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We thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful advice.


The research for Kinecting with Orangutans (KWO) was supported by funding from the Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces.

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Correspondence to Simon Coghlan.

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Coghlan, S., Webber, S. & Carter, M. Improving ethical attitudes to animals with digital technologies: the case of apes and zoos. Ethics Inf Technol 23, 825–839 (2021).

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  • Nonhuman animals
  • Ethics
  • Moral attitudes
  • Apes
  • Zoos
  • Digital technologies