Are there any similarities between human and animal prisons?


We will never be able to pit in the same level of suffering between humans and animals, but this text reflects a little the implications of prison on any individual that values its freedom…

To answer this question we must, without doubt, answer many more, such as:

What similarities are there between the behaviour of humans and animals similar to him?

Does it condition the captivity in equal ways to certain traits in the human and animal counterpart?

Hence, this search shouldn’t fall into anthropomorphism differentiated by typical human traits of animals and the influence of society over them. Avoiding dualisms, the contamination of thought with the desire to achieve a useful result or the collapse of the simplification of the analysis.

We understand that the comparison of the captive subject – animal or human- has been practically impossible until the penetration of libertarian ideas in the field of animal rights. Generally the detained is analysed, human, from a psychological or sociological approach whilst the animal prisoner is attempted to be understood through zoology –or its branch called ethology that specifically studies the behaviour of animals-. These disciplines rarely cross theirselves and this is how they are written about animal behaviour in zoological captivity are extremely careful in comparing its results with prison for humans, for obvious reasons. Comparing a human being to an animal is still considered to be an insult, along with animal behaviour. It is not compared to ours to justify the consequent exploitation.

To speak about the similarities between the prison environment and the zoos in the first place we must break the big taboo, the taboo of jail, that place which nobody wants to see, that place where supposedly the scum of society is found. Where they surely have a bad time, but we continue believing that it is necessary to reform them so that they fit into society or to simply punish them. Let’s see then, how this punishment is and if we can draw anything to light by comparing them to captive animals. We must remember that “the animals” are composed by all living beings with certain alimentation and cellular structure, however here we are going to particularly refer to the animals with clear similarities to us like mammals, birds, vertebrates in general that are more used for zoological exhibitions. These animals share with us many behaviours and senses, let’s see how they react to these traits in incarcerated life:


In his work the doctor tells us that “All human conduct is adaptable” and that “the conduct is adapted to the environment in which the person is living in”. Here, apparently there would be no significant difference with animals, as their behaviour is adaptable and connected to their surroundings. On a zoological level the inevitable question arises: adaptable on an individual level or species level? Here is the point in which vertebrates that we analyse are effectively influenced by the surroundings of the zoo.

The Dr. Continues with “what is formulated as personal characteristic that bring the unequipped behaviour are not “healthy” mechanisms of adaptation in jail, strategies of survival. This is significant in the comparison with the conduct of animals. Let’s reflect a second on this. The “sick” behaviour could be a “healthy” adaptation to the sick conditions from their surroundings? The same Dr. tells is then: “What is “crazy” is the context of the jail, not the conduct that is adapted to that environment”. To understand the conduct we must understand the surroundings. Here we will think of both cases: prison and zoos.

How is the architecture?

– Based on the function of security

– Differences in the “existing space” and the “available space” wild captive animals in small cells see, effectively, a big space in front of them, a space that they can’t access, destined to human beings

– Restriction of mobility

– The physical overcrowding (jails are big, but not for the prisoner)

– The Psychological overcrowding

– De-personalized space (standardized, without any possibility to count on material outside of the place for the construction of tenements, nest, bed, a non-place or in the best cases of zoos a built place with the criteria of a professional human in charge)

How is the use of time and space?

– Inhospitable, reduced and dangerous space (we must ask ourselves if for the animals their stay in the zoos is considered by them constant danger. Surrounded by human beings, noises and a modified environment which makes many of the wild animals feel threatened. It is something that leaves as time passes or do they continue in this state of constant fear all the time?)

– Nothing to do and not being able to do anything

– The participation of strangers in the prison

– “In jail you don’t like 365 days each year, but a day 365 times”

– Life in the yard (and the life in the enclosure for wild animals)

– The absence of activities (walking or sitting down)

– Consequences of the stay in the yard:

– A general feeling of emptiness (we don’t know what the wild animals are feeling because they can’t explain to us things that happen, through their behaviour we can predict certain things and we find common grounds between human animal captive behaviour we can understand better what happens)

– A constant state of anxiety (observed especially in zoos)

– Obsessive thoughts and conversations (can we suppose the existence of obsessive thoughts in the case of wild animals who show clear signs of “zoocosis”? Moving from one side to another, trying to exit the compound? Obsessive conducts are known in animals and are generally linked to life in captivity

– Definite loss of decision-making skills

– The personal staff (the uniform, defence and punishment methods)

– The efficacy (things must be done in a certain way to not allow any chance for escape)

– The formation (equal through the personal in prisons and zoos: security rules, treatment with the captive – it’s best not to engage on an emotional level with any captives-, a work routine: feeding hours, cleaning, sleeping timetables)

– The relationships between officials and prisoners (them vs us, an important dualism in the case of prisons due to what is considered criminal and a differentiation between man-animal- negating the physical and psychological suffering of captive animals)

– The volunteer staff (visitors in the case of zoos)

Therefore, there are similarities in the regulation for the prisoners:

– The regulation as a restriction of life

– The regulation as a system of domination








1.1.1. Vision.

– Rupture of the space

– Lighting contrasts (sunglasses)

– Scarce contrast of colours (absence of warm colours)

– Consequences:

– Headaches

– Deformation of visual perceptions

– Special perturbations

– Impoverishment of life (a world in black of white). In zoos it was very common to see cement precincts, practically without vegetation for the captive animals. In these conditions it would be possible for alterations in their vision. These aspects are not easy to perceive in animals and rarely does a zoo know the terrible states in which their animals live in.

1.1.2. Hearing.

– High level of noise

– Permanent noise

– Consequences:

– Auditive problems.

– Concentration problems.

– Monotony of sounds (The majority of zoos in the world are in the big cities, metres away from roads, with hundreds of people that visit it daily)

1.1.3. Taste.

– Insipid food (this is common in zoos with little resources and budgets – mainly in Argentina – and all its jails)

– Poverty in the diversity of flavours (how many flavours can be perceived by animals that live in captivity? How many would be capable of perceiving in their natural environment?)

1.1.4. Sense of smell.

– Jails smell (zoos smell, generally, even worse)

– Lack of smell



1º) Deficit in the perception of their own body.

– Two types of phenomenon:

– Loss of the image of their own body

– Lack of intimacy has grave consequences for everybody’s identity. (Many zoos are built so that animals can’t hide from visitors or have any privacy)

– Effects on their own body image (avoiding looking into mirrors). It is known that some animals identify with the first individual they see when they are born, so what happens when animals in zoos have more contact with humans than with their own species?

– Can’t measure distances (confusion between the limits of their own body and surroundings, especially those closed in isolation). Lots of captive animals in zoos are condemned to solitude.

2º) Lack of personal care

– Lack of personal hygiene

– Deficiency in installations

– Loss of motivation to clean theirselves



– Stiff muscles

– Causes:

– Excess fat in diet

– Scarce mobility (reduced space to assure the spectacle and entertainment)

– Anxiety (typical in captive animals)

– Feeling of danger (by being surrounded by humans constantly)

– Consequences:

– Frequent muscular contractions

– Pains

– Sleep alterations (common in captive animals)

– Rigid movements (symptom of “zoocosis”, an illness in zoos)





– “Total context” (all life is structured around the jail)

– Consequences in jail:

– Exaggeration of situations (relevancy of little things)

– “living the jail”

– Previous consequences:

– “Stuck in time” (liberating a wild animal from a zoo with relative success is a very hard task. Unless rehabilitation is provided these animals would simply not be able to have a natural life: submissive or too aggressive in their pairs, incapable of reproducing. It is very necessary to expand studies to understand the drawbacks for their free lives after captivity. Dependency on somebody? The inability to handle their lives? These are huge parallelisms to human beings. Maybe we will find more answers forward one…)

– Difficulty to elaborate future projects




– Power structures on jail (perception of vulnerability for the inmate)

–Necessity for self-affirmation to maintain self-esteem

– Jail as a form of annihilation (wild animals can’t understand human motivations. They don’t know why they have kidnapped them, so there is constant tension)

– Choice between extremes: confrontation vs submission

1º) Confrontation:

– Diagnosis: mechanisms of survival, adaptation to the penitentiary system. (We are all guided by circumstances: if the puma doesn’t show its teeth it won’t be feared)

– Confrontation as an indicator of mental health (In animals this is observed all the time: when they are captured they resist a lot, bit, try to escape, and after – as their mental health declines- they begin to domesticate theirselves and lose a lot of the capacity for confrontation.)


– In jail: institutional hardening

– In freedom: no recognition of the damage (captive animals normally show theirselves more aggressive with their captors and with their own pairs. This conduct can persist unless there is a proper rehabilitation)



1º) Sexual relationships:

– The “vis a vis” (intimate relationships)

– There are no times for subtleties (“fast, fast”). A very interesting study in “Interpreting animals” from Temple Grandin describes how rescued chickens from factories were incapable of appropriately courting hens and they raped them. The idea that everything is instinct in animal life is a thing of the past, we now know how complex the world is and what we have in common: learning from pairs, socializing in a natural environment.

– Bedrooms (animals are all the time visible for the public)


– In jail:

– Brutalization of sex (In the case of chickens it should be noted that the real test of a free animal is being able to reproduce – and find a couple- as in the world of natural selection anything they have missed in captivity can cause their inability to reproduce)

– Frigidity in the couple

– In freedom:

– Sexual poverty – sexual rigidity (absence of fantasies)

– Problems with couples (of course we are not going to talk about sexual fantasies in animals, but it is clear that courting is fundamental and animals don’t learn this in zoos, in fact, it is difficult for them to reproduce in captivity. Lack of desire? Maybe the high level of stress that they constantly are exposed to prevents them from reproducing.)


2º) Masturbation.-

– Absence of fantasies

– Constant relief for the absence of pleasure (This is often seen in captive animals. They masturbate all the time due to lack stimulation, it is a behaviour described as “zoocosis”)



– A powerful institutional situation, violent and normalised and hierarchized relationships centred on domination.

– The prisoner has practically no control over their own lives.



– In prison they are always in danger

– Constant state of anxiety, which will be generalized in all types of situations

– This leads them to live with more anxiety in permanent situations in their lives in jail, increasing risk situations.


2.5. LOSS OF VINCULATIONS (Comparable with kidnapped animals in their natural habitat)

– The entrance in prisons means immediate isolation

– Consequences in jails:

– Restriction of personal relations

– Gradual loss of connections

– The time of jail as empty time content.

– The notion of exterior reality will be loss.

– Memories will slowly distort and idealize.



– Language as an element of exclusion:

– Exclusive verbal terms from jail

– Peculiar intonation

– Different gesticulation

These are only some ideas, vague notions of what happens in jail and in zoos with prisoners. It is necessary to investigate doing funded comparisons, more scientifically corroborated, as those who write are simply amateurs that wants to raise attention on these similarities so that we try to understand better prisoners and animals that are captive.

The facts were taken by the work of Dr. Jesús Valverde Molina and internet in general, I recommend this page to understand more about zoocosis or zoo illness:

Translated by Pietro Casati


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