Drawing on ethnographic, ethological, and historical data, we examined the relationships between orangutans and caregivers at Auckland Zoo. Caregivers displayed high levels of empathy and adjusted their husbandry routines to their interpretations of the orangutans’ moods. Caregivers experienced conflicts arising from their efforts to empathize. Although they agreed their husbandry approach improved welfare, they worried their interpretations of orangutan behavior were inaccurate anthropomorphic projections. However, caregivers’ interpretations aligned well with ethological observations and with current knowledge of orangutan behavior. Caregivers’ shared view of great apes as moral persons led to personal conflicts about the ethics of sacrificing individual orangutans’ freedom for the greater good of the species. By exploring caregivers’ personal conflicts, we aimed to inform debates about the politics of empathizing with animals, the role of zoos, and the ethics of keeping great apes in captivity. We argue the use of empathy is essential for engaging in intersubjective relationships.
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