Where Are Zoos Going: The Ethics of Keeping Wild Animals Enclosed

by Max Rauch

What you can do:

Over the past few decades, our planet has changed dramatically, and humans have become more aware of the world and environment around them. Numerous campaigns have emerged and are aimed at bringing about change due to this new understanding. One topical aspect, awareness of animals’ rights, has become prioritized. Demand for the abolition of zoos is a stance increasing in relevance, rooted in the idea that enclosing wildlife in cages for human entertainment is inhumane.[1] Ultimately, the discussion surrounding the future of zoos has become a hot topic for many.

Pro-zooers believe that one prominent reason to keep zoos intact is that they educate the public about animals and habitats. Currently, there are 236 zoos in the United States which attract over 180 million visitors per year. According to a study conducted by Conservation and Biology of Zoos, visitors increase their knowledge of biodiversity and animal treatment with each visit. [2] In addition, advocates from the American Humans Organization believe that zoos provide people with the opportunity to see unfamiliar animals up close, especially for uninformed children. The study also confirmed that no matter how closely animals are observed and presented virtually by the world, the experience cannot compare to the aspect of seeing them in real life. [3]

On top of zoos’ educational benefits to the public, private institutions and researchers also benefit greatly from the facilities. In the last decade, over 200 zoos have published 5000 studies on 500 species and subspecies of animals.[4] One of the main reasons for such extensive research is to address the topical conversation of the spread of disease from animals to humans. Since so many pathogens, such as Ebola, bird flu, and now possibly Covid-19, can be transmitted from animals to humans, zoos have the ability to perform research on wildlife disease monitoring in contained populations.  [5] This can have a direct effect on human health and can further be used to form legislation to protect the public and to stimulate future research. [5]

Pro-zooers say that a beneficial aspect of zoos is that they save certain species from danger and possibly extinction. Currently, many species such as Regent honeyeaters, Panamanian golden frogs, eastern bongos, Bellinger River snapping turtles, Corroboree frogs, Golden lion tamarins, and Amur leopards have been saved from extinction by zoos. [6] These species were previously subject to diminishing factors such as climate change and deforestation. Fortunately, exhibitions to retrieve the remaining members of these animal groups were successful, and repopulation was conducted. [6] Zoos are also working to save species from habitat destruction, hunters, poachers, and population loss. Animals groups like polar bears, lions, African elephants, apes, rhinos, dolphins, whales, and even butterflies have been greatly protected from these diminishing factors by the zoos.[7]To add, zoos can also help conserve ecosystems at risk from climate change by preserving animal habitats and inducing wild repopulation. [8] A prime example of a species saved from habitat destruction are Giraffes. Over the last decade, their populations have dropped by 40% and they have joined a list of over 1500 endangered species. Fortunately, as sanctuaries for these famous and majestic species, zoos are breeding over 50 offspring at many locations nationally; this is crucial for keeping the species alive. [16]

On the other hand, a lot of controversies have arisen over the ethics of zoos and whether they should remain open. Many arguments have been made behind the concept of animal cruelty in that species shouldn’t be held captive and shouldn’t be tested on. One of the main goals of zoos is to educate the public; anti-zooers dismiss this statement with evidence from several research studies. A study published by the Animal Studies Repository concluded that there is no compelling evidence to claim that zoos promote a change of attitude, education, and interest in visitors. [9] Also, a study to analyze the correlation between zoos and knowledge attained by visitors claimed there was no overall change in the understanding; people entered and left zoos with the same amount of information. [9]  To corroborate, anti-zooers use programs such as Planet Earth and Blue World as examples of carrying wild animals into homes, allowing viewers to see the animals in their natural environments without causing damage to animals in real life. In fact, it was determined that shows like these can be or are more informational than actually going to zoos. [10]

A further reason pronounced by anti-zooers is that facilities are harmful to animals’ health and living conditions. A review of 35 different species, including bears and lions, found that zoo habitats were too small for the animals to follow their usual routines. This can lead to issues such as frantically running around, eating less, and significantly more child deaths. [11] To add, in an enclosed environment, there is less natural competition, and some health conditions appear that wouldn’t occur naturally in the wild.  [11] One specific to reinforce this claim is adult male gorillas developing heart disease, the leading cause of death for their species. However, this condition is actually rare in the wild; in zoos, other species like this have also developed similar conditions. [12]

Lastly, along with physical and internal damage proposed to species in zoos, animals tend to develop impairment as well. Zoo animals have been observed to suffer from disorders not seen in the wild such as depression in leopards, and OCD in bears. [13] Due to smaller living space, changes in diet and habits, and constant human interaction, contained animals are seen to face new problems. The most common deficiency among species was newly developed depression [13]  Recently, a related action is currently being debated in the legislature. The Big Cat Public Safety Act, S. 2561, is currently under review and is meant to protect wild cats such as tigers out of the hands of improper treatment such as zoo captivity. [14] This is a concern with animal care. Big cats often do not receive proper health treatment, nutrition, or physical help in private hands. This is a matter of public safety as well. Improperly kept hostage, large cats hurt or even kill people. [14] This bill has re-introduced the controversy of a popular sensation in 2020, the show “Tiger King”. This Netflix series about the life of “Joe Exotic”, the owner of one of the largest tiger collections, brought entertainment to many viewers, but distress to others, including a large sum of anti-zooers. Although the owner of these cats is seen offering love and passion for these animals, opposers of animal confinement dismiss this since the cats are also seen as caged. [15]

Although a lot of controversies can be presented about zoos, mainly animal cruelty vs human entertainment, it is interesting to see the supporting data behind whether animals are better of under human monitoring, and if containing them has a benefit towards society. It is true that many species benefit from being housed in zoos, such as giraffes, where they are placed in a stable habitat and bread. However, it is hard to determine whether zoos costs are greater than the benefits. When these wild animals are taken from their natural habitat, certain animals can be subject to foreign interaction with humans such as tourists and scientists. These interactions have an array of positive and negative aspects; which calls for debate on whether zoos should continue to house these animals.

Works Cited:

[1] https://sentientmedia.org/animals-in-entertainment/

[2] https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cobi.12383

[3] https://time.com/4364671/zoos-improve-lives-of-animals/

[4] https://www.facetsjournal.com/doi/10.1139/facets-2017-0083

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5454182/

[6] https://medium.com/taronga-conservation-society-australia/10-endangered-species-saved-from-extinction-by-zoos-682c454d0125

[7] https://www.aza.org/zoo-and-aquarium-statistics?locale=en

[8] https://www.aza.org/aza-news-releases/posts/conservation-success-stories-in-aza-accredited-zoos-and-aquariums?locale=en

[9] https://www.informalscience.org/why-zoos-and-aquariums-matter-assessing-impact-visit-zoo-or-aquarium

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2017/mar/13/zoos-are-prisons-for-animals-no-one-needs-to-see-a-depressed-penguin-in-the-flesh

[11] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2003/10/zoo-carnivores-need-more-space

[12] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/03/gorilla-guts/554636/

[13] https://longform.org/posts/zoo-animals-and-their-discontents

[14] https://secure.humanesociety.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=7591&s_src=web_cta_take-action

[15] https://bigcatrescue.org/refuting-netflix-tiger-king/

[16] https://americanhumane.org/press-release/usa-today-how-zoos-and-aquariums-can-help-save-1-million-species-from-extinction/

Image Source: https://time.com/4470315/tiger-temple-thailand/