Zoos go by several different official names. They can be called “animal parks,” “menageries,” or “zoological gardens.” Despite the different names, each offers visitors the chance to view animals that are confined in an enclosure. Many zoos have breeding programs in place to help eliminate genetic bottlenecks, especially when dealing with an endangered species.
Zoos have been part of our human history from the very beginning when early humans began documenting what happened to them. One of the oldest known zoos was discovered in Egypt in 2009 and was believed to have existed in 3,500 BC. Evidence of elephants, wildcats, baboons, and hippopotami were discovered at the location.
The benefit of having a local zoo is that it gives people an opportunity to learn more about the animals and nature. It is a way to engage children in science, bring families together, and help save certain animal species that are close to extinction.
As for the disadvantages of a zoo, the facilities that are offered can be abused for personal or political gain. One of the earliest zoos in the Western Hemisphere didn’t feature animals. It featured people that had different physical traits, such as having dwarfism or albinism. Even the Catholic Church has a zoo which feature a collection of people from different races and tribes as late as the 16th century.
Ota Benga was part of a human exhibit at zoos in the United States as late as 1906, in St. Louis and the Bronx Zoo.
The pros and cons of zoos are important to consider from a modern standpoint. Our views about zoos may have changed, but is it still ethical to support animal captivity?
What Are the Pros of Having Zoos?
1. Zoos provide an educational resource.
The modern zoo plays a critical role in education children and families about the different animals with whom we share this planet. Staff from a zoo will travel to local schools to make presentations, offer special programs on the zoo grounds, and partner with community providers to extend educational opportunities to everyone. No matter what a person’s socioeconomic status may be, there is a chance to learn something new because of the work of a zoo.
2. A zoo provides a protected environment for endangered animals.
There are several animals which are poached frequently because of certain items. Having a zoo provides these animals with a safer place to live because they are behind multiple levels of protection. Although poachers have been able to break into zoos to take animals in the past, this is not a frequent occurrence and is normally not successful when it does occur.
3. Zoos can provide a place for the humane treatment of rare animals.
One of the best examples of this is the Przewalski horse. In 1945, there were 13 horses that were captured from the wild and placed into a zoo. The last Przewalski horse was seen in the wild in 1966. Because of extensive breeding programs and an effort to reintroduce these horses into protected habitats in the wild, this unique species can continue to survive. It is a unique breed in the equine world because it has 66 chromosomes instead of 64. More than 1,500 of these horses exist today and all can trace their lineage back to the 13 that were captured at the end of World War II.
4. Zoos can also be an economic resource for a community.
Zoos do more than just provide a place for animals to reside. They are a place that provides jobs, creates tourism opportunities, and can even be an economic nexus for a community. The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle has an annual budget that exceeds $36 million and they pay $17 million in wages annually. Another $5.2 million is paid in outside vendor contracts. The zoo was established in 1898 and 70% of its revenues come from zoo visits and private contributions.
5. Zookeepers are trained with specialized knowledge about their animals.
In the past, zoos were a place where animals were kept behind steel bars. Those who oversaw these animals had a general knowledge of upkeep, but not much more. Today’s zookeepers are highly trained and educated people who have specialized knowledge of the animals that are under their charge. This has reduced accidents and attacks, especially when handlers follow established policies and procedures to maintain safety.
6. Zoos offer animal activities to maintain natural instincts and movements.
Animals that were kept in zoos in previous generations were given an enclosure, maybe a toy or two, and that was considered “cutting edge.” The modern zoo is hyper-aware of the dietary and physical requirements that animals need to maintain proper health. Activities are arranged for the animals to help keep them mentally alert. This doesn’t fully replace hunting or migration, but it does eliminate the boredom, deterioration, and eventual degradation of the animal at the zoo.
7. Most zoos are required to go through an accreditation process of some sort.
One of the most common arguments against the existence of zoos is that they are not carefully supervised. In the past, this was a valid observation. Zoos in the developed world must go through an accreditation process to maintain operations. Inspections that include habitat cleanliness, humane practices, and proper care occur regularly. If a zoo is unable to meet those standards, they can potentially lose their accreditation and their animals will be transferred to a zoo that does meet them.
8. Preservation efforts at zoos can stop extinction events.
Zoos around the world work together to preserve rare and extremely endangered species. These connections make it possible to bring a pair of these animals together to begin the mating process so that the species can continue living. If these rare animals were forced to find each other in the wild, the result could be very different. Animals that have been saved from likely extinction by zoos include the Arabian Oryx, Golden Lion Tamarin, Puerto Rican Parrot, and Freshwater mussels.
9. Veterinary care is readily available at most zoos.
Many zoos have what is referred to as a “treatment room.” This is a place where any animal can be brought in for an examination so that its good health can be maintained. Veterinarians are no longer working on their own in these facilities either. Treatment teams include pathologists, technicians, zookeepers, and other specialists who can create and maintain virtually any care plan. Screenings, quarantine procedures, parasite removal, and other common treatments are part of the standard care process now as well.
10. Zoos are working with universities to develop in-depth degree programs.
The Smithsonian National Zoo is one of many that have worked with local colleges and universities to create thorough degree programs at graduate and doctorate levels. The National Zoo has a training program for fourth-year veterinary students and offers a 3-year residency program for another school so that veterinarians can train to become zoological medicine specialists.
What Are the Cons of Having Zoos?
1. Holding any animal in captivity has questionable ethics.
There may be educational value in a zoo, but keeping animals in captivity offers an ethical dilemma. Some animals, like the average house cat, will thrive in a captive environment. Others, like orcas, do very poorly when living in captivity. An orca in the wild may live up to 100 years in the wild, but the average age at a captive orca is less than 30 years – and it’s 17 years for a male orca.
2. Breeding programs create dependencies.
Wild animals struggle to adapt to a confined environment, but many can make the transition – even if it is forced upon them. The same cannot always be said for the newborns that become part of local zoo breeding programs. If the animal is part of a predator species, most newborns that are born in captivity will die if they are released because of the dependencies they have on the captivity.
3. Most zoos are treated as a recreational facility.
Since the 19th century, in both good and bad ways, most zoos were established to further a scientific understanding about the nature which surrounds us. That has changed over the years to the point where many see a zoo as nothing more than a recreational facility. Established zoos cater to this attitude and justify it because they need to have funds to further the research or preservation efforts that are taking place.
4. The lives of animals are secondary to the lives of people.
Because zoos are treated more as a recreational facility, visitors do not always have respect for the boundaries and borders that keep them safe from potentially dangerous animals. If visitors intrude into the animal enclosure, it is usually the life of the animal that is put at risk. An example of this occurred in 2016 when a 3-year old boy was left unsupervised long enough to crawl into a gorilla enclosure. To save the boy, the zoo killed the male gorilla named Harambe.
5. Even if captivity extends a lifetime, it can change animal behavior.
Elephants are often the focus of this key point because of their size compared to their enclosure. Elephants are also migratory animals, so restricting this instinct can cause them to become more aggressive. More than 75 elephants have been euthanized at zoos before reaching the age of 40 when their lifespan is estimated to be 70 years in the wild. Predatory animals become more aggressive as well when restricted, which puts zookeepers and visitors at an increased risk.
6. Many zoos are struggling financially and can no longer care for their animals properly.
The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is thought to be one of the best in the US. In 2015, their expenses were $2 million more than their incoming revenues. Their status as a 501c3 organization, however, can help to provide a buffer on years where losses like that occur. Other zoos do not have that luxury. Many zoos euthanize healthy animals because of their cost or to “preserve” genetic health. In Agate, CO a wildlife sanctuary euthanized all 11 of their animals because of a denial to relocate their facilities due to “ongoing flooding.”
7. Conservation is a goal that isn’t always sought.
Most zoos have a goal of conservation when it comes to animal species. There are certainly success stories, such as the Przewalski horse. Unfortunately, this goal tends to be more of a marketing technique than an actual mission statement. It is quite common to have offspring created at a zoo to be moved to another zoo, sold to raise money, or in the case of the Giant Panda, used as a financial resource for an entire country.
8. Even natural habitat enclosures do not fully serve the needs of all animals.
The goal of many modern zoos is to replicate the natural environments of the animal for their enclosure. For some animals, such as the elephant, this is virtually impossible within the confines of a zoo. A herd (or memory) of elephants is known to travel between 30-50 kilometers every day. In the wild, you’ll find them grouping into herds of 40+ individuals. That is a habitat which a small zoo cannot replicate.
9. Zoos can set an improper standard for future generations.
Children learn from the adults in their lives. When they go to a zoo, what they are seeing is that it is okay for people to put animals into enclosures for entertainment purposes. For a zoo experience to be beneficial, there must be an effort to take all visitors through the scientific and preservation components of a zoological program. Unfortunately, most zoo visitors go to look at the animals and nothing more, which shows imprisonment can be entertainment – and that may transfer to their views about humanity.
10. Breeding programs are not a guarantee for species survival.
The Giant Panda is an example of how difficult breeding programs in captivity can be. Up through the 1990s, just 30% of the Giant Pandas in captivity could successfully reproduce. When the cubs were born, more than 60% of them would die while still in infancy. Survival percentages have risen to over 70% since then, but this is because of artificial insemination and husbandry efforts that essentially force the newborn cub to be reliant on humans for potentially its entire life.
11. Animals in captivity can develop severe health problems, even with a high-quality treatment plan.
The Alaska Zoo was struggling to care for Maggie the Elephant. Because of the local weather conditions, she would often be forced to stay inside a very small enclosure. Her treatment team brought in a treadmill that could help her get the exercise she needed, but she refused. Without the proper amount of activity, her feet began to degrade to the point where it became difficult for her to walk.
A zoo can be an integral part of our community and world with the right approach. Each key point deserves consideration so that a personal decision regarding zoos can be reached. That way they can be more than entertainment.
The pros and cons of zoos often come from two very different points of view. From a legal standard, animals are often treated as property. That means they have little in the way of rights, so a zoo seems like a positive place to maintain a high quality of life. For others, the forced enclosure of any animal feels like an unethical decision. Wild animals, it is said, are meant to be wild.