A zoo may be called several different things, depending upon where you happen to be in the world. Some refer to them as a “menagerie.” They might be called a “zoological garden.” Some zoos just use the generic term of an “animal park.” Whatever the name might be, the general purpose of the facility is the same. Animals are held in captivity and visitors come to the location to view them.
Zoos typically host animals that are not normally found locally. You may find lions, tigers, wolves, bears, giraffes, monkeys, elephants, and more. Every facility is a little different. The earliest zoos date back to the 35th century BC in Egypt and there are thousands of facilities around the world today the support animal populations.
The idea of restricting an animal’s freedom can be very bothersome, even if the enclosures being used replicate a natural habitat with great specificity. Captivity means the animal is at the mercy of its caregivers. That is why evaluating the pros and cons of zoos is such an important and evolving process.
What Are the Pros of Zoos?
1. Zoos offer learning opportunities to their local community
When there is a local zoo in a community, then there is an opportunity to interact with animals that would normally not be possible. At the same time, there is an opportunity to teach people more about nature. Children can be engaged to learn scientific concepts. Families can plan events around a visit to the zoo to create more together time. Not only can we learn about ourselves with a zoo, we can learn about how the rest of the world operates at the same time.
2. Zoos can save endangered animals from extinction.
One of the best examples of a zoo being able to save a species is the Przewalski Horse. In the 1940s, the population level of this wild horse species was down to 13, all of them captured in 1945. This group were descendants from a herd of about 15 captured horses from 1900. Working with the Zoological Society of London, the species was saved through a carefully monitored breeding program. Now there are over 1,500 horses and the population levels are still growing.
3. Zoos save endangered animals from poaching and other illegal activities.
Humans have a reputation of harming animals for their own gain. Sharks are harvested for their fins only, often left to die after the fin has been removed. Rhinoceros species and elephants have been hunted for their horns and tusks respectively. Zoos might require animals to transition from being wild to being essentially domesticated, but the action does often save their lives.
4. A zoo provides economic assistance to local communities.
Zoos do more than house animals. They also provide jobs to people from a variety of backgrounds. A zoo hires animal caretakers that are specifically trained to care and manage the species. They hire veterinarians to care for the animals that live at the zoo. There are janitors, food service workers, souvenir vendors, tour guides, parking attendants, and many other employment positions provided by a zoo. A zoo in a large city, such as San Diego or Seattle, may have a budget of more than $40 million, of which about 40% is usually worker wages.
5. Animals are generally given complete care in a zoo.
Modern zoos will only hire specialists who are familiar with how to properly care for a specific species. They won’t hire generalists who care for all the animals any more. People trained to work with elephants only work with them, and so forth. To become a zookeeper or animal caretaker, an advanced college degree is often necessary. Evidence of training must be provided before hire. In return, the safety levels of zoos have risen dramatically over the last century, for visitors and workers alike.
6. Habitats replicate natural environments like never before.
When a zoo is thought about, the picture of a concrete floor, steel bars, or perhaps a reinforced glass enclosure often comes to mind. The modern zoo has moved away from this prison-like setting. Zoos meet the dietary needs of each animal with great specificity. Activities are created for the animals to engage their natural instincts on a regular basis. There is no way for a zoo to replicate migration patterns or the freedom of going on a hunt, but zoos have learned to maintain the mental health of each animal species in better ways.
7. Zoos are community partners.
A zoo, in any form, is an active part of the community. Many form relationships with local school districts to create unique classroom activities and presentations. Internships are often available in zoos for students to see if a career in animal care or veterinary science is right for them. A zoo does their best to ensure that everyone is included with their partnerships, no matter who they are or how wealthy they might be.
8. Modern zoos are regularly inspected for their caregiving and service.
Many communities require their zoos to be regularly inspected and/or accredited to remain open. That process includes a complete inspection of the facilities to ensure cleanliness. Habitat construction, visitor safety, proper caregiving techniques, and every other aspect of daily life in the zoo is thoroughly and professionally evaluated. Should a zoo be unable to meet certain standards and not fix the problem, then it could be shut down to protect the safety of the animals involved.
9. Rare animals have a chance for survival.
Severely endangered animal species are often brought to a zoo environment to take advantage of the breeding programs that are available. Although captivity-based breeding programs are not usually as successful as natural breeding, a zoo-based environment does offer a modicum of protection that the wild cannot offer. Even if breeding attempts are not successful, the genetics of the animal species can be preserved for future recovery should technology become available to do so. In theory, this offers the potential of stopping every animal extinction that may occur.
10. Degree programs are designed around zoo experiences.
Residency and degree programs that involve zoology are based on the experiences that we have learned as a society about how to properly manage a zoo. Even veterinarians interested in working with a zoo are required to fulfill specific residency and training requirements before being allowed to pursue employment in this area. The modern zoo develops specialists and then employs them so that the animals involved receive the highest levels of care at all times.
What Are the Cons of Zoos?
1. Zoos are often abused for political or personal gain.
Did you know that one of the earliest zoos outside of Europe and Asia didn’t have any animals in its exhibits? It featured humans that were deemed to have “unusual” traits when compared to others. The zoo kept people with dwarfism, albinism, and birth defects or medical conditions in a state of unwanted imprisonment. Even the Catholic Church maintained a human zoo until the 1500s. Humans were kept in zoos even in the 20th century.
2. Animals in captivity live shorter lives.
Although zoos are designed to protect animals, especially endangered species, from harm, the lifespan of captive animals is often less than what it would be if they were living in the wild. Thanks to the documentary film Blackfish, the orca is often one of the species often references for this negative of zoos, aquariums, and other enclosures. Orcas in captivity have an average lifespan of just 30 years. Male orcas only live half that long. In the wild, however, orcas have been known to live for a century or longer.
3. Zoos treat animals as recreational objects.
Learning about animals is important, but many zoos are treated as a recreational facility more than an educational environment. You go to the zoo to “have fun.” Although this generates revenues that eventually support the animals and those who care for them, the emphasis on the scientific process has been diminished over time. That is why zoos, especially in Europe, kill surplus animals. In one graphic incident, a giraffe named Marius, who was 18 months old, was shot in Copenhagen in front of students simply because his genetics were no longer needed.
4. A zoo lessens the respect that humans must have for animals.
There are numerous examples of humans intruding into animal habitats, only to have the animal killed because of the stupidity of the human. In 2008, before a tiger attacked people on Christmas Day, eyewitnesses reported that people were heckling the big cats before the attack occurred. In 2016, Harambe was killed after an unsupervised 3-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure and was being dragged around by the animal. Captivity lessens the respect that we should have for animals. They may be captive, but that is no guarantee that they are fully domesticated.
5. Reintroduction is not always successful with breeding programs.
The Przewalski horse is a great success story. Not only did the breeding program save the species, but the Zoological Society of London helped to set the stage for the horse breed to return to the wild in Mongolia. Additional herds are managed in national parks and even the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Most reintroduction programs are not this successful. Animals kept in captivity eventually learned to be dependent upon humans, especially if they were born into captivity.
6. Behavioral changes occur frequently within the zoo environment.
Many animals tend to be social creatures, especially within their own species. Wolves, elephants, and other pack animals struggle to live within the confines of a zoo simply because they have no room to move. Or worse, they are kept on their own so that they have no social contact at all. When pack animals, especially predatory species, have their natural instincts restricted, then they typically become more aggressive. In the battle between a human and an elephant, the elephant will usually win if the human isn’t armed with something.
7. Even the best zoos struggle financially.
Most zoos are funded not by taxpayer resources, but through independent donations, memberships, and ticket sales. Even the best zoos, such as the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, have millions more in expenses each year than they receive through incoming revenues. A lack of funding reduces the number of specialists that can care for the animals. It may reduce the amount of food access that is available. That, in turn, affects the quality of life that the animal receives.
8. Animals are used as a financial commodity.
China may be the worst perpetrator of using animals as a financial commodity. The Giant Panda is often used as a diplomatic tool. Sometimes, they are even used as a reward when attempting to negotiate a trade deal. All zoos outside of China are forced to rent Giant Pandas. Al Jazeera reports the cost of “Panda Rent” at $1 million per animal. That doesn’t include the cost of feeding and care either. In the U.S., a conservation fee of $400,000 is pad to China even if a Giant Panda gives birth to a cub after 12 months. Even if born outside of China, panda cubs are still owned by China and must be transferred away from its family at its second birthday.
9. Breeding programs don’t always work.
The Giant Panda is another great example here. More than 60% of panda cubs used to die in breeding programs found at zoos in the past. Just 3 in 10 pandas in captivity were even considered capable of reproduction. Survival rates have doubled since the 1990s, now higher than 70%, but that still means there is a 30% chance that a panda cub will die simply because it is being handled in a captive environment.
10. Local conditions may not favor certain animal species.
Can you imagine an elephant being happy in Alaska? Or what about a polar bear living in Mexico City? Animals adapt to their local conditions through the natural evolutionary process. Taking them out of this climate can cause severe hardships to their health. What is worse here is that local conditions may be unsafe for the animal, so to protect them, zookeepers restrict them to an indoor environment. This has caused elephants to stop walking and eating, polar bears to become aggressive, and other behavioral changes that make animal care unpredictable and dangerous over time.
11. Natural habitats are just a pretty jail for zoos.
A naturalized habitat may look aesthetically pleasing, but it really doesn’t change the dynamics of animal life. An elephant might walk over 30 miles during the day with their herd. Walking in a circle several times doesn’t provide the same experience. For many animals, a zoo will never be able to fully duplicate what life in the wild is like. The shift in habitat approach is therefore more about comforting uncomfortable humans who saw problems with keeping an animal captive within an enclosure. Natural habitats might help people feel better, but it still acts as a pretty jail to the animal involved.
The pros and cons of zoos will often be hotly discussed. There are passionate reasons on both sides of this debate that deserve to be heard. Zoos have provided numerous benefits over the years, but the ethics of animal captivity will always create more questions than answers within this debate.