Zoos have come a long way since the 112 critters’ menagerie exhibition it once was back in 3500 B.C. Today, they are home to thousands of different species and hundreds of thousands of different animals. Millions of families visit zoos annually, and this pastime has become one for all ages. However, zoos are also, by nature, unnatural habitats for animals. Animal rights organizations, such as PETA, are spreading awareness of the damaging effects captivity may have on animals who belong in the wild. They raise the question: Should zoos continue to operate?
Here are three reasons why zoos should be shut down and three reasons why they should continue operating.
Have you seen any of the following at the zoo: A primate throwing its feces? Elephants bobbing their heads and swaying back and forth? A polar bear swimming figure eights with no intention of stopping? Yes, they may look cute doing it, but these are actually signs of severe distress and animal insanity – also known as zoochosis. Animals in captivity often suffer from this severe psychological condition. This condition occurs due to deprivation, loneliness, and stress – all caused by captivity. It’s not just land animals that suffer; marine life, especially marine mammals, in public aquariums also show stereotypic (neurotic) behavior, such as repeatedly raising their heads above the surface of the water, spinning around an imaginary object, and frequently turning on one side and rubbing along the floor of the tank.
Education Vs. Captivity
A main argument for supporting the continuation of zoos is that they help educate the public (mainly children) about animals that can’t be seen without having to leave on a trip to an exotic country. But how educational is the zoo actually? In a study of 3,000 kids, researchers saw that only 38% of the children demonstrated a positive learning outcome (learning actual facts). Worse than that, some of the children even showed a negative learning outcome – meaning they came out of the zoo with “facts” that were actually fictional. In addition, zoos may even have a negative impact on visitors, showing them that it is okay to hold animals in captivity.
It’s no surprise that when baby zoo animals are born, zoos want to share the good news (and adorable pictures and/or videos) with the world. April the Giraffe’s birth, which was livestreamed to more than 40 million viewers, is just one of many examples. It is safe to say that people love newborn animals and seeing them as infants live is always an amusement. Eventually, however, these newborns grow up, and the zoos become overpopulated – resulting in a surplus. What happens to these surplus animals? Each zoo copes with surplus through different methods. According to the BBC, between 3,000-5,000 healthy zoo animals are killed each year due to overpopulation. Some zoos have tried to cover up this killing by making it a learning experience and dissecting the animals for the public to see.
Modernization has had a huge impact on the planet we live on. Unlike us human beings, wildlife has felt the negative effects of these changes. In the last 100 years alone, humans have been the cause of extinction of nearly 500 different species. Combating this problem has proven difficult, yet zoos have been playing a key role in the fight against extinction. Through captive breeding and species reintroduction programs, zoos have been able to fight off extinction. While the Biden administration has succeeded in working to correct the former Trump administration’s changes that weakened the Endangered Species Act, zoos are more imperative than ever in keeping endangered and threatened animals safe – and alive. For instance, in 2017, the Cincinnati Zoo, together with doctors from the city’s Children’s Hospital, worked together to save the life of baby hippo Fiona, who was born six weeks premature.
By trying to mimic natural conditions, zoos allow animals to act similarly to the way they would in their normal habitat. In doing so, researchers can learn much about natural phenomena. Research has been done in the fields of animal nutrition, reproduction and behavior in various situations. The Oregon Zoo is working on a technological device that will help conservationists track hard-to-follow polar bears in their natural environment. Such research conducted by or in cooperation with zoos allows us to further understand our fellow companions on this planet, which is especially important in trying to help them cope with climate change and its life-threatening repercussions on their habitats.
Zoos today are trying to shift their focus from keeping customers happy to now keeping the animals happy – just look at central Denmark’s Givskud Zoo and their new cage-free revamp. They are teaming up with zoo architects in an attempt to change the way classic displays encage the animals, to give the animals a more natural habitat. Cities like Denmark, Paris and Detroit, among many others, are paving the way to these new, modern zoos that expand enclosures and create “natural” habitats that encourage appropriate social animal behavior, or, in other words, that put the animals’ well-being first. The zoo as we know it will be a thing of the past.
The Bottom Line: Today, zoos have become both a place for research and leaders in helping animals get off the extinction list. On the other hand, animals can suffer from severe psychological disorders due to being held captive. Should zoos be praised or shut down? Where do you stand on this issue?