Animals in Captivity: Are Zoos Acceptable?
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Imagine being locked alone in a room. It is quite empty with the walls made out of glass so thick you cannot break. No matter how much you try, you cannot get out. Strange looking living things stare at you from outside, some looking bored, some looking interested as they tap the glass to get your attention. Food is given to you at the same time every single day, and nothing really interesting goes on. Time passes on and on, and you aren’t even sure how much time has passed.
This may be an extreme case, but it is still the reality for many animals in captivity. I’m sure we have been to a zoo at least once in our lives, with our family, or with our friends. We see animals that you can’t just see anywhere, pacing around their living quarters with rather fake looking structures that try to resemble their natural habitat. Elephants, giraffes, polar bears, tigers, all in one place for us to observe and entertain ourselves. Most of us enjoy visiting zoos very much. However, there is a heated argument about whether zoos are ethical or not.
Zoos provide excellent tourism and economic opportunity, teaching people about animals and giving them a chance to meet an animal in real life and providing entertainment for us. It also protects endangered animals within the safe boundaries, without the threat of poachers. However, keeping wild animals in captivity usually does more harm than good. Being kept in a small, confined space when they should be roaming around in the wild damages them both physically and mentally. Because of this, I believe that we should turn to alternatives for being educated about wild animals and protect endangered animals in sanctuaries, not zoos.
Conservation or Not?
One thing zoos often tell visitors for a good reputation is that they do their part in nature conservation and that they care about repopulating endangered animals.
Now, this isn’t always a lie. There are few cases of successfully breeding critically endangered animals in captivity and sending them back to their habitat. In fact, the article Zoos Improve Lives of Animals written by Dr Robin Ganzert stated that the Arabian Oryx, a striking breed of antelope from the Arabian Peninsula. The species was hunted to extinction in the wild nearly four decades ago when the last wild Arabian Oryx was shot and killed in 1972. The Phoenix Zoo helped lead the ensuing breeding and reintroduction programs, which ultimately birthed more than 200 calves from just nine individuals. Now between Oman and Jordan, there are about 1,000 Arabian Oryx living in the wild.
This is one case of successful captive breeding to save endangered species, and I must admit, there are quite a few. Being able to do this in captivity is wonderful, repopulating almost extinct animals.
However, although this sounds pretty simple, that is not exactly the case every time. China puts in a pretty big effort in populating Giant Pandas, with caretakers and a big sanctuary where they get quite a large area to live in, interacting with other Giant Pandas. But according to 21 Pros and Cons of Zoos written in Vittana.org, 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. Even in an environment made for repopulation, it isn’t very easy.
Furthermore, It is hard for animals born in captivity or have lived in captivity for a long time to go back to the wild. They are just different from wild-born animals. Wild animals learn how to survive from the moment they are born. Animals born in captivity doesn’t get to go through that.
In fact, a study conducted by Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS) found that almost half of the animals in breeding programs in the EU were not even endangered in the wild. The reason many zoos are quite enthusiastic about breeding programs is not really because of conservation. If it was, more animals should’ve been sent back to the wild. No, the animals were bred to be kept in captivity, and lead a life inside the enclosures humans made.
Former zoo director David Hancocks estimates that less than three percent of a zoo’s budget goes to conservation while the majority goes towards “hi-tech exhibits and marketing efforts to lure visitors.” Although some zoos do spend some of their profit on conservation, most of it goes to earn money, because the core reason zoos exist is to make profit from the animals and provide entertainment to people, not conserve the environment.
That is the reality of most zoos.
Education or Not?
Many schools take their students as a group to local zoos, trying to educate them about wild animals. I also went to the Singapore Zoo when I was in Grade 2 as a school camp, and to be honest, I enjoyed my time there. Because of these visits meant for educational purposes, for each animal in most zoos, there are signs informing the visitors about the animal and its habitat.
The article 21 Pros and Cons of Zoos written by Vittana.org says that The modern zoo plays a critical role in educating 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. This is one of the reasons why people say zoos are very important for the society, that they help develop the understanding of wild animals.
However, I would like to suggest a different viewpoint in that. Does going to a zoo really educate people? I would say that in most cases, it doesn’t really. According to the article 5 Things We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves About Zoos written by One Green Planet.org, a study of visitor behaviour at four zoos in the U.S. found that only six percent of visitors said they go to a zoo to learn more about animals, while 86 percent of visitors said they went to the zoo for “social or recreational purposes.”
Many of the visitors in zoos don’t really want to learn about the animal. It is more about getting entertained by looking at animals they cannot see too easily. In fact, I think many of us would be able to notice we do not stay for ages at each animal, trying to study them, reading all the signs. Many of us just glance and walk by to the next display.
I also want to bring up another question here. Is this even ethical? Finding entertainment looking at captive animals often thousands of kilometers away from their natural habitat, living a very controlled life?
Even if you do try to learn something by going to the zoo, observing the animals in captivity wouldn’t really help. The life they lead inside captivity is very different from a wild animal’s, and many of them are unable to live the way they would naturally. Their behavior inside captivity differs greatly from the behavior they show in the wild.
The BBC Ethics Guide - Animals for Entertainment states animals bred in zoos may become imprinted on human beings rather than members of their own species - this prevents them fully experiencing their true identity. This is one of the dangers of being bred in captivity. Many of the animals don’t experience what they naturally would in the wild. In the wild, they wouldn’t interact with so many humans. They wouldn’t get food given to them regularly. Inside zoos, often social animals aren’t able to mix with others, sometimes even living in solitary. It is just too different.
Protection or Not?
There are also challenges for animals living in the wild. Many illegal hunters and poachers chase after them with guns and traps. One thing zoos often claim is that they protect animals from that danger, keeping them inside the safe boundary of the enclosure.
The article Do Zoos Do More Harm Than Good? Here are the Pros and Cons states that with the rise in poaching of wild animals for fur, ivory and supposed medicinal benefits, zoos appear to be the safe havens for animals. This may seem true. Many wild animals suffer from the risk of running into traps or hunters, the risk increasing the rarer and more exotic they are.
But it is unavoidable that although it may be said that zoos are a safer place for animals away from the risk of being poached, providing food and nutrition for them, the extremely different condition damages the animal’s health both mentally and physically.
Have you ever noticed a polar bear trying to avoid the sun in the shade?
Or a tiger pacing up and down the enclosure?
Or an elephant swinging its trunk repetitively?
Those are all signs of suffering the animals are going through. The article Do Zoos Do More Harm Than Good? Here are the Pros and Cons states that elephants are known to travel long distances when they are the wild; in fact, they follow migratory routes and travel in herds called 'bond groups'. But that doesn’t happen in zoos. Elephants live in big herds. In zoos? There are maybe 2, sometimes 3 elephants. The enclosure is nowhere near the distance they travel daily. It is unnatural to restrict their movement this way.
Another large animal that is kept in captivity to provide entertainment for the visitors is orcas. 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. That is a pretty huge gap. They swim great lengths every day in the wild, but inside captivity, they live in a swimming pool made out of tiles and cement walls. Their entire life. How crazy is that? For an animal that size to be kept in captivity to be trained to do tricks that pleases the orca show watchers? Many scientists believe orcas to be one of the smartest mammals. They have complicated social structures and advanced communication skills. But inside captivity, they are unable to do that.
This causes extreme stress for many animals in captivity, which causes them a psychological disorder that even has a name - Zoochosis.
According to OneGreenPlanet.org, Zoochosis can include rocking, swaying, excessively pacing back and forth, circling, twisting of the neck, self-mutilation, excessive grooming, biting, vomiting and coprophagia (consuming excrement).
I’m sure if we try, we can recall at least one animal from our memory that was in zoos or aquariums that repeated the same action over and over again, which is called stereotypic behaviour. Behaviour that has no meaning to it. These behaviours are extremely hard to find in the wild but can be seen commonly in captivity.
In her book Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman says that the practice of putting animals on anti-depressants is surprisingly common. “At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a psychopharmaceutical had been tried.” It is impossible for zoos to replicate the natural environment perfectly for most animals. Some zoos do try to somewhat imitate it, by adding logs of wood or structures the animals can play on, but the fact that they are not where they belong doesn’t change.
Of course, the environment differs for each zoo. Some zoos are better, some zoos are worse.
Looking locally, I would say the Singapore Zoo is pretty decent compared to many others. But I do want to point out that the animals still do not belong here but in their natural habitat.
We have an alternative to zoos, alternatives that would be much better - perhaps not for the economy, but for the animals. If you want to be educated about how wild animals truly live, watch a documentary. It will be so much more accurately portrayed than going to the zoo to observe an animal suffering from psychological stress. We are able to observe their natural behaviour from a distance that doesn’t harm the animals, and benefits us as learners.
If animals must be protected by humans for whatever reason, a sanctuary or a natural park is often a better choice, as those are more focused on conservation, not entertainment for us.
Lastly, I want everyone who reads this argument to be aware when you visit zoos - if you visit zoos.
Don’t just walk by a suffering animal not knowing how much pain it is going through. Don’t just buy tickets for an orca show that makes those intelligent, incredible mammals live in something that probably feels like a fish tank to them. Don’t stare at animals suffering from psychological disorder and think they are just playing around.
Know that something isn’t right.
Know that animals do not exist for the sake of our leisure, our entertainment.
And act on it.
I want you to sign this petition as a promise to do this. We are the ones making choices to buy tickets to zoos, circuses, various other forms of entertainment provided by animals. I think it is time to stop caring about our entertainment, but the physical and mental health of these beautiful living beings.
“21 Pros and Cons of Zoos.” Vittana.org, 31 May 2017, vittana.org/21-pros-and-cons-of-zoos.
“5 Things We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves About Zoos.” One Green Planet, 4 July 2016, www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/things-we-need-to-stop-telling-ourselves-about-zoos/
Braitman, Laurel. Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
“Do Zoos Do More Harm Than Good? Here Are the Pros and Cons.” AnimalSake, AnimalSake, animalsake.com/pros-cons-of-zoos.
“Ethics - Animal Ethics: Animals for Entertainment.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/animals/using/entertainment_1.shtml
Ganzert, Dr. Robin. “Zoos Are Not Prisons. They Improve the Lives of Animals.” Time, Time, 13 June 2016, time.com/4364671/zoos-improve-lives-of-animals/.
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