Essay:The Case Against Zoos

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Essay.svg This essay is an original work by RockyRob97.
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I wrote an essay a while back about my controversial opinion that I am against animal testing. I thought it was about time I wrote about another area of animal use that everyone borderline worships and anyone who stands against it is regarded as an total idiot.

Here we go:

I, RockyRob97, am opposed to the keeping animals in zoos

This essay will be continuously updated with more responses as counter-arguments come in.

Let's begin.

NOTE: For the sake of this essay I use the term "zoo" to refer to all captive-animal displays including roadside zoos, accredited zoos, aquariums, marine animal parks, animal theme parks, pseudo-sanctuaries, travelling zoos etc. Anything that is explicitly not an accredited sanctuary.

1. The Conservation Argument[edit]

"Zoos help endangered species and they aid conservation efforts!"

Keeping animals in zoos harms them, by taking away their freedom and by denying them freedom of movement and association, which is important to social animals, and frustrates many of their natural behavioral patterns, leaving them at least bored, and at worst seriously neurotic - a condition commonly referred to "zoochosis"[1]. Zoochosis leads to animals pacing, walking in tight circles, rocking, swaying or mutilating themselves[2]. Is it worth putting animals through this so that their species doesn't go extinct? Is there some justifying benefit to their captivity - that the species is being preserved, and may someday be reintroduced into the wild?

Personally, I don't think so. What is important to me the individual animal, not the species as a whole. I approach this based on the observation that a species as a whole cannot suffer, and no suffering will take place if a species go extinct. The idea that the animals are being held captive to help their population and "save them" is of no compensating benefit to the individual animals in zoos and takes no regard for what they want. The animals do not care about the extinction of their species, they have no concept of extinction, all they want is their freedom. There is also a case to be made that zoos are not actually as helpful to conservation as people think - both the Vegan Society and World Animal Protection have excellent articles about this here and here.

Even in zoos where conservation is a priority, there is still the issue that the freedoms and needs of individual animals are compromised in the name of ‘the greater good’. It is speciesist to assume that we have the right to keep animals captive, even if we believe the ultimate outcomes associated with preventing extinction are positive. And even if enclosures are of an adequate size, most zoos provide a chance to see non-native animals from completely different parts of the world. This can mean that animals are often kept in climates very different from the ones they should be living in so even if they receive a good standard of care, it can’t be good to keep them in an alien environment.

It is my position that if we really care for these animals, the better thing would be to protect their habitats OR just let them go extinct. I know that sounds awful to say but I think that letting them go extinct is kinder than driving them mad in zoos depriving them of freedom. They deserve to be free in their own natural habitat. Of course, we should do everything possible to protect them, but if it comes down to living in cages or not being here at all I think I know what THEY would choose. It’s not about us. It’s about their quality of life. These animals have no idea why they’re put there in zoos and all they know is that humans did it.

Look, conservation and protecting endangered species is of course a very important thing for us to do, but zoos are just not the place to do it. These animals need to be as close to nature as possible, so that when the time comes, they can return to the wild. Just like you and I won’t learn much about how animals act in nature at a zoo, neither will the animals born there![3] We can help endangered animals without sticking them in a cage for people to look at. Conservation efforts are far more effectively handled by specialized wildlife breeding and rehabilitation programs far away from the prying eyes of the public. Captive breeding gives the public a false sense of security about a species’ survival, and that belief undermines support for and diverts resources from in-situ conservation efforts. As PETA puts it:

The only effective and sustainable way to help endangered species is to protect their natural habitat, but the massively expensive breeding programmes of zoos divert money from genuine conservation projects. After all, what’s the point of breeding animals if they have no home left to go to?[4]

2. The Protection Argument[edit]

"But animals are protected in the zoo! Zoo keepers care for them! They are protected from poachers, predators, don't have to worry about finding food and even have excellent veterinary care!!!"

A longer life is not automatically a happier one. Poaching can be solved if we crack down on poaching, make hunting illegal as well as protect animal habitat and start sharing this planet with our four-legged companions. The solution to poaching is NOT removing animals from their land; it is removing poachers from the land. If natural habitat is being demolished through sprawl, the solution is to STOP destroying natural habitat, not removing animals from their natural places of freedom and putting them into cages and other enclosures. This also applies to the predator argument. Animals are not here to be kept in cages or tanks. They are here to live life and all the dangers and perils that come with it.

People love to talk about animals at the zoo having veterinary care, prisoners also have medical care, but that doesn't make people want to line up and book vacations to federal penitentiaries! Of course animals at zoos have vet care. Without a "product" to put on display, one cannot make a profit. Animals are fed and watered and receive medical treatment. Still they have no freedom, and no forests.

Most zoos are businesses, not charities. They exist for the same purpose every business does: to make a profit. Zoos exist for humans, not the captive animals. Think about it, at the zoo there is all the space for picnics, refreshment areas and the parking. Much of that space could be used to expand the living areas of the animals, but that doesn’t happen. Also, consider what happened with Harambe and other stories where people have climbed in to animal enclosures – in all cases the zoo's first response is to kill the animal(s)[5] – and other zoos often defend these decisions![6]. So much for being the big animal lovers they claim to be. The truth is that zoos put their visitors and profits first, not the animals.

Other things zoos (even accredited ones) routinely do to the animals they are “protecting” are:

  • callously kill off the "surplus" ones that are not “fit for breeding”
  • physically mutilate them[7], such as birds having the ends of their wings chopped off to prevent ability to fly[8].
  • treat them as commodities by regularly buying, selling, borrowing and trading animals between other zoos with no regard for established relationships
  • exploit them for entertainment, having them perform circus-style tricks and/or letting visitors take pictures with them, feed them, touch them, swim with them etc.[9]
  • take them from the wild away from all they know (imagine the fear and confusion this causes for both the captured animal and their family that is left behind).
  • give them no privacy or hiding places to get away from the public eye i.e. kept on display at all times.
  • use cruel methods and tools to control them, such as using bullhooks on elephants[10][11]

Also, remember that we need to kill animals to feed the zoo animals, as opposed to a “fair-chase” system in the wild. Sometimes, zoos are even 'kind' enough to feed live animals to the captured animals[12].

As an added bonus, an interesting thought from Gary Yourofsky:

If zoos really cared about animals, then why do they serve DEAD animals at the refreshment areas? Seems to me that if the zoo was trying to teach kindness and respect for animals, the least they could do is make sure people aren't eating dead ones in a bun. The zoo would be an ideal place for vegan food—if it weren't otherwise abusing the animals whom it puts on display rather than serving up as edible commodities![13]

3. The Education/Research Argument[edit]

"The zoo is an excellent educational facility and can teach children and people all about animals. There's nothing like meeting a wild animal face to face. They can teach people about conservation efforts and inspire people to get involved with and/or donate to those efforts. We can also study the animals up close for both veterinary and zoology research!"

Maybe so. But I don't think that anyone's education is more important than an animal's freedom. There's also an argument to be made that zoos have the effect of implicitly teaching people that we have the right to interfere in other animals' lives.

Although, when you think about it, what exactly can you learn about wild animals by viewing them in captivity? Surely one cannot learn about animals by observing them in unnatural habitats displaying unnatural behaviors from the stress of confinement and lethargy of captivity (zoochosis). Educational wise it is only showing you an institutionalized animal. Anything the keepers can tell you about the species you can learn better from a wildlife documentary. It's like going to a kennel where the dogs have never been out of their cages and expect the dogs there to be examples of dogs in general. Claiming you are doing research on captive animals in order to help non-captive animals is ridiculous at best. Most animals in captivity have a different habitat, are sourced from a very small gene-pool, have different diets and other health problems. And their behaviors are markedly different. If these animals are so changed that they cannot be released back into nature, why do we think they can teach us about their wild counterparts? It is much more educational to read the research of primatologist Dian Fossey, or that of others who've actually studied animals in their natural habitats and truly learned about their natural behaviors. Or one can learn about animals from documentaries, such as Planet Earth (or even go on a Safari in Africa if you have the money).

Do people really need to see the animals up close to learn about them? Many children seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge about dinosaurs, far more so than lions and tigers. Perhaps the general public wish to see exotic animals up close as we attach closeness to care. But why, then, do they tap on the windows and show disappointment when the lions are asleep? This is a misplaced, harmful interest, surely. It is generally accepted that direct visitor interaction with zoo animals is bad for them[14][15], and if you have a zoo where people cannot physically interact with them, they may just as well be on a screen.

With regards to educating and inspiring people regarding conservation efforts, I have seen no evidence that zoos are significantly effective at inspiring people to become involved.

4. The "Born-in-Captivity" Argument[edit]

"Animals born in captivity would not survive in the wild!"

Oh really? Then how do zoos plan to "reintroduce" them to the wild? After all, that is the point of zoos right?

Anyway, if the zoo itself cannot transform itself into a accredited sanctuary, then these animals can be relocated to other ones, where they will be looked after and cared for without being exploited. Sanctuaries, as opposed to zoos, provide a more natural habitat[16] for the animals that live there. Though these animals will never truly be wild, sanctuaries provide the next best thing to complete freedom[17]. Many of these sanctuaries allow for the animas to live and behave similar to how they would out of captivity.