For thousands of years, humans have shown a fascination with wild animals, making zoos a long-standing tradition around the world. The earliest forms of zoos, called menageries, were essentially places where the wealthy would display their collections of exotic animals to flaunt their power, with evidence from Egyptian and Mesopotamian wall carvings showing that they may have existed as early as 2500 BCE. The first modern zoo was opened in Paris in 1763. Zoos have come a long way since then, for the most part significantly improving how they care for their animals, and remain popular, with millions flocking to the thousands of zoos across the globe each year.
As times have changed, however, so has our understanding of animals. Especially in recent years, science has increased our knowledge of the effects of captivity, sparking an ethical debate over the existence of zoos and similar facilities that exhibit wild animals. In the next four posts I would like to explore this question of whether or not wild animals should be kept in captivity. Could zoos be doing more harm than good?
It is important to understand that some places that house captive animals are higher quality than others, but in the United States all are regulated under federal law. In order to receive accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a non-profit organization founded in 1924, institutions are required to meet high standards of animal care, including a professional staff, enriching enclosures, and involvement in global conservation efforts. While accreditation is not necessary, all facilities must comply to the regulations defined under the Animal Welfare Act, which “requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided.”
Opponents of captivity, notably animal welfare advocates, argue that such protections are not enough to ensure the wellbeing of the animals. Many point to the fact that of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibits licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act, only 230 are accredited, which they consider to indicate that the quality of animal care is not being held to high standards. The animal rights organization PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has criticized the AWA for being inadequate because it addresses only the basic needs of the animals, such providing them with food, water, and shelter, and excludes many species from the act entirely.
That being said, the high quality, accredited zoos of today have evolved greatly from the small concrete enclosures of the past, not only providing animals with environments that resemble their natural habitats, but also emphasizing now their focus on conservation. The director of the San Diego Zoo, for example, describes the facility he runs as being “a conservation organization that manages two zoological facilities.” Like many other zoos, the San Diego Zoo is part of the Species Survival Plan, a program that’s purpose is to manage the captive population of select species that are threatened or endangered in the wild. In addition to their captive breeding and reintroduction programs, the chief life science officer for the zoo claims that educating the public is also essential to conservation, saying “One of our main efforts is to inspire all our guests to care about wildlife,” so that they are “ready to act” when it comes to environmental issues and conservation.
In contrast, animal rights organizations like PETA assert that the fundamental practice of keeping wild animals in captivity is wrong because animals have the right to freedom and to not be manipulated at the hands of humans, regardless of how good the zoo’s enclosures are or how much they claim to foster conservation. “Animals kept in zoos are denied everything that makes their lives meaningful… Even the biggest cage with species-appropriate enrichment is still a pale comparison to the natural ecosystems where wild animals belong,” states PETA. Furthermore, the organization cites that a majority of species kept and bred in zoos are not endangered, and that, due to the unnatural environments, many animals “develop neurotic and self-harming behavior.” Additionally, they deny the claim zoos inspire the public to support conservation, because studies have shown that for the most part guests simply “treat the animals like wallpaper”, which may actually undermine the seriousness of conservation.
It is clear that zoos have come a long way in how they treat their animals, how they are regulated, and how they aid conservation. At the same, perceptions of animal needs and rights have also progressed. Thus, the question still remains: Are zoos ethical or necessary?