Should Wild Animals Be Kept in Captivity?

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First modern zoo, Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Image from Google.

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?

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Image from Google.

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.

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San Diego Zoo’s panda breeding program. Image from Google.

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.

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Image from Google.

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?

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Documentary Asks: “Should We Close Our Zoos?”- Looking Beyond “Yes” or “No”

It is very easy to be critical of zoos and other establishments that house captive wild animals, because for many people, like myself, it is a very emotionally charged issue. The April 17 BBC documentary “Should We Close Our Zoos?”, however, offers a more scientific approach as reporter Liz Bonnin, who has studied and worked in zoos, travels throughout Europe and the United States interviewing animal experts and examining scientific research, thus deepening my understanding of the complexity of animal welfare and conservation, as well making me consider that there may be may be some sort of middle ground when it comes to zoos.

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The former Detroit Zoo elephants at a sanctuary in California. Image from Google.

The documentary illustrates how some animals are not suited to be living in captivity, using elephants as a primary example. Bonnin cites a recent study that found that a majority of elephants in zoos live only 19 years, as compared 40 years in the wild. Scientists say there are two main reasons for this: stress and obesity. The elephants also suffer from arthritis due to inactivity and the hard floors of their enclosures. The Detroit Zoo has addressed this problem, moving their elephants, who were being forced to spend a lot of time indoors due to the city’s cold weather, to a sanctuary in California. This did not hinder the zoo’s popularity, as they actually saw an increase in over half a million visitors in the following years, demonstrating to me that it is likely a  feasible option for zoos to remain open but opt not to house species that have been scientifically proven to not thrive in captivity.

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Polar bear displaying stereotypic behavior. Image from Google.

The film also brought to light how captive animals often display stereotypic behaviors, such as swaying or pacing, which are not seen in the wild and are described as being “abnormal and repetitive with no obvious purpose.” Experts say that they are “linked to stress and could reflect psychological damage” and signify that the environment is not meeting the animal’s needs. Species that travel the most in the wild are most at risk of developing stereotypies, with polar bears being the most prone. However, a recent study has found that “polar bears with a stimulating environment and views out of the enclosure show significantly less stereotypic behaviors.” Such a discovery has made me realize that, as long as they are willing to satisfy the specific needs of the animals, there are ways to make zoos more humane establishments.

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Jane Goodall. Image from Google.

When looking at zoos, there is always the comparison to what we call “the wild”, but this documentary brings up the point the wild is actually being destroyed by humans, triggering mass extinction and habitat destruction. It is stated that, “Because of human impact species have been disappearing at a rate a hundred times faster than would be expected.” Jane Goodall, a world famous primatologist, explains how she feels about chimpanzees being threatened in the wild, saying that when she goes to a “really good zoo” with a “big outside enclosure” she thinks to herself, “Well actually if I was chimp I’d probably rather be here than out in all these dangerous situations in the wild.” Ultimately, this has proven to me that given the state of the wild in today’s age, zoos may actually be offering animals a safe haven.

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Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino on the planet, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, with his horn cut off and armed guards to keep away poachers. Image from Google.

Related to this issue of extinction, the film also explores how zoos contribute to conservation, which is extremely expensive and not always easy or successful. The Northern White Rhino, for example, has now gone extinct in the wild due to poaching, and there are only three left in captivity, but breeding poses a challenge as the remaining females are infertile. The California Condor, on the contrary, was successfully bred in captivity and have gone from only 22 in the wild in the 1980s to 228 today. Reintroducing them however has been a challenge because they are being poisoned by led which is introduced into their environments by humans, opening my eyes to the fact that, though one of the most positive aspects of zoos is their conservation programs, our human actions are both causing species to become endangered and hindering efforts to solve this problem.

Ultimately, this documentary has made it clear to me that captivity is not a black and white issue. Closing zoos may not necessarily be the best answer, but zoos should continue to evolve as science improves our understanding of animals, and just as importantly we as humans need to do our part in helping to spare animals from not only harm, but extinction.  

Closing of Historic Zoo Opens the Door to Discussion of Captivity

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Buenos Aires Zoo in 1875. Image from Google.

Amid the ongoing debate over captivity, zoos around the world have been cast into the spotlight. One of which is the Buenos Aires Zoo that in June announced it would be closing its doors, as discussed by Elahe Izadi in the June 25 Washington Post article “‘Captivity is degrading’: Why a major city is shutting down its zoo.” It is explained that the mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta came to the decision that, after more than 140 years of operation, it was best that the zoo, which has been at the center of much controversy regarding their treatment of animals, be replaced by an ecological park.

After reading over the 237 comments in response to the article I have come to the conclusion that a majority of the readers are in favor of the closing of the Buenos Aires Zoo, and all zoos for that matter, because they find forcing animals to live in confinement to be inhumane, despite all the benefits zoos can provide visitors.

Many commenters remarked that wild animals deserve to be in their natural environments where they can live free and happy lives. One such user, Spoosky Shepherd, brings up the point that these animals are meant to have access to unrestricted space, a necessity zoo enclosures cannot provide. To demonstrate what this kind of lack of freedom would be like, another reader, by the name of Oakes, compares humans keeping animals in zoos to an “advanced alien species” coming to earth and taking humans to their planet’s zoos, where they would then proceed to “breed us to avoid our extinction, making sure that the offspring would be caged, also, for life.” Ultimately, these comments are conveying that it is not ethical to subject animals to captivity, as it cannot allow for as enjoyable a life as in the wild.

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Image from Google.

Furthermore, readers did not see it right to exploit animals for our own enjoyment. As the user Dorothy Cohen puts it, “It is not worth the suffering of living beings who feel pain and fear to keep them captive for entertainment.” Similarly, Mike Rr cannot justify keeping the animals in cages as spectacles, because, as he states, “They’re not toys or curiosities.” All the more capturing this argument that we should regard and treat with compassion and respect is a comment from a reader by the name of Ludovici, who says, “As the dominant lifeform on this planet, we should reach beyond our own species and extend our empathy to other species.” All of these comments touch on the idea that as empathetic beings, we should not find it acceptable to force animals to spend their lives in confinement for our own gain, thus putting our pleasure before theirs’.

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Image from Google.

Still, quite a few commenters brought up the point that zoos are essential to educate the public, particularly the youth. One such user, by the name of QuineGeology, explains that zoos allow us to learn about “animals’ behaviors” and “our environment”, as well as “watch kids’ faces light up when they see an exotic animal for the first time.” Marcelo Vignali, building on this idea that visiting the zoo is an invaluable experience for kids, remarks, “It is through zoos that people, especially children, build an emotional connection to these unique animals. Without zoos I’m afraid the long term effect will be human indifference to animals and their precious habitat.” Ultimately, what these readers are getting across is that the enlightenment zoos provide will make it easier for future generations to appreciate, and therefore respect, animals and the environment.

In response to what closing zoos would mean for the future, many readers brought up alternatives. One possible option, as Tony Gambino puts it, would be to “create animal sanctuaries rather than zoos”, thus allowing the animals more freedom and a more natural environment.  Another user, Carla_claws, says she would approve of establishments that accommodate only “animals that have been injured or are no longer able to care for themselves”, provided that the habitats are “high quality”. Ultimately, many believe we would be able to get the benefits of zoos without actually keeping animals in traditional zoos, thus not having to compromise their quality of life.

Such opinions as demonstrated by these comments will likely shape the future of captivity as zoos become less publicly accepted and we see a shift towards sanctuaries and ecoparks, where the animals’ needs are put first, like we recently witnessed with the closing of the Buenos Aires Zoo.