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.  

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