The debate over captivity is a difficult one because on one hand I believe animals deserve respect and rights as living beings, and ideally should be able to live out their lives naturally in the wild. However, we humans have sadly created a troublesome situation in which many species are being pushed to the brink of extinction due climate change, while others are being threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. Thus, in today’s world zoos can be viewed as what some would call a “necessary evil”. Still, however, it is import to distinguish between good quality, accredited zoos that treat the animals well and aid in conservation, from other facilities, like “roadside zoos”, that are simply, in my opinion, places of animal cruelty and exploitation.
For these reasons I believe that zoos should continue to exist, provided that they are not only accredited, but also operate with the sole purpose of conservation, housing only endangered, threatened, or injured animals, and continuing to adapt in order to better serve the animals in their care and in the wild.
Because captivity can be harmful to the wellbeing of animals, it is only right that zoos function to help animals in need, rather than to entertain and profit at the expense of the animals. Currently, a majority of the animals in zoos are not endangered, meaning that their freedom is being taken away unnecessarily. Additionally, many of these animals are simply unfit to be living in captivity. Take killer whales and elephants for example, both species that are highly intelligent, with studies showing that they have “a concept of self” and form close-knit family units. This, along with their very large size, poses challenges and can “inflict serious physical and psychological damage on such smart and sensitive animals”. There is no reason to make animals suffer unnecessarily when they would be better off in the wild, therefore the only justification would be that either their captive breeding is essential to the survival of the species or the animal would not be able to survive in the wild.
Furthermore, I feel that the revenue garnered by zoos should go primarily, if not entirely, towards helping the animals. It has been estimated that “less than three percent of the budgets of accredited zoos goes towards conservation efforts”. This is very little compared to the “billions of dollars spent every year on hi-tech exhibits and marketing efforts to lure visitors.” For reference, I looked to my local zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, learning that in 2013 the zoo spent more than three million dollars on a new children’s playground. Yet, some animals were clearly not being made a priority as last year the Association of Zoos and Aquariums threatened to move their chimpanzees, which are part of the species survival plan, to another facility if the zoo did not upgrade their enclosure to be more accommodating. Ultimately, although attracting visitors is integral, I believe zoos should always put the welfare of the animals first, along with financially supporting conservation projects.
One way that zoos can better serve the animals in their care is through participating in enrichment programs. Psychologists have studied ways of improving the lives of captive animals, claiming that enrichment has “grown into a scientific endeavor”, with zoos testing out different ideas. The San Francisco Zoo, for example, hides food to “encourage foraging and problem-solving” and tries to “tailor enrichment to specific animal personalities,” like providing their female chimps with magazines because they enjoy looking at the pictures. Obviously this is not natural, but it keeps the animals engaged. The zoo has said, “Since everything is provided for them – food, water, shelter, and safety – enrichment provides psychological and physical challenges to keep them active and interested in their surroundings,” ultimately making their confinement more bearable.
If zoos are to continue to exist and be considered morally acceptable they must shift their focus entirely to conservation, thus living up to their potential to combat threats to wildlife. Zoos should be safe havens, not prisons and operate for the animals, not the people. Although keeping animals in captivity may sacrifice the rights of the individual animal, conservation is extremely important and serves the greater good. Still, I believe it should be a last resort because animals have the right to remain in the wild. It should be the obligation of zoos to not only provide the best care for their animal inhabitants, but also to confront the problem at its source, devoting more resources and effort to protecting wild habitats and populations.