Zoos Going Forward

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Orangutans are being threatened by deforestation. Image from Google.

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.

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Philadelphia Zoo’s innovative new tiger enclosure. Image from Google.

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.

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Image from Google.

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.

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Petition for SF Zoo chimps. Image Google.

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.

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Tiger doing activity to simulate natural behavior. Image from Google.

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.

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Endangered blue-eyed black lemur. Image from Google.
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Image from Google.

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.

Zoos as Prisons

While proponents of captivity look at the potential zoos have to serve the public, opponents put a much greater emphasis on the interests of the individual animals, focusing more so on the question of whether or not zoos are morally right. Beyond just the matter of animal welfare, animal rights advocates oppose all forms of captivity regardless of how humane or responsible the facilities may be, with one of their best arguments being that zoos, along with putting the wellbeing of the animals at risk, compromise the rights of the animals.

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Image from Google.
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Image from Google.

A prominent concern opponents bring up is that depriving animals of their freedom decreases their quality of life. The organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has stated that zoos “preclude or severely restrict natural behavior such as flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging, foraging, digging, exploring, and selecting a partner.” Though some species may be able to tolerate these conditions, for others “the physical and mental frustrations of captivity often lead to abnormal, neurotic, and even self-destructive behavior.” For example, in some of the more extreme cases, birds have been observed plucking their own feather and primates throwing feces and eating their own vomit, behaviors typically not seen in the wild. Ultimately, given the negative effects of captivity, animal rights activists argue that animals should not be forced to suffer at the hands of humans.

Additionally, many opponents claim that keeping animals in captivity is no more than treating them as property, a major violation of their rights as living beings. PETA, a leader in the animal rights movement, has criticized zoos saying, “The zoo community regards the animals it keeps as commodities, and animals are regularly bought, sold, borrowed, and traded without any regard for established relationships.” Many species, like elephants for example, are known to form long lastly bonds of friendship, that are essential to their wellbeing, something opponents claim zoos either disregard or do not put first, because they are more focused on serving their own agenda. Ultimately, PETA asserts that zoos operate with the main goal of making money, which is why baby animals are continuously bred to attract more visitors. This results in surplus animals and, because zoos only have so much space and need to maintain a certain amount of genetic diversity, “older animals may be “warehoused” behind the scenes or shuffled off to shabby roadside zoos, animal dealers, or auctions.” Fundamentally, opponents claim, zoos exploit animals for profit, putting their happiness and dignity on the backburner.

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Image from Google.
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Cecilia. Image from Google.

Some believe that certain animals should have legal rights and protections, including the right to liberty. This for the most part applies to species that have been scientifically proven to be highly intelligent, including great apes, elephants, and cetaceans. The organization The Nonhuman Rights Project has stated, “These are complex animals who have deep emotions, understand each other’s minds, live in complicated societies, transmit culture, use sophisticated communication, solve difficult problems, and even mourn the loss of their loved ones.” Therefore they claim these animals should be able to attain “person” status rather than just being considered “things” or “property”, meaning would they have the right to not suffer in captivity. One chimpanzee named Cecilia, from a zoo in Argentina, whom The Association of Professional Layers for Animals Rights (AFADA) deemed was “unlawfully confined without companionship”, was this month ruled by a judge to be released from the zoo and transferred to a sanctuary. In this case the animal was legally considered a “nonhuman person” and recognized to have some basic rights, with the judge stating that the species has the right to “development and life in their natural habitat.”

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Image from Google.

For the most part, the argument that animals deserve rights and liberty appeals to human empathy. From this perspective, captive animals should not be viewed as tools needed to accomplish some goal, whether it be entertainment and profit, or education and conservation. Furthermore, animal rights advocates would argue that an animal is an individual being, rather than simply part of a greater population, species, or ecosystem, challenging us to focus not on humans or populations in the wild, but on the actual animals inhabiting zoos and being directly affected.

Zoos as Conservation Centers

In exploring whether or not wild animal animals should be kept in captivity, the question it essentially comes down to, in relation to how it affects society, is: Should we have zoos? Those in favor argue that zoos are good, serving both the people and the animals.  While opponents do not accept that zoos actually have the animals’ best interests in mind or at the forefront of their operations, one of the best arguments that proponents of captivity make is that zoos are essential for the conservation of many species.

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Image from Google.

As human impact such as climate change and habitat destruction continues to threaten animals in the wild, zoos claim to play a necessary role in protecting these animals from extinction. The polar bear, due to the effects of global warming, is just one of the many species that is being pushed to the brink of extinction. At the same time, numerous other species have already gone extinct in the wild, which is where zoos come in, with conversationalist James Borrell saying, “There are 39 animal species currently listed by the IUCN as Extinct in the Wild. These are species that would have vanished totally were it not for captive populations around the world, many of which reside in zoos.” Similarly, for animals that are at risk of becoming extinct, like polar bears, captive breeding can maintain “insurance populations”. As one of America’s major zoos, the Saint Louis Zoo, puts it, “The world around us is changing fast… Zoos are in a unique position to make a difference.”

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Black-Footed ferret being released. Image from Google.

Additionally, many zoos stress the importance of their reintroduction programs for endangered species, which they claim to be widely effective in aiding in conservation.  Several zoos, including the afore mentioned Saint Louis Zoo, are involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, which currently has 113 programs underway working to protect 181 different species and over the past decades has already saved species such as the Red Fox and the Black-Footed Ferret from extinction. The Saint Louis Zoo has praised the way in which zoos “collaborate with one another” as well other organizations in these programs for the common goal of species conservation. Though captive breeding and reintroduction is very expensive and not always successful, a few noteworthy examples of captive populations that have been successfully reintroduced include the Scimitar-Horned Oryx, the Californian Condor, and The Golden Lion Tamarin, all off which zoos were a major part of.

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Image from Google.

Proponents also make the claim that through the role they play in education, zoos promote conservation. Zoos, along with allowing conversationalists to learn about wild animals, thus helping them to better “manage and conserve them in the wild”, give visitors a chance to experience wild animals up close and personal. The Director of Conservation and Science for the AZA has stated, “I see the conservation education efforts of zoos and aquariums becoming more essential in the future as the trends toward urbanization increase [and interactions with wildlife decrease].” Similarly addressing this point, Borrell asserts, “It’s difficult to engage people with conservation efforts taking place half a world away,” which is where zoos provide a solution, one that proponents claim wildlife documentaries would not be able to achieve. As the Saint Louis Zoo explains, “People make an emotional connection with animals at zoos that can last a lifetime,”  so subsequently “they are spurred on to learn more and act differently.” Zoos like this one get millions of visitors each year and allowing people to experience animals firsthand, proponents claim, inherently aids in conservation.

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Image from Google.

Ultimately this argument that zoos foster conservation is effective because it focuses not on the ways in which zoos serve humans, but rather how they benefit the animals. The conservation efforts of zoos can have a measurable impact on the global ecosystem, especially in the midst of climate change, urbanization, and habitat destruction. This perspective encompasses the idea that even if zoos are not ideal, they may be necessary to conserve endangered animals.