Looking to the Future

Throughout this series, I have learned exactly how complex the issue of keeping wild animals in captivity is. While there are some benefits, many practices are simply unnecessary, cruel, and outdated. However just as my understanding of animal welfare concerns regarding captivity has deepened through my exploration of the topic, so has public opinion on this issue in recent years, sparking some changes. As I mentioned in previous posts, this includes SeaWorld’s decision to end orca breeding and Ringling Brother’s decision to not have elephants in their shows. In this last post, I would like to look into some recent developments and conclude what this means for the future of how animals are kept in captivity.

Image from Google.
Image by PETA from Google

Major companies have shown signs of shifting in the right direction in the phasing out of animal entertainment now seem as inhumane. In October, the popular travel website TripAdviser announced that it would no longer be selling tickets to attractions in which visitors engage with wild animals. This decision was made in cooperation with animal organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and Global Wildlife Conservation. This new policy pertains to not places like zoos or aquariums, but rather attractions that include activities like “elephant rides, swimming-with-dolphin experiences and the petting of endangered species like tigers.” Additionally, the website will create a “wildlife tourism education portal” in order to make travelers more aware of animal welfare issues and to sway them into putting more thought into what animal attractions they visit and how they review those places. This is partially in response to an Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit study which found that while “between two million and four million tourists per year pay to visit attractions that are considered harmful to animal welfare”, most of these visitors do not even raise any of these concerns in their TripAdviser reviews.  Ultimately, in what PETA called a “precedent-setting move”, TripAdviser is taking a stand against the cruel exploitation of animals practiced by many facilities around the world, even in the United States, and encouraging the public to not support such facilities, as well hopefully influencing other travel companies to follow their lead.

National Aquarium’s planned dolphin sanctuary. Image from Google.

In another influential move, the National Aquarium in Baltimore announced recently that it would be creating North America’s first dolphin sanctuary, a decision that opens a new door to the possibilities of how we house captive wild animals. It is expected to be completed in 2020, with all their dolphins being moved to this more natural oceanside environment, likely to be either located in Florida or the Caribbean. This decision comes after much debate over keeping cetaceans in captivity, as seen in the film “Blackfish”. The aquarium has already stopped its dolphin performance shows. They base this shift on, as the aquarium’s chief executive officer describes, “emerging science and consultation with experts”, which have shown that dolphins “thrive when they can form social groups, have opportunities to express natural behaviors and live in a habitat as similar as possible to that for which nature so superbly designed them.” This new site will not only be much larger, but will also include natural stimuli like fish and marine plants, a great step up from the dolphins’ current aquarium pool. As the CEO puts it, they are trying to operate in a way in which “the needs and interests of the dolphins will come first”, which will hopefully be a trend going forward when it comes to these kinds of facilities.

Image from Google.

Such advances have made it clear to me that our view of animals and what we see as acceptable ways to keep and interact with them in captivity is evolving. Even great institutions like the National Aquarium have room for improvement, even if that means making drastic and unprecedented changes. Hopefully such changes will continue, paving the way for a future in which we humans have a more respectful and considerate relationship with our fellow inhabitants of the earth.


PSA: Support AZA Zoos


To encourage adults, specifically parents, to support Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited zoos in their efforts to save endangered species, I created a poster that appeals to the desire of parents to create a better future for their children. Mainly, I wanted to show that the mass extinction crisis is a serious issue, and we must take action now if we want to save future generations from a world of desolation.

In designing my poster, my target audience was parents because, while going to the zoo is a common activity they do with their children, I believe much more consideration should be given to the bigger picture, the situation these animals are in in the wild and how that will impact the world their children inherit. While this issue does deal a good amount with empathy for animals, I decided to make children a central point of my poster because that encourages parents even more so to support the cause. For this reason, I included the picture of the young girl looking at the penguins, which I thought parents would be able to see their own children in and relate to. Additionally, I used words like “our children” to convey that this must be a joint effort, and essentially every parent wants the same for their children, a good future. Ultimately, I wanted to get across that parents should seriously consider how they can contribute to the efforts being made to save endangered animals, especially if they truly want the best for their children and even their children’s children.

To further get across my message, I tried to convey the seriousness of the issue. Though there are many factors contributing to the unprecedented amount of animal species becoming endangered in today’s world, I chose to go with climate change because it is something most people are familiar with. Additionally, I decided on penguins as my example of a threatened species because they are a very popular and endearing animal, so I felt my audience would be particularly alarmed at their possible extinction. Currently the species is endangered due mainly to the effects of global warming like melting sea ice. To communicate this, I included a picture of many penguins huddled on a melting iceberg, in order to show that they are in a dire situation. At the same time, I believe the picture highlights their isolation and how, being that they are not exactly in our backyard, it is easy for us humans to overlook this issue. Furthermore, I used extreme language like “a world without penguins” to almost shock the audience with how real this mass extinction crisis is.

Through my poster I also wanted to convey the emotional connection we humans, especially children, have with animals, in order to make it more clear why it is important that we support efforts to protect them. I chose to use the picture of the girl looking at the penguins because I believe the expression on her face says a lot. Not only can you see her pure joy from observing the animals, but it also shows the innocence of the relationship between children and animals. However, like the girl in the picture, though children love these animals, there is not much they can do to in this situation nor are they probably even aware that the animals they love may not be around much longer. This picture I believe also provides a clear answer to the question asked in the poster, that we should not want our children to grow up in a world without penguins. I basically wanted to demonstrate that we have a duty to the future generations to do all we can to protect endangered species, and that the smile on the girl’s face should show us why animals are so important to our world.

With this PSA poster I hoped awaken parents, along with any adults who care about the future of our planet and humanity, to the threat of mass extinction on some of our most beloved species, and encourage them to take action. Zoos play an important role in allowing children to experience and develop a love for animals. Yet it is also important to understand that taking animals for granted and treating them simply as entertainment, with no regard to their situation in the wild, is not only doing a disservice to the animals but also to the children that will be inheriting this world. Through visiting AZASavingSpecies.org and learning how they can contribute, I believe the audience of this poster will be able to take the first steps in creating a better future for our planet and our children.

Image sources
Child and penguins: http://cdn.funkidslive.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ZSL-London-Zoo-Penguins.jpg
Penguins of iceberg: http://img-aws.ehowcdn.com/615×200/ds-photo/getty/article/106/222/452628461_XS.jpg

Other Prototypes:

(Child and orangutan: http://blogs.sandiegozoo.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Janey-and-child.jpg, Orangutan: https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hp331-2015-03/files/2015/11/Habitat-Loss-1-20qsm3b.jpg, Child and tigers: http://images.huffingtonpost.com/2014-04-09-JulieLarsenMaher9123TigerswithVisitorChildandToyBZTM111510reduced.jpg, Tiger: http://assets.worldwildlife.org/photos/9616/images/story_full_width/HI_257788.jpg?1438089923)

Zoos Going Forward

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Image from Google.
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.

Image from Google.
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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.  

Should Wild Animals Be Kept in Captivity?

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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.