Are Zoos Ethical & Do They Help Or Harm Animals?

are zoos ethical

Zoos are a frustrating topic for those who care about animals.

They’re considered both hubs of critical wildlife research, as well as abusive prisons for the animals held inside.

Can zoos be ethical, or are they an outdated concept in conservation?

Let’s take a deep dive into the values and practices behind ethical zoos, and discuss the potential downsides of keeping these beautiful and intelligent creatures captive within our society.

First of all, what defines a zoo?

Why do zoos exist?

There’s a certain level of artistic license that goes into defining a zoo.

In its simplest form, it’s a collection of captive animals on display. But zoos can also be global research institutions that provide scientific insights into the natural world that are otherwise impossible to study.

In fact, many zoos fund much of their research from the money that comes in from customers who visit their parks. Still, the term “zoo” leaves a lot to be desired with all the potential gray areas, and it’s meaning can change based on who you ask:

  • For the animals, it’s either a prison or a care home depending on your take
  • For paying visitors, a zoo is a place of entertainment and education
  • For zookeepers, it’s a high-effort job that requires a level of passion for the relatively underpaid work
  • For researchers, zoos offer a way of finding vast amounts of animal data and convenient samples in a controlled environment
  • For the owners, it’s a potential money-maker

In reality, what makes any particular zoo good or bad depends on the balance between these factors, and how much priority is given to the animals and zoo employees; which is exactly what makes discussing the ethics of zoos so complicated.

How are humane zoos managed?

Regulatory requirements for animal rights in zoos exist, but they’re often poorly enforced and many of the best ones are somewhat optional.

The USDA’s Animal Welfare Act sets a remarkably low bar for the treatment of animals in zoos, and while much higher standards are expected of those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), accreditation is still optional.

Around 400 international organizations, including the AZA, contribute to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). These environmental organizations are committed to engaging visitors and inspiring action against the destruction of biodiversity worldwide, and do this through funds gathered via zoo visitors and donations.

captive giraffe being fed
Image by Trubble via Flickr

So, clearly there are resources available to help create educational, scientific, and recreational balance in zoos and aquariums with the least amount of harm to the exhibits.

But these are optional extras, and most so-called zoos are not eligible for WAZA membership. Which means most zoos are not held to a high enough standard, so it’s necessary to look at all the benefits and issues with them before weighing the pros and cons.

Arguments for zoos

There’s no question that humane zoos can be a force of good.

WAZA accredited zoos and aquariums alone are the third-largest funders of conservation worldwide, with $350 million spent each year. Well-managed ethical zoos can serve animals, people, and the environment by offering things like:

  • Animal sanctuary and rehabilitation
  • Research programs and captive breeding initiatives
  • Conservation support for important ecosystems and species
  • Wildlife sensitization and education for the public
  • Academic education for the next generation of scientists

And most of these benefits are used as the primary justification for setting up and maintaining zoos as entertainment facilities, making it difficult to argue with their existence in many cases.

To list just a few examples, here are some success stories from zoos around the world:

California condor reintroductions

california condor reintroduction
Image by USFWS via Flickr

In 1982, there were only 22 California condors left in the world.

The San Diego Zoo began the very first zoological program for these birds with an abandoned chick they raised in a specially-designed aviary.

From 1987 onward – now extinct in the wild – the birds found great success while breeding captivity and within 20 years had reached 200 total individuals.

Over 50 reintroductions occur into their natural habitat each year, and while reintroductions aren’t a replacement for animal culture developed over generations, it’s a good start.

Birth control for fishes

While the San Diego condor breeding program required wild animals to be taken away from their natural habitats, this is something that zoos try to avoid where possible to minimize their negative impact.

In the dubiously-named Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands, researchers recently developed a form of fish birth control that works on animals like the whitespotted eagle ray (yes, rays are fish).

captive whitespotted eagle ray
Image by Laura Wolf via Flickr

This kind of birth control allows zoos to maintain control in captive breeding programs without the need for culling animals or introducing predators to keep the numbers stable. Overall, contraception lowers the number of animals that are needed from the wild by bringing more control into captive populations.

A home for animals with nowhere else to go

Some animals currently living in zoos don’t exist anywhere else, due to things like widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss caused by urban sprawl and farm development.

The Guam Kingfisher has been officially extinct in the wild for over 35 years, ineligible for reintroduction due to persisting dangers in their native habitat. An invasive species of snake wiped out the small island bird’s population, leaving only 16 captive individuals to prevent the total destruction of the species and no safe space to reintroduce them.

Efforts are being made to secure the island in a way that will allow this critically endangered species to thrive in their old home, but until the snakes are under control, the birds only remain protected under human care at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Arguments against zoos

There are literally thousands of examples of the incredible contributions to species survival, conservation, and advances in scientific understanding that come from zoos.

But if we’re discussing whether or not keeping animals in zoos is worth it, these benefits have to be weighed against the potential downsides – and there are many significant downsides to zoos.

To bring in money for research and conservation, a zoo needs an audience. And to get it, they need appealing exhibits. This leads to one of the biggest issues with zoos: the most attractive animals are the least happy.

orangutans in zoos
Image by pelican via Flickr

And that’s if the zoo ever wanted to protect and conserve animal life in the first place, which they’re under no legal or financial obligation to do in many places.

Zoos can be strictly for profit, and because regulations are still in their infancy even minimum requirements often don’t exist; even if they do exist, oftentimes they aren’t enforced anyways.

Here’s a list of the major arguments against zoos, even accredited and well-respected ones:

  • Animals can be malnourished or abused
  • Animals are often socially isolated and under-stimulated
  • Many animals suffer from zoochosis, which is neurotic or psychotic behavior caused by mental distress like obsessive pacing or chewing
  • Nocturnal animals are sometimes kept awake during the day by visitors
  • Diseases can spread from poor vaccination protocols and hygiene standards
  • Species inbreeding can cause poor health
  • The illegal wildlife trade profits from poaching and selling captured animals

And the list goes on – you can find plenty of more specific reasons for banning zoos, like these recent examples of zoological trainwrecks:

The tragedy of Harambe

Perhaps the most recent high-profile case of death in a zoo is the 2016 shooting of a 17 year old lowland gorilla named Harambe.

A combination of parental oversight and poor enclosure design led to a three year old boy entering the gorilla exhibit, forcing the officials to take lethal action against the silverback.

gorillas in zoos
Image by Andrew Wilkinson via Flickr

This is the sort of unprecedented situation where there were no good outcomes, but the story definitely caught people’s attention. Anti zoo memes were spawned and newstories spread for weeks; to this day it remains as one of the most well-known talking points in the zoo debate.

Regardless of whether the shooting was justified, it was most certainly preventable and casts a poor light even on an AZA-accredited institution like the Cincinnati Zoo.

Elephants in captivity

If there was ever a single reason to abolish zoos, elephants may be it.

Elephants are often the most difficult animals to please in a zoo because of their exceptional intelligence, naturally large family groups, and immense native range.

As if keeping one of these incredible animals in an enclosure wasn’t bad enough, many zoos “train” the elephants with barbaric tools such as bullhooks – something which is only now being addressed by AZA.

captive elephants
Image by pelican via Flickr

But barbaric training methods aren’t even necessary for captive elephants to become traumatized; elephants with a history of trauma show signs of social impairment, forms of PTSD, and exhibit long-lasting depressive episodes as well as possibly suicidal behavior.

While supporting ecotourism can be beneficial for animals like elephants in many areas, there are also plenty of examples of elephant “sanctuaries” in places like Thailand being homes of abuse instead!

Flooding in zoos

In 2015, Tbilisi Zoo in the country of Georgia lost over 300 animals to flooding and the subsequent shooting of escapees by the local police.

Many animals died trapped in their enclosures as flood waters rose, drowning them; others were able to escape only to be killed by law enforcement. Some, like one of the hippos, were able to be tranquilized and returned to the zoo, but the damage had already been done.

And while this isn’t the same as more direct forms of animal cruelty in zoos, hundreds of beautiful and unique animals drowning in filthy pens and enclosures is still a tragedy, and makes one wonder if including zoos is necessary when looking ahead towards a future with more sustainable cities.

Which leads us to the question: should zoos still exist?

Should animals be kept in zoos?

If you believe that animals cannot be ethically held captive under any circumstances or that zoos should not exist in any capacity, then there isn’t much room for discussion.

If, on the other hand, you’re leaning toward zoos being a necessary evil or even a force for good, the ethical status of zoos comes down to the results they bring.

Some stats from the AZA might come in handy here:

  • AZA zoos alone house over 900 vulnerable or extinct species
  • 10% of the total species in AZA zoos are endangered
  • 117 reintroduction programs are in action
  • Over 50% of AZA zoos and aquariums are nonprofits

The business model of zoos will always lead to an incentive to bring in exotic and crowd-pleasing animals, and these are often the ones who suffer the most – but this doesn’t have to be the case.

While many animals don’t fare well in crowded or small spaces, there are plenty that do. Nearly 85% of mammal species assessed in one study lived healthier and longer lives in captivity than they would in the wild, and research also suggests that having smaller, more suitable animals may be equally effective at drawing in crowds.

As discoveries about animal sentience pave the way for a shift in attitudes towards their ethical treatment, a growing idea of animals as persons bubbles into the social consciousness. This is already leading to new approaches to animal stress, welfare, and ultimately, better zoos.

Organizations like the AZA and the larger umbrella organization WAZA are at least making an effort to do things right; and as funds ultimately come from people like you, it’s important to vote with your wallet and avoid zoos and aquariums without ethical standards.

Final thoughts

Zoos can help animals, and some wild species have even been saved as a direct result of the actions taken by responsible zoos who also perform important conservation research.

But the quality of zoos varies wildly, and regulatory bodies are slow to keep up; so the gap between an ideal zoo and what is allowed invites plenty of room for disaster and tragedy.

Do you think a future with more ethical zoos is possible?

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