The history of zoos is not exactly a pretty one. The idea of zoos has been around for a long time, as a way for wealthy people to display the exotic animals they or their friends had seen around the world. Having a menagerie was a symbol of status, a display of wealth, and a demonstration of power. Eventually, they became more popular and widely available. It became a normal occurrence to pay money to look at an animal (or person in some cases) that you would otherwise not get to see. Until recently, zoos were explicitly for the benefit of the owner, and the animals were treated entirely as commodities that generate profit. Living conditions were horrible.
Only in the last few decades has this idea gone through major changes. Zoos now claim to exist for the benefit of the animals. The idea is that if people can see the animals, they will be more likely to support the ones in the wild. Furthermore, breeding and research programs claim to help the entire animal kingdom. These claims are questionable at best, and the fact that these animals are clearly not living naturalistic lives makes the situation even worse.
There is no good evidence for the claim that going to a zoo makes a person more likely to contribute to conservation efforts.1 In fact, some critics say that zoos promote a false idea of the state of the animal kingdom, by focusing on a few appealing animals, giving a sanitized account of the problems facing those species, and not even mentioning thousands of species going extinct each year. People who come to see an animal in a cage surrounded by concrete and factory-farmed meat-filled restaurants, are simply not getting a very accurate picture of actual animals and the problems facing them.
Zoos also claim to be important scientifically. Research is conducted on the captive animals, and breeding programs ensure the survival of many species. The actual benefits of these, however, is not clear. The problem with doing research on captive animals is that they are likely to differ in many ways from their wild counterparts. Their diet, social interactions, environment, and physical and mental health are all directly impacted by being raised in captivity. This means that many results from scientific studies on zoo animals have to come with an asterisk, indicating that the results may not apply to the animals’ wild counterparts.
That said, I don’t think all of this research is useless. But there is another problem with this. Zoos exist to make profit, despite the image that they like to display to the public. I personally have looked into research internships and jobs with zoo animals, and they all seem to require interaction with the guests. This is not an environment where the animals will ever come first. Everything is designed to be appealing to the visitor. That does not mean that the zookeepers, researchers, and other zoo employees do not care about the animals, but it does mean that the system will never allow the animals to be the first priority.
There are several species which have gone extinct in the wild, and now exist only in zoos, and there are likely to be many more in the near future.2 Although at first glance this seems preferable to extinction, it’s important to consider the quality of life of these animals. Zoo animals have a whole host of physical and mental problems as a result of living in an environment that is so different from the one they evolved into. Strange, repetitive behaviors like pacing, swaying, and self-mutilation are common among captive animals.3 Often, social groups and families are separated, and enrichment for intelligent animals is minimal compared to the challenges of living in the wild. The question then is, should we continue breeding animals, knowing that their offspring will likely only experience this kind of life? For some species, reintroduction into the wild is possible, but this takes rehabilitation and therapy that is not possible in a zoo environment.
The Ethical Questions:
What is the true purpose of zoos?
Do zoos actually help individual animals? Animals in general?
Does helping a species justify keeping a few individuals in a cage?
Do human beings have the right to look at animals?
Is it ethical to train animals to perform for humans?
I claim that the purpose of zoos has not really changed much in the last century. They still exist primarily as a system that exploits animals for profits, but now pretends to be a force for good. But based on the actual experience as a zoo visitor, it’s hard to deny that zoos are a form of entertainment. This means that we are keeping sentient animals in small confined spaces, inflicting physical and mental harm on them, all for the sake of our own enjoyment. Furthermore, we are doing so under the pretense of helping them. Real efforts to reintroduce endangered species into the wild require distance from humans and a similar environment to the one the animals will need to learn to live in. Research on animals’ natural behavior requires the same things. I think these are good causes to pursue, but zoos are simply not contributing to them.
The underlying problem here seems to come from a person feeling entitled to see an animal that belongs on the other side of the world. We simply crave interaction with wild animals. It is a demonstration of power and lack of respect that we think it’s normal and even beneficial to take an animal away from its home and social group, put it in a concrete box, and charge people money to watch it simply exist. For a long time, this was done with humans as well. European circuses would have freak shows, menageries, and displays of ‘savages’ from colonized areas of the world. These displays of humans are now seen as reprehensible acts of prejudice and oppression, yet we continue to display animals in the same way. Whatever label we want to put on it, zoo animals are there for our entertainment, not for their own good. Once we get past that delusion, it becomes clear that the institution is not an ethical one, but is instead a manifestation of a system of oppression.