Tag Archives: conservation

Animals in Zoos


The Situation:

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.

1 The Reality of Zoos

2 Animals only found in zoos

3 Zoos Drive Animals Crazy


Preserving Animal Habitats


The Situation:

It’s clear that human beings have had a devastating impact on the natural habitats of most other species on the planet. By some estimations, at least 10,000 species go extinct every year, largely due to habitat loss, overexploitation of resources, and other forms of environmental destruction. This is somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural (not caused by human activity) extinction rate.1 Obviously, the rate at which we are depleting resources and life on this planet is not sustainable, so things need to change for everyone’s sake. The question is how to go about doing that.

This post isn’t about environmental issues, that’s a whole other conversation that needs to be had. However, in the meantime, where and how should we put our resources in the effort to save endangered animal species. There is a trend toward focusing on species that are most interesting or appealing to people, which generally means cute or smart mammals. In some ways this makes sense, because conservation efforts rely on public support, and these are the animals that make people want to donate their money. On the other hand, there’s a prejudice here. Cute animals like the panda are getting huge amounts of attention, while thousands of other species are going extinct without notice all the time. Unfortunately, those human beings attempting to lessen the damage caused by their species are forced to choose which species get a chance to live and which don’t.

I mentioned that public appeal is a major factor in this choice. However, there are certainly other ones that can lead to some ethically questionable actions. Conservationists tend to favor biodiversity, which can mean essentially killing off an invasive species that is affecting the habitat around it. But is this an ethical preference or simply an aesthetic one? Efforts like the one in California’s channel islands can involve mass slaughter of animals introduced decades before by humans, with the intent of saving another species that is judged to be more important and more deserving of the habitat. In this particular example, it’s probably not a coincidence that the species being saved was a particularly cute kind of fox, and the success of the campaign depended on killing the much less marketable wild pigs and donkeys.2

The rate at which natural ecosystems are declining is much faster than all the efforts to restore them, however successful or ethically sound they may be. There needs to be a way to focus limited resources in this area to causes that will prevent the most future damage.

The Psychology:

I think most people who work on invasive species problems or other environmental issues that may have some ethical issues are coming from the right place. The usual justification for these is that because we caused huge changes to an ecosystem that we judge to be damaging, it is our responsibility to fix it. This would make sense if we could foresee the consequences of our decisions, but most of the environmental disasters happening now are happening because that is clearly not the case. But conveniently, this approach serves ourselves in a very significant way. It helps alleviate guilt. Many people (justifiably) feel extreme guilt for the negative affect that the human species has had on the other life on this planet. Putting time and effort into reversing those changes makes that feel a little less awful. I would guess that this is the reason that many people justify some pretty horrible actions for the cause.

Power is also a factor in this situation. It is undeniable that the human species has huge amounts of power over the environment. In almost all cases, exercising this power has lead to damage to natural ecosystems. Even so, I think that it is very difficult for people to accept or even consider that the best solution would be to relinquish that power. That’s a very hard thing to do for people, and this kind of thinking is often unstated.

The need to alleviate guilt and the desire to maintain a sense of power are both very strong psychological motivators. In this case, both seem to be at play in clouding people’s perceptions of right and wrong when it comes to how we should combat the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems.

The Ethical Questions:

How should we decide which species to try to save?

Should we have the power to remove invasive species at all costs?

Are biodiversity and preventing ecosystems from changing ethically relevant issues? Are we approaching them the right way?

How far should we go in preventing invasive species from taking over?

Where should conservation efforts focus their resources?


There does seem to be some value to keeping a level of biodiversity and preventing invasive species from destroying ecosystems. But there is also something to be said for not meddling more than we already have. Most invasive species are invasive because we brought them there (aren’t we the ultimate invasive species??), and trying to correct our own mistakes at sometimes great costs feels a bit like playing God. I would argue that we should focus our efforts on not affecting the natural habitats that remain any more than necessary. This may mean that ecosystems change, but ecosystems have been changing for billions of years. We seem to have an intense desire to control this process, but maybe things would be better if we just let them be.

From this standpoint, the conservation efforts that do make ethical sense are those like anti-poaching and anti-deforestation campaigns. The driving factor here is to reduce human impact on the environment, instead of trying to fix problems we’ve already caused. To me, this seems like a much better use of our considerable power.This is the approach that has the best chance of working, because we are minimizing unintended consequences. The ecosystems on this planet have gotten pretty good at taking care of themselves, much better than we are at maintaining them.

1 WWF stats
2 criticism of Channel Islands invasive species programs