What is Wrong With Zoos?
There are approximately 10,000 zoos in the world today, holding about 1 million vertebrate animals, and 600 million people visit them every year.
Today, zoos are promoted as conservational, natural and educational to humans. But when and how did zoos begin in the first place? What impact did this have on individual animals and entire wild animal populations? Why are zoos today focusing on conservation so heavily? And finally, can zoos be considered ethical with what we understand about animal consciousness and their ability to suffer?
Let’s explore some of the claims as to why zoos are a seemingly positive force in our world today.
A Brief History of Zoos
The Ancient Greeks established the first zoos to study animal behaviour, but the idea of holding animals in public viewing cells dates back to around 1500 BC in Egypt. Ancient Rome collected exotic animals too, although they were often forced to fight each other, or humans.
Some of the earliest zoos were for the pleasure of the upper classes. During 1500 BC, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt built a zoo as a demonstration of power and wealth, with many rulers in Africa, India and China following suit to also demonstrate their status.
In Rome, lions and tigers were given as gifts to the Caesars and were used for the emperors’ gladiator sports. Later it became popular for the rich to have menageries on their estates. These animals were held in cages, pits and small enclosures with cement floors and iron bars. In Vienna, the Imperial Menagerie was opened to the public in 1765. Slowly zoos took on a more “natural” look with ditches replacing iron bars.
The British and European exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the discovery of many species of animals that they considered to be unusual. This then encouraged the stealing and keeping of animals as “catalogued exotica” in Europe and Britain, with the first zoo in Australia, Melbourne Zoo, being established along similar lines in 1862.
While today the zoos that are considered modern with regulated control breeding, this was not the case throughout history where regulations and laws never existed. All animals were caught from the wild often died in captivity within the first 1-2 years due to stress, unhappiness, depression and poor or no health care provided. The extremely high mortality rates were the reason for the massive scale of on-going importations of wild animals.
Zoos around the world continued along this path well into the mid-1900s and were more like prisons than parks. Endangered species laws were introduced in the early 1970s which stopped zoos from simply catching and caging new “exhibits” from the wild. One 2-year study indicated that of 19,361 species of mammals that left accredited zoos in the US between 1992 and 1998, 38% or 7,420 of them went to dealers, auctions, hunting ranches, unaccredited zoos and individuals, and game farms.
The history of zoos has attached to it a very bloody, violent and profit-focused history where animals had their families torn apart, freedom hijacked and were sold as mere commodities all for human ego, entertainment and financial benefit. Today, many horribly abusive zoos still operate around the globe where it seems they rely on a handbook from the 1800s, due to either desperate poverty, indifference, or both. Most modern zoos strive to offer a “humane” habitat—though it is a shoebox compared to the wild.
Around the globe, the combination of zoos, circuses, hunting, poaching and human-driven deforestation of global natural habitats has decimated wild animal populations.
By far the biggest and most popular zoo justification is animal conservation and preservation, where by zoos make claim they are modern day arks, saving species from the brink of extinction.
The conservation claim is made up of several elements;
- The Genetic Diversity issue,
- The Endangered Species problem, and
- The concept of Introduction to the Wild.
Genetic diversity is a major issue in conservation biology. Captive populations are small and therefore they have a lower genetic variability than that of wild populations. Though the controlled zoo breeding programs do attempt to vary the genetics as much as possible, small populations can really only vary so much.
Any variation of inbreeding and a narrow gene pool results in genetically weaker offspring—this is accompanied by reduced fertility, slower growth rates, greater susceptibility to disease, and higher mortality rates.
Genetic diversity has and always will remain an increasing issue in conversation programs where the gene pool of all captive animals will continue to weaken, instead of thriving as it would in the wild.
Remaining wild animal populations are also suffering from genetic diversity problems. As a direct consequence of human activity, genetic diversity decreases because hunting, poaching and the destruction of habitats directly results in the effective animal population sizes diminishing. Inbreeding then continues to increase and populations continue to fragment and other detrimental factors persist.
The zoos that actually have adequate public donations and Government funding run controlled breeding programs. While the long history of zoos essentially played their part in causing countless species to become endangered and extinct, most modern zoos claim they now play an important role in protecting endangered species.
According to a joint report, The Zoo Inquiry, by the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the Born Free Foundation, of the 5,926 species classified as threatened or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, only around 120 (2%) of them are involved in international zoo breeding programs.
What about the other 5,806 species that are threatened or endangered that need help? Many of the species which are breed in zoo programs are not even endangered—polar bears, gorillas, certain breeds of tigers, and chimpanzees—and essentially take the place of animals who are actually endangered.
Animals are actually notoriously difficult to breed in captivity because what occurs is not natural. Often computers are used to generate genetic selection and animals are forcibly impregnated by artificial insemination. This practice involves no natural selection (choice) by the animal or any evolutionary process. Every part of these animals reproductive systems and procreation are controlled and manipulated by humans.
Zoo breeding programs have been running for well over a century. Up until 2010, no elephant had ever been bred successfully in an Australian zoo because of the extreme difficulties that are associated, and even captive populations numbering in the hundreds in Europe and the United States are not self sustaining.
The giraffe born in 2012 at Copenhagen Zoo, Marius, is one victim of the controlled breeding programs. He was not considered inbred, but could not be part of the breeding program as his siblings already were. A spokesman for European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) said that Marius had “nothing to offer the program“—an explicitly stated commodification of Marius disregarding his will to live. As a direct result, on the 9th February 2014 Marius was killed in front of a crowd, which included children, his body publicly dissected and then his dismembered body parts were fed to the captive lions at the zoo.
Despite numerous offers to adopt the giraffe, Copenhagen Zoo gave many unreasoned refusals and decided for Marius that his life was of no value, and publicly dismembered him. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, of which Copenhagen Zoo is a member, issued a press release “fully supporting” the decisions and policy of the Copenhagen Zoo.
Key Drivers Behind Endangered Species
Besides the mass species extinctions that occurred at the end of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, which killed 85% of the Earth’s species including the dinosaurs, scientists confirm that because of human activity, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than previous extinction rates.
Certain attitudes, behaviours and industries in our society are still promoted and funded which ultimately drive the ever growing list of endangered and extinct species:
- Hunting and killing of “game” animals is a considered an acceptable “recreational sport”.
- Poaching of wild life for the economic benefit of their body parts remains extremely common and is an estimated $10 billion dollar industry, where much of it has been taken over by international crime cartels. Very little adequately funded law enforcement exists to stop this entirely or even attempt to decrease it.
- The deforestation and destruction of natural habitats that are converted for human land-use purposes—which are mostly farmed animal food industries—results in the forced removal of animals, either by relocation or death (the latter is most common because it is financially and time efficient), and the physical reduction in size of the natural habitats available to the remaining animals. The global deforestation pandemic is occurring in 11 key areas, including Eastern Australia, the Amazon rainforest, Borneo, Sumatra, the Congo Basin and East Africa.
Human activity is the reason so many species are threatened, endangered and extinct. The world is losing dozens of species every day in what experts are calling the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. As many as 30% to 50% of all species are moving toward extinction by mid-century—and the blame sits squarely on our shoulders.
The three factors of hunting, poaching and deforestation ultimately outweigh any output of timely conversational breeding programs as wild animal populations are decimated at the pull of a trigger.
Introduction to the Wild
Many people believe one of the biggest segments to the conservation claim is that zoos introduce species into the wild and therefore help wild populations flourish. Unfortunately, the concept of introduction is plagued with serious difficulties and thus, rarely occurs.
Captive bred animals miss out on valuable survival lessons, skills and techniques that their wild parents would have taught them, and therefore often do not have the instincts or knowledge to survive alone in the wild. What this mean is that the weaker genetics of the species are “saved”, the natural memetics of the species is not.
A 2008 study shows that most large, captive-bred carnivores die if returned to their natural habitat. In fact, the odds of animals such as tigers and wolves surviving freedom are only 33%, according to a team of researchers from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. This is why the introduction of animals into the wild rarely ever occurs—they simply cannot survive.
Famed zoo historian and former park director, David Hancocks, said in a speech:
In truth, hardly any animals born in the world’s zoos are returned to the wild. Breeding zoo animals is basic sound business: Zoos must breed animals merely to preserve their collections.
Zoos make claim to providing animals with natural and rich environments in the form of enclosures, cages and exhibits. While some zoos may spend a lot of money and time in an attempt to re-create a natural habitat, zoo enclosures are typically very inadequate for the animals true needs.
Melbourne Zoo sowed together the eyelids of a Malayan tapir. Typically, the tapir lives in and forages on the rainforest floor but Melbourne Zoo did not provide enough tree cover—the over-exposure to the sun damaged this animal’s eyes.
Animals often are deprived of privacy, confined to inadequately sized spaces, are sometimes isolated individually, and are unable to engage in natural behaviours, or hunting and mating activities.
- Elephants are social, perceptive and affectionate, they live with as many as��100 other elephants in the wild and walk up to 40 miles a day, while having constant companionship. In captivity, elephants are often alone or in units of 2-3, they receive little to no exercise which leads them to becoming depressed and overweight, and because of the various stresses and unnatural conditions they are prone to chronic health problems including tuberculosis, arthritis, and foot abscesses.
- Tigers are territorial and solitary, but also social animals, and in the wild they often live and travel across a habitat that can span across 7.7 square miles for female tigers, to 23 to 39 square miles for male tigers. Tragically, recent numbers suggest there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild, with many people keeping them in backyards. In captivity, tigers often exhibit zoochosis—a form of psychosis seen in captive animals. One form of tiger you are sure to see in captivity, the White Tiger, cannot even be found in the wild. For years, humans have inbred tigers with the genetic defect that causes white pigmentation, leading to deformities and crippling disabilities—all for the sake of using these “rare” tigers as attractions to generate profit.
- In the wild Chimpanzees live in diverse social groups where they play, travel and interact with one another. While they often travel several miles in one day, they make and use tools, they communicate with one another and they choose their friends with care, they also forage for different foods and groom themselves and others. In captivity, lack the chance to solve problems, travel distances or forage for their own food. They also frequently exhibit signs of stress including over-grooming on arms and legs, continual rocking, spitting, and throwing feces.
Animal species have evolved over many years and their physical, physiological, social and behavioural traits have been developed in order for them to survive as best as they can in their natural environments. In captivity, animals may face a number of challenges which evolution has not prepared them for and disables the animal to fulfil their behavioural needs. The absence of these, climate, diet, the size and characteristics of their enclosure, or the fact that they have to rely on humans for their every need, can cause an animal to feel stressed and anxious.
Of course, everyone has stress. And while humans can have stress, it usually doesn’t mean that their welfare is in jeopardy, partly because humans can remove themselves from stressful situations and have things to look forward too. For the most part, animals live in the present—if their present is a caged enclosure, then that is a stressful existence from which they can never escape.
While animals are forced to live in artificial constructs, many of them succumb to what is known as zoohocosis. The term refers to any captive wild animal exhibiting abnormal behaviours, including animals in zoos, aquariums, testing (lab) facilities and pseudo-sanctuaries.
Zoohocosis is the display of obsessive, repetitive behaviours, such as swaying, pacing back and forth, rocking, continuous bar-biting, sucking and licking, over-grooming and mutilation, neck twisting and head-bobbing, hyper-aggression, regurgitation, abnormal maternal behaviour, and feeding disorders.
Aquatic animals suffer from zoohocosis, too. A study conducted by the Captive Animals’ Protection Society concluded that 90% of public aquariums studied had animals who showed neurotic behaviour, such as repeatedly raising their heads above the surface of the water, spinning around an imaginary object, and frequently turning on one side and rubbing along the floor of the tank.
The importance of behaviour is as significant as the internal organs essential to one’s life. Animals that display normal behaviours allow for homeostasis, which is needed to ensure internal conditions are maintained and stable. When a captive animal is not capable of modifying or controlling their environment, animals begin to cope by exhibiting stereotypic behaviour. Scientists believe this abnormal behaviour releases endorphins and allows for momentary relief.
While many renowned facilities pour millions of dollars into programs designed to keep the animals “happy”, it’s clear that stereotypic behaviours are representative of poor welfare in captivity. No habitat can rival the environment animals would have in the wild; albeit the animals born in zoos and other facilities are often born through breeding programs, the number of animals suffering from these stereotypic behaviours only further corroborates that these animals are inherently wild and suffer in captivity.
Confining animals in artificial, and often small enclosures and areas in comparison to what would be available in the wild, is stressful and causes them harm. It is anything but natural.
During 2015, Auckland Zoo simply killed a siamang gibbon, named Iwani, because he was severely depressed. They ended his 11 year life as they were “not able to meet his welfare needs”. The solution was to get rid of him and in the process, an admission that zoos are not able to provide to an animal what nature and freedom could.
Every human and non-human animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. With the boom of pharmaceuticals in the mid-20th century, zookeepers, trainers and veterinarians began giving psychopharmaceuticals to captive animals to combat behaviours typically seen with zoohocosis.
One of the first non-humans to be given psychopharmaceuticals as a patient was a western lowland gorilla named Willie B., who was famous in Atlanta, Georgia. He was captured against his will in Congo as an infant in the 1960s and sent to Zoo Atlanta, where he lived for 39 years—27 of them alone in an indoor cage with a tire swing and a television where if he stood up and stretched his arms out, he could nearly touch both sides of the cage.
They put Thorazine in the Coca-Cola he drank in the morning. Willie responded to the drug as many institutionalised humans do—he shuffled back and forth across his cage with dulled eyes.
Gus the polar bear had lived in Central Park Zoo, NYC, in a climate the total opposite of that in which polar bears have evolved to live. His enclosure was a 5,000-square-foot exhibit—less than 0.00009% of what his range in the Arctic would be.
Despite being born in captivity, he still had his evolutionary predatory impulses and had initially stalked children visitors from the underwater window in his pool. The zoo put up barriers to stop him from being able to do this and Gus began compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool for up to 12 hours a day, every day, for months.
Gus became the first captive zoo animal to be placed on Prozac, but his swimming compulsion never fully went away.
An entire troop of gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston were put on Haldol, Valium, Klonopin, Zoloft, Paxil, Xanax, Buspar, Prozac, Ativan, Versed, Mellaril, and Beta-Blockers.
In 1998, a 12-year-old male gorilla named Kitombe arrived at the zoo and the first week there, introductions between Kit and the other gorillas went smoothly, but soon Kit became violent and unhappy. He also quickly impregnated one of the female gorillas, Kiki. Kit chased a 36 year old gorilla, Gigi, around the exhibit and was incredibly violent towards her for many months inflicting many injuries.
Gigi, unable to escape the abuse while in captivity, became very anxiety-prone, repeatedly regurgitating and re-ingesting her food, eating her own feces, and sometimes slamming it on the glass of the exhibit in front of visitors, and became a nervous wreck.
Kit was eventually placed into isolation for 10 years after multiple drugs failed to change his behaviour.
Pharmaceuticals remain in wide use around the globe for captive animals in zoos, circuses, marine parks and pseudo-sanctuaries. Once again, a direct admission that zoos are not able to provide to animals what nature and freedom could.
Zoos make the claim that they provide the opportunity for people to see and learn about wild animals which will inspire people to contribute to their preservation.
But what does one truly learn about animals who exist against their will in an unnatural habitat, displaying unnatural behaviours from the stress of living in confinement, and the lethargy of captivity? Keeping animals in cages does nothing to foster respect for animals since all people learn is that animals will spend their lives behind bars for human distraction and amusement. Educational research conducted in the artificial environment of a zoo teaches us very little about the complex lives of wild, free-ranging animals.
If anything, it only teaches us about what animals are like held in zoos.
Although people may learn information about the different species and perhaps their biology, it would be much more educational reading the research of primatologist Dian Fossey, or others who’ve actually studied animals in their natural habitats, and truly learned about their natural behaviours. Or one can learn about animals from documentaries, such as Planet Earth or one of the various series narrated by David Attenborough.
A recent study conducted by the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, found that, contrary to popular belief, zoos don’t actually help people, specifically children, learn about the animals and conservation—the study found that only 38% of children who visited the London Zoo left with positive learning outcomes. It also found that the majority of children not only left the zoo without learning, but experienced negative learning outcomes.
Based on the study’s findings:
Children did not feel empowered to believe that they can take ‘effective ameliorative action’ on matters relating to conservation after their zoo experience.
Zoos present an entirely false view of both the animals themselves, and of the real and very urgent issues facing many species in their natural homes. This new research appears to confirm what we have said for many years: Zoos do not educate nor do they empower or inspire children to become conservationists.
What Can We Do Instead?
Let’s stop with the euphemisms. There’s no point in being innocuous. Zoos are animal prisons. A prison is a place of confinement and control where the confined have no rights or say in how their lives are lived. These animals have no choice in where they live their lives, nor their breeding habits or ability to enact their natural instincts, or what they eat or how they obtain their food. There is no choice, and there certainly is no freedom.
While we remove freedom from animals and control their lives, many people repetitively make the claim that it is better to do this than to simply let a species die out. Again, enough with the euphemisms—these animals are not dying out, they are being wiped off the face of the planet by human actions. Certainly, any species being driven to extinction is terrible and not something we should be indifferent towards, but the issue to animals being able to thrive in the wild is part of a much bigger circle—a circle which humans dominate, control and destroy every day. The answer is not establishing animal prisons.
We are the ones who need to change.
Humans become frantically concerned upon the realisation that a species is about to be driven into extinction. Unfortunately, we do not address and act on the core reasons for the extinction risk occurring in the first place—hunting which is done for “fun”, poaching which is done for financial gain, and the global deforestation and habitat destruction resulting from 95% of humans unnecessarily eating an entirely different set of animals for food. We can live nutritious plant-based lives utilising far less land than what we do now for growing farmed animals and billion of tonnes of crops that they then consume each year.
Containing animals in captivity will also never restore the genetic diversity destruction that has and is occurring—it is biologically impossible. These imprisoned animals will continue to weaken, will never flourish and will live their entire lives without freedom or choice as a commodity that draws a crowd.
Meanwhile, these zoos work to protect a mere 2% of the threatened and endangered species, but what kind of life does this actually offer the animals in the first place? Animals are deprived of privacy, confined to inadequately sized spaces, are sometimes isolated individually, and unable to engage in natural behaviours, or hunting and mating activities. Because of the unnatural, cramped environments, many animals lose their sanity entirely and experience mentally debilitating zoochosis—while then being drugged with psychopharmaceuticals by the very people who keep them imprisoned.
On top of the confinement, stress, suffocatingly small enclosures and the mentally debilitating “lives” these animals are forced to endure, zoos actually fail to educate and empower people into preservation—they merely perpetuate the view that animals are here for human use, entertainment and are available at our convenience, while they generate a profit for the captors.
And as zoos create negative learning outcomes for children, consider then the financial viability and business model of a zoo—they are, in fact, made for human entertainment purposes to generate profit. Zoos are a business and the animals are revenue generators. They are mere commodities who we lock up in captivity against their will.
We have no right to use animals as voyeuristic objects as part of a business venture to generate money while we selfishly promote and drive their deaths and destruction in the wild.
We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged animal, only the shadow of their former beauty.
– Julia Allen Field
It’s Time to Give Sanctuaries a Chance
Luckily, there is a better alternative to profit-driven zoos for just about every zoological excuse in the book, whether it is conservation, education, or research into the natural habits of animals: sanctuaries!
Unlike zoos, animal sanctuaries are non-profit rescue centres that provide shelter for abused, unwanted, neglected, and orphaned animals. They advocate spaying and neutering for specific animals when appropriate and attempt to find suitable homes for animals. Also, many attempt to teach others about compassionate living and most care for animals until the latter die of old age.
The goal of a sanctuary is not profit, but protection, and they often rely on public fundraising to operate. They regard animals not as commodities, but as they really are: living beings who are frequently victims of industries that care more about the happiness of the human spectators and the success of the franchise than the well-being of the animal who has been forced, unfortunately, into a captive life.
The main purpose of many animal sanctuaries is rehabilitation from physical and mental illness brought about by the institutions that profited from their suffering.
Learn how to tell the difference between a credible animal sanctuary and an abusive animal attraction.
Go Vegan and Respect All Animals
Going vegan isn’t just some diet. Veganism is a social justice movement. Veganism is a matter of being just and observing our moral and ethical obligation to not exploit other sentient beings and treat them as objects or property.
Becoming vegan creates a certain mindset. It changes our view of and our relationship with our fellow animals. It makes us aware of many of the things humans do to our fellow animals: the way we distort their lives; the way we don’t consider our actions where their lives and well being are concerned; the way we put our trivial wants above their lives.
There are so many ways to help animals every day, starting with being vegan. If you care about animals, you’re already on your way to becoming vegan—keep going.
A lot of the time people who are wanting to make a difference for animals aren’t able to leave their homes, but can work on a myriad of ‘armchair activist’ activities such as emailing and calling companies and policymakers to affect change, signing online petitions, educating and informing others, donating to animal charities and rescue groups, and making changes in your diet. These all have an enormous positive impact.
By becoming vegan, a person makes a liberating commitment to no longer participate in the enslavement and exploitation of animals by excluding animals and animal by-products from their diet, while no longer supporting industries such as circuses and zoos, or companies who test on animals, as well as being against hunting, poaching and the unnecessary human food-driven industries that result in the deforestation of global natural habitats.