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I love animals. That phrase is probably most over used sentence in the history of mankind.  I think the vast majority of people claim to be animal lovers (quite often whilst chomping on a bacon sandwich). At least I don’t eat animals, so my hypocrisy is limited to some extent… but I love going to zoos, aquariums and petting farms.

After watching the incredible, and mind-blowing documentary ‘Blackfish’ about the killer whale Tillikum who killed his trainer at SeaWorld, I vowed never to go to an aquarium again. The documentary tracks how baby killer whales are captured in the wild, and records the screams of their mothers and tears of the fishermen who are now traumatised by what they have done. After all, killer whales are shown to have more complex emotions and interactions than humans, and ripping them from the ocean to keep in tiny swimming pools had led to endless cases of psychosis, depression and even the death of keepers when the whales finally crack.

So, aquariums are off the menu. I hate the idea of sharks and whales who should have the freedom of the oceans being stuck in a tank. Like putting a bird in a cage, it speaks to an inner part of myself and is symbolic of stolen freedom and mistreatment.

But what about zoos?

I’ve always comforted myself with the idea that zoos are for ‘conservation’ and ‘education’, but more recently I’m not so sure. You see, zoos first came about to show animals to the public who normally could never dream of seeing them. Taken from exotic, far-off lands before the time of television, the internet or affordable travel, zoos really were the best way to make people CARE enough to want to help conserve biodiversity throughout the world.

But now? Now we have HD television. The silky voice of the legend David Attenborough narrates awesome displays of animals hunting, migrating and playing. To be honest, I think the desire to conserve biodiversity can be easily met through documentaries, articles and films without the need to capture or breed animals in captivity.

From an animal rights perspective, zoos violate the animal’s right to live in freedom, and put the desires of humans over the welfare of the animal.

Then again, from an animal welfare perspective, one might argue that a zoo is only wrong if the animal has a lesser quality of life inside the zoo than it would in the wild. For example, the enclosures might be smaller, but a zebra will live much longer inside a zoo because it will have access to veterinary care and not run risk of drought, famine or predators.

On the other hand, the animal welfare perspective can also argue that zoos deprive animals from their natural habitat, natural social structure and the animals may become depressed and/or institutionalised. With animals in zoos becoming attached to human beings rather than their own species it can be argued that they are prevented from experiencing their true identity and they may experience a lower quality of life if they have a longer life. After all, many animals in zoos have near perfect health, but severe behavioural abnormalities.

For example, my cousin and I went to visit Twycross zoo, having heard it has an excellent reputation for conservation. However, we were really uncomfortable in its world famous primate section. I wanted to cry. Cage after cage of monkeys, and many of them seemed to have very little space.

What’s more, we saw apes banging their heads on the glass and screaming. The zoo keeper told us they weren’t upset, but their similarity to humans made me think that behaviour can’t be normal. Teeth bared, smacking the cage and eyes rolled back in their heads – it seemed like classic signs of extreme boredom and possible psychosis to me. Then again, I am NOT a primate expert, just a compassionate human being who didn’t buy that those animals were truly happy or sane after prolonged enclosure.

Finally, I would like to consider the conservation perspective. Lots of zoos claim that by breeding animals in captivity we can ensure that the species doesn’t go extinct. After all, we are going through the biggest mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs, and species are going extinct daily. Half of the world’s animals have disappeared since the 1970’s. That is a tragedy. So, perhaps it IS morally acceptable to support zoos because they are ensuring the survival of animals for the coming generations.

However, this argument is also flawed in part. For example, the low numbers of individuals in a zoo means that the gene pool is very limited and it can be difficult to breed without problems. What’s more, removing rare animals from the wild to conserve them in zoos could further impact the natural populations and put them at risk. Some people believe that the benefits that a whole species may receive from conservation cannot excuse the negative impacts on the animals living inside the zoo.

‘For the greater good,’ is a dangerous argument for ANY philosophical problem after all. With the overpopulation of humans in the world leading to limited supplies, killing a few million people would never be an acceptable way to deal with the environmental strain.

Over all, I think that some individual zoos are probably good places, run by good people who want the best for the animals they look after, and those living in the wild. However, I think it’s really important to keep pressure on zoos to put conservation before entertainment and profit. For example, I think it is completely unacceptable to train a killer whale to perform tricks from a crowd, or swim with dolphins in a holiday complex swimming pool. You have to weigh up all the arguments I have put forward and decide in each individual case if the zoo is a place you are prepared to financially support by buying your ticket.

Hope you found this interesting! Let me know if you have any arguments you would like to add 😊

2 thoughts on “Prisons or sanctuaries? Clearing up the confusion about zoos

  1. It is important to say that most European and British zoos are members of EAZA and BIAZA, professional bodies that produce strict guidelines on how zoos should be run. This also includes a programme called Zims, in which animals must be logged with as much information as possible, particularly genetic information if this is known, to allow for breeding to take place amongst carefully selected (genetically distinct) individuals. So occasionally these methods produce better gene pools than would be produced in the wild.
    I too agree that some zoos are awful, and I have absolutely no idea why they are allowed to continue keeping animals in the way that they do. I also agree with you about aqauariums and birds in cages, but some zoos are doing an incredible job in contributing towards conservation, including using the income to contribute to conservation directly in the field.
    This is a great article about how captivity can be successful; https://www.facebook.com/newscientist/posts/10155049030094589

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    1. Hi Ellen thank you for your comment that was really interesting! I will check out the article for sure. I think this issue comes down to considering each zoo separately as it’s very hard to generalize. Animals in captivity can be extremely well cared for and happy, and equally can be vulnerable to bad treatment. Great point that zoos can reinvest money into conservation! (Did you know that in hunting programs e.g. lion shooting in africa, the right to shoot an animal is auctioned off and then that money is also reinvested, actually contributing to higher levels of biodiversity and more animals than there would be without the hunting… that’s another mind boggler that I can’t decide how I feel about)

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