Growing up, going to the zoo was a regular activity, so I was surprised when I found out that my fiance had never been to a zoo. I couldn’t believe he had missed out on such a quintessential childhood experience. I immediately whisked him off to the nearest zoo so he could see what he had been missing. It had been many years since I had been to one myself, and as we were walking around looking at the caged animals in small cramped spaces, I couldn’t help but wonder, are zoos cruel? In an effort to get a full spectrum of perspectives, I talked with a zookeeper and considered the stance of prominent animal rights organizations. Read on for the pros and cons of zoos and wildlife parks.
The Zookeeper’s Perspective
A childhood friend is a zookeeper and was kind enough to share her opinions based on her first-hand experience with zoos and the animals. I wanted her to feel that she could speak freely and not have to get permission from work, so she is anonymous.
What do you think are the biggest benefits of zoos?
I believe the biggest benefits of zoos are educating the public on not only the animals, but how we can all contribute to conservation measures in our everyday lives. Also, people are able to see animals they might never be able to otherwise, and that brings a passion for animals to a personal level — especially if they have an experience with an animal. You can see it in a child’s eyes when they light up at a roaring lion or a hooting siamang.
What do you think the biggest downfalls are?
Inexperienced workers and poor management of a collection. For example, a zoo that has too many animals and not enough space, not enough money for food, lack of enrichment or putting animals together that shouldn’t be.
What do you think about claims that animals should only be in the wild?
If animals were only in the wild we would be without hundreds of species.
Do you think some species are suitable for zoos, but others are not? (e.g., elephants, large cats, polar bears…)
Animals that you wouldn’t think of such as a sea snake are VERY hard to care for and have never been able to be kept in captivity. Others, like large species, are okay as long as there is the space and funding for proper diet and management.
What about Abnormal Repetitive Behavior (ARB)? Do you see this in animals at your zoo?
It pops up sometimes but we try, as zookeepers, to give more enrichment or change something up if this occurs.
If so, are those animals treated with anti-depressants or tranquilizers?
No. That is avoided.
What happens with “surplus” animals at your zoo? At other zoos?
Upper management works nation and world-wide to properly house animals so this doesn’t occur.
Are some zoos better than others?
Some are “better” than others, yes.
What’s the difference between a zoo and a wildlife park?
Wildlife parks are generally larger, open space facilities, where one may walk or more often, drive through these parks. For example, the San Diego Wildlife Park.
What made you decide to become a zookeeper?
I have always loved animals. I got into veterinary medicine as a technician first and really wanted to work at a Sea World with the sea lions in the show. I applied to the zoo where I am working now when there was an opening and my vet tech background allowed me to have enough experience to get in. I have a BS in Animal Sciences and five and a half years experience working as a vet tech.
I really enjoy my career and feel like I make a difference in the animals’ lives by making sure they are mentally stimulated and happy.
What’s the educational path for people that want to know how to become a zookeeper?
Most zoos require an associate degree or bachelor degree in a science related study. Some accept psychology as well for the behavioral aspect. Also one might exchange paid experience working with animals for a specific amount of years for a degree.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Perspective
This was the email response that WWF sent in regards to my question about their stance on zoos…
Responsible, well-managed zoos and aquariums have a vital role to play in the conservation of wildlife and its habitat. This position statement applies to zoos and aquariums that meet the rigorous accreditation standards of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), based on criteria that include conscientious animal care, high quality education initiatives, and strong conservation programs.
A crucial service provided by zoos and aquariums is educating people of all ages about biodiversity, habitat protection, and conservation. Through creative exhibits, informative signs, lecture series, volunteer and mentoring programs, outreach with schools, and special events, zoos and aquariums can make lessons about biodiversity and conservation come alive. Most people will probably never encounter a tiger or a shark in the wild. Seeing them in zoos and aquariums may be the only opportunity they ever have to meet these fascinating animals up close, and this may be the spark that triggers them to care more about conservation. No one wants a day to come when zoos and aquariums are the only remaining refuge for endangered species, and these institutions have a unique ability to convey messages about the importance of protecting these species in their wild habitats. These messages have truly hit their target when visitors go home with a heightened sense of purpose, inspired to do their part to save threatened wildlife.
Many zoos and aquariums also provide support in a variety of ways to conserve endangered species in the wild and protect their habitat. One way is through direct financial support; zoos and aquariums donate millions of dollars each year to field conservation projects around the world. WWF strongly encourages all zoos and aquariums that exhibit endangered species in captivity to find ways to invest in conserving these species in their native habitats – and do so in coordination with each other and other funding organizations to maximize effectiveness. Zoos and aquariums can also promote conservation in other ways, such as conducting field research, training foreign wildlife management personnel, undertaking environmental education and outreach in local communities living in close proximity to endangered wildlife, and influencing wildlife conservation legislation and policy. WWF commends zoos and aquariums for their achievements in these areas and hopes to see their involvement continue to expand.
Measures like the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prevent zoos from bringing endangered wild animals into captivity under all but the most exceptional circumstances. Fortunately, thanks to advances in captive propagation, well-run zoos are now able to maintain genetically healthy, self-sustaining populations of many species through their own breeding programs and exchanges with other zoos. A modest number of these breeding programs have produced, or are producing, populations of endangered species to reintroduce to the wild. Under certain extraordinary conditions, reintroductions may help shore up populations in steep decline, or even restore a species to an ecosystem from which it had vanished. This conservation approach remains highly experimental, however, and is no substitute for protecting species in their natural habitat. WWF strongly believes that in most cases, conservation dollars are best spent to reduce habitat loss and other threats to endangered species in the wild.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Perspective
If you were to ask PETA, “Are zoos cruel?” the answer would be yes. PETA completely opposes zoos and feels that the “warehousing” of animals does not save them from extinction. PETA believes that people should boycott zoos and focus on protecting natural habitats. According PETA, zoos and wildlife parks prevent animals from their natural behaviors including running, hunting, swimming, flying, climbing, exploring, foraging, digging, scavenging and selecting a partner. “The physical and mental frustrations of captivity often lead to abnormal, neurotic, and even self-destructive behavior, such as incessant pacing, swaying, head-bobbing, bar-biting, and self-mutilation.”
PETA calls zoos “pitiful prisons” and sites an Oxford Universtiy study on captive animals that concludes, after four decades of research, that some animals suffer greater harm in a zoo environment than others. Polar bears, elephants, and big cats such as cheetahs, lions and tigers “show the most evidence of stress and/or psychological dysfunction in captivity” and such animals should not be kept in zoos unless the conditions of their captivity are greatly improved. Similar evidence exists against keeping dolphins in captivity all together.
Many animal rights activists believe that elephants should not be in captivity, and a group of people fought to free Billy the elephant from the Los Angeles Zoo in an effort to have him sent to an elephant sanctuary. Ultimately they did not succeed. Opponents sited the financial loss freeing Billy would have caused the LA Zoo, particularly since they were building their new 6-acre Elephants of Asia exhibit. Zookeeper Jack Hanna believes that the new exhibit is “a model of humane elephant care.” Even amongst the experts, coming to a consensus may not be possible.
What do you think? Do you think zoos are good for animals? Or are zoos cruel? It seems that the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and largely depends on the species, the environment, and the level of care.
Watch this short animated film Creature Comforts for the animals’ perspectives.