When I was young, I loved the zoo and don’t recall ever being sad about the animals. I can even remember the name of the white tiger at my city’s zoo. Those warm memories don’t change how I view zoos today. I’d like to think if someone would’ve gotten me to think about it as a child, I would’ve had more ambivalence. A simple “hey isn’t this place kind of like a prison for animals?” or “how would you like to be locked up for the rest of your life?” might have sufficed. But maybe not.
Humans want to see nonhumans animals whenever they want to. Zoos and aquaria (collectively referred to as zoos from this point forward) provide this. This is the primary reason people visit them. All other rationales are subordinate. No one says, “I’m going to take my kids to this specific zoo because of the good conservation work they do,” or because “the animals are happy and wish to see us” (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some people think this). Some may believe in the educational benefits for themselves and their kids. But overall, if they’re being honest, they just want to see the animals.
This is not a reason that zoos wish for people to have, as it leaves them open to the criticism that their industry is more appropriately categorized as entertainment. They crave moral legitimacy in a way that is reminiscent of corporate greenwashing and are every bit as grotesque as any stereotypically evil corporation in their virtue signaling (although I admit this is very debatable). This is necessary, because since the 1980’s, entities that utilize aspects of nature for material benefit need to show their consumers that they are other than what they truly are. They’ve realized a certain segment of consumers need to feel good about their purchases. These warm and fuzzy feelings are economically valuable enough to offset the money spent. However, this can lead to difficult decisions:
Adding to the tension over what the mission of the zoo of the future should be is that zoo directors are often torn between their desire to promote animal welfare and their desire to increase profits.
Often, these difficult decisions are a manner of life and death. On occasions when stories bubble to the surface, zoos need to be ever mindful of public perception. Ethical dents in the armor need smoothing out, lest they become weak points vulnerable to attack by animal rights extremists. There are broad differences between locales in their approaches to public relations. Americans, for example, are more squeamish about killing animals than their European counterparts. In response to the euthanization of a giraffe in a Danish zoo, American zoo proponents were distraught, but not over the actual being that lost its life. From the New Yorker:
As Terry Maple [former director of Zoo Atlanta] put it, “If it hadn’t affected the rest of us, I’m sure we would have thought, That’s a pretty eccentric decision. But when you begin to see how it moves the people who support you—when they’re in tears, and they just can’t believe this—it starts to undermine the credibility of zoos, which have to be justified, have to be supported by the public.”
Asked several times if culling occurs in American zoos, Rob Vernon, a spokesman for AZA [Association of Zoos & Aquariums], told me, variously, “No,” “Yes,” and “That’s a good question.” He made the candid observation that his own discomfort reflected the industry’s discomfort.
American zoos do cull, and AZA rules allow it. Maple told me, “I would have never done it, most of my colleagues in the United States would have never done it.” He immediately added, “But when you get below the example of a charismatic mega-vertebrate”—a storybook species—“and go to animals that are a little less special, there are cases of killing.” He recalled Zoo Atlanta euthanizing dozens of newborn pythons with his blessing. Maple has written, critically, of “taxonomic élitism” in zoos, but, in an apparent attempt to diminish the act of snake-killing, he described the pythons to me as slithery and mean. [emphasis added]
The Danish Zoo’s primary sin was letting their embarrassing story gain widespread notoriety, something that appeared to mystify them: per the Wikipedia article linked to above, “the amount of international interest had come as a surprise to the zoo.” American zoos prefer culling to happen out of sight and unaccounted for by the public – I wasn’t able to find anything related to killing those slithery and mean pythons in the Atlanta zoo. Further on in the New Yorker article is discussion of research by David Powell, a mammologist at the St. Louis Zoo, that sheds a bit of light:
He asked thirty-three zoos about their culling practices (promising not to name them). In a co-written paper, he reported that forty-five per cent of the zoos had said they were euthanizing healthy animals; in this cohort, seventy-nine per cent were culling mammals.
[P]owell said he was confident that these percentages would hold up in a larger sample. He added that AZA’s statement about Marius [the giraffe] was “unfortunate.” Powell’s paper didn’t include specific examples of species that had been culled by the surveyed zoos. But he had the data on his computer. He opened the file and read from the screen: “Python . . . deer . . . invertebrates . . . ‘Ungulates as needed’ . . . ‘Fish or amphibians only’ . . . Guinea pigs . . . ‘Hoofed animals’ . . . rodents . . . wallabies . . . ‘domestic mammals’ . . . and a tiger.” [emphasis added]
Humans have been taking wild animals and confining them (outside of the context of animal husbandry) since the dawn of civilization. The practice arose in the walled cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. Since, they have recurred in many locations, where trade networks allowed for the importation of exotic animals from faraway lands. The purpose for this varies across location and time – from mere gazing, to fighting each other or humans, to performing tricks. For the most part, though, kings, heads of state, and the affluent have been the primary offenders, enthusiastically flaunting their wealth and power with menageries.
These collections of animals have been subject to continual evolution, an unfinished process that has given form to the zoos we recognize today, where everyone has access to the animals. They range from the large, AZA accredited zoos in major cities, to roadside zoos and wildlife parks/safaris. It’s only in the last century that zoo owners and employees began to make attempts to enhance the lives of their charges.1 This shouldn’t be seen as completely altruistic – an animal performing “normal” activities provides a better experience for viewers than pacing, staring into space, or displaying unusual or disturbing behaviors.
There is a plethora on research into stressed animals in zoos, but most of it occurs within the paradigm of animal welfare, where welfare takes confinement as an unquestioned given – the goal is to enhance/enrich the lives of those unlucky enough to be in captivity. The research is necessary, because it turns out confined animals exhibit many abnormal behaviors which have been defined under a number of terms, including zoochosis, stereotypy, and abnormal repetitive behavior.
In short, confinement is absolutely a major stress in many of the animals. It should be obvious that the surefire way to reduce these problems would be to eliminate their common denominator. But, you might say, many, if not most of these animals are no longer able to live in the wild. And certainly, there are valid concerns about reintroducing them to threatened, altered, or destroyed habitats.
However, there are solutions. The capture of wild animals could cease. Existing animals could go to animal sanctuaries. Or, better, zoos would convert into animal sanctuaries, which are nonprofit organizations and solely focused on the well-being of the animals:
An animal sanctuary is a facility where animals are brought to live and be protected for the rest of their lives. Unlike animal shelters, sanctuaries do not seek to place animals with individuals or groups, instead maintaining each animal until his or her natural death. […] The mission of sanctuaries is generally to be safe havens, where the animals receive the best care that the sanctuaries can provide. Animals are not bought, sold, or traded, nor are they used for animal testing. The resident animals are given the opportunity to behave as natural as possible in a protective environment.
What distinguishes a sanctuary from other institutions is the philosophy that the residents come first. In a sanctuary, every action is scrutinized for any trace of human benefit at the expense of non-human residents.
A sanctuary is not open to the public in the sense of a zoo; that is, the public is not allowed unescorted access to any part of the facility. A sanctuary tries not to allow any activity that would place the animals in an unduly stressful situation.2
(Any “sanctuary” that does not conform to these basic ideals should not be regarded as one, even if it’s in their title or promotional materials)
It might not take all that long for the end of zoos as we know them, were they to fundamentally alter their operations. In Derrick Jensen’s book Thought to Exist in the Wild,3 he quotes the historians Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier:
Theoretically…zoos could be closed just by calling a halt to their supply of animals for four to six years; at the end of that time, only a few veterans would remain…In actual fact, the extreme mortality of wild animals in zoos has always been the driving force behind the massive scale of importations.
It’s hard to tell what’s more depressing: capture from the wild or never knowing a wild existence. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier’s book was published in 1998 and is the only source I could find that includes research on the prevalence of wild animal capture.4 One would think that zoos would loudly tout their non-reliance on captured animals if that were truly the case. But, not surprisingly, this is information that is shrouded in secrecy and not made available for general public consumption.
Zoos will not go quietly into the night. They have every incentive to ensure their continued existence and will use any means and justifications to safeguard their social standing. Stifling unfavorable stories from filtering into public consciousness is essential, as is providing appropriate spin when they are unable to stop a leak from occurring. This is combined with their primary marketing weapons: education and conservation.
Research into zoos educating the public and instilling warm and fuzzy feelings towards animals, nature, and the importance of conservation is disparate and there is no consensus for its validity. Broadly, some research say the effects are real with learning and conservation-consciousness being gained. Some say no, not really. Zoos are adamant this is the case. This is summed up by Lori Gruen, Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University and author of The Ethics of Captivity:
[T]here has been no proof that keeping animals in zoos has actually increased the conservation interests of the people who visit zoos. There was a 2007 report, conducted by the AZA, that alleged there was an impact, but the methodology of the report was widely criticized.
More recently, Marc Bekoff, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, highlighted a study from 2014 that was neither peer-reviewed nor published in any journal, but was lauded in various media outlets as proof of the positive effects of going to the zoo:
The “proof” provided by this study is a mixed bag. Many people have jumped on the bandwagon claiming something like, “See, we were right and zoo critics were wrong, zoos do educate people.” However, the increase “in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding” as noted in the report (my emphasis on the word “some”) was only slightly more than 5 percent of a large sample [from 69.1% pre-visit to 75.1% post-visit], and in no way does it show that what people learn about biodiversity really means anything at all about how they then contribute to future conservation efforts.5
That there might be educational benefits to zoos is extremely underwhelming as a compelling rationale for their existence. Moreover, it’s abstract to the point of absurdity, as if “awareness of conservation” in children can in any way be meaningfully correlated to real world effects, as Bekoff noted. What exactly would the road map look like that connects zoos, the children and adults they educate, and actual effective conservation that is the result of that education?
Granting zoos the undeserved reputation of being the sole catalyst for the desire to learn, the acquisition of information, and for cultivating warm and fuzzy feelings toward nonhuman life is completely baseless, and the above referenced studies that espouse these views don’t seem to take other influences into account. Children are bombarded with adorably cute animals in the form of entertainment since birth. As they grow older, they learn about animals in school. Information can be found in all manner of books, television and the internet.
While one can learn about and be in awe of animals in zoos, some (I would argue most) will consciously or unconsciously learn the idea that humans have the unquestioned right to dominate the biosphere as we best see fit. They may even gain a false sense of security about the state of things based on their awareness of the supposedly great conservation work done by zoos. I think these are huge problems and should be taken into account and contrasted with the supposed education provided by these entities.
To my knowledge, these crucial aspects of zoos are not discussed with children in any kind of research (also unasked is how the children feel about the fact that the animals they see are forced to be where they are for their enjoyment). None of this is surprising. Questioning human domination isn’t something I’d expect to see addressed in a meaningful way within the context of zoos, an institution that is as stark an example as one can find – think of the absurdity of animals from the African savannah forced to live in frigid Canadian zoos.
If one accepts the notion that, at minimum, zoos foster respect for nature, they have utterly failed in transforming that respect into meaningful, positive real-world affects. This is an inescapable conclusion, of which there is little need to belabor. Most of the developed world has citizens who’ve been to zoos, going back at least a century – citizens that have played a disproportionate role in the continuing destruction of the biosphere, both actively and passively. Why would a new generation of children exposed to zoos be any different than previous generations? And if they do change things for the better (however that can be defined), the influence that zoos have will be difficult to quantify. Though, no doubt, they will wish to be given credit.
Here I will pause in my excoriation of zoos and highlight their conservation efforts. This seems like it should be an unmitigated good, but it is not without its own issues. The fact that humans have rendered so much of the globe uninhabitable for so many animals absolutely warrants attempts to help solve the problems we’ve created. That some zoos appear to do good work in the conservation sphere is commendable, and I don’t want to completely minimize their efforts.
For example, captive breeding of the endangered California condor at the San Diego Zoo has helped stave off extinction, at least so far anyways.6 However, there are other entities that do similar work, and don’t need a prison brimming with other animals to do so. As another example, numerous non-profits work toward saving whooping cranes (though I should note zoos do provide money and medical services towards these efforts). These are good things.
On the whole, though, I don’t think it’s fair to say that non-zoo conservation efforts would cease without zoo involvement and support. Unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult to disentangle the percentage of work zoos do in the conservation sphere versus non-zoo affiliated organizations, making it impossible to know how much they contribute. However, I can’t dispute that they definitely add to the totality.
Whether or not their additions are effective is a question without an answer. It should not be taken as a given that any entity claiming to do conservation is doing a good job, whether its connected to a zoo or not. An overarching theme to consider is what constitutes effective conservation work, and how to quantify this:
For far too long, conservation scientists and practitioners have depended on intuition and anecdote to guide the design of conservation investments. If we want to ensure that our limited resources make a difference, we must accept that testing hypotheses about what policies protect biological diversity requires the same scientific rigor and state-of-the-art methods that we invest in testing ecological hypotheses. Our understanding of the ecological aspects of ecosystem conservation rests, in part, on well-designed empirical studies. In contrast, our understanding of the way in which policies can prevent species loss and ecosystem degradation rests primarily on case-study narratives from field initiatives that are not designed to answer the question “Does the intervention work better than no intervention at all?”
When it comes to evaluating the success of its interventions, the field of ecosystem protection and biodiversity conservation lags behind most other policy fields (e.g., poverty reduction, criminal rehabilitation, disease control)
In the field of program evaluation, one lesson is paramount: you cannot overcome poor quality with greater quantity. We cannot learn from thousands of projects if none of these projects is designed in a way that permits an evaluation of its effectiveness. The results from a handful of well-designed individual tests can provide much more useful guidance than thousands of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects. In a field that takes the design and implementation of its initiatives seriously, we should expect to see greater value placed on evaluating the effectiveness of these initiatives.
Leaving the tenuous state of measuring conservation effectiveness aside, is zoo-funded conservation possible without the considerable weight of a zoo’s ability to marshal personnel, money and resources towards conservation projects within the context of their lucrative economic infrastructure? Probably not. Is it necessary to confine animals to generate revenue that can be used for conservation? Probably. Without widespread public patronage the money would simply not be there. Without animals to see, income would significantly decline, and there would be less funds for conservation.
In 2015, the total revenue for US zoos was $2.6 billion. It is unknown what percentage of this actually goes toward conservation. A National Geographic article from 2003 quotes a former zoo director saying that “less than 3 percent of the budgets of these 212 accredited zoos go toward conservation efforts.” The AZA estimates $216 million spent per year on conservation by accredited zoos. If that figure and the $2.6 billion in revenue from 2015 is accurate, that comes to around 8%. Of course, this is an extremely crude attempt to arrive at an answer, but there aren’t any specific data for this that I’m aware of. Regardless, it’s telling that the AZA lists neither revenue nor percentage spent on conservation. If they felt either were compelling evidence for the altruistic nature of zoos they would surely mention it.
A good consequentialist might say that if zoo support for conservation leads to more land for wild animals, and an increased chance of survival for endangered species, it is a good thing. I would counter that they are not considering the negative aspects of zoos I’ve highlighted. Moreover, we are unable to say for sure how good zoos actually are at conservation.
I also can’t help but note that conservation and education are secondary justifications for the continued confinement of wild animals that are grafted onto the primary reason: people want to see animals whenever they want. In the unlikely event that conservation efforts succeed beyond our wildest dreams, zoos probably won’t close – they are not looking towards a future that does not contain them. If that’s true, and I see no reason why it’s not, these institutions are anything but benevolent and are ultimately using conservation to serve their own interests, to the detriment of the countless animals they imprison. I’d also add that there is something truly revolting about certain unlucky animals being forced to pay the ultimate price, all in the service of solving problems they played literally zero part in creating.
I don’t think any animal should be forced to be in a position where it can’t avoid you, just so you can gawk at it, learn things about it that can be found in any number of different places, or bask in the unwarranted belief that its imprisonment is necessary to help wild animals. I operate under the assumption that a specific organism wishes to do things that are the result of the accumulation of millennia of evolutionary adaptations specific to their species – and being able to do so in the general environment where that species is found. Hindering this via captivity for human desires (not needs) is selfish, fucked up, and perpetuates the relatively unquestioned and indefensible cultural narrative of humanity as benevolent rulers of the earth (we can thank Western religions for this, but Western science and philosophy are also culpable). This narrative is increasingly in need of moral justifications for obvious reasons. Not too long ago, such attempts were unnecessary, and the righteousness of our domination was implicitly understood by the general populace: abiotic phenomena and nonhuman animals are ours to do with what we please.
You want to see a lion? Tough shit, I’d say if it were up to me. Of course, wild lions can be seen if you live near their natural habitats. If you don’t, you can travel there, though this is, of course, something only available to the wealthy. I acknowledge this isn’t very fair. But seeing a bored lion in a tiny, grotesque facsimile of their homeland shouldn’t get to be the consolation prize.
That anyone could see penguins in a makeshift “habitat” aimlessly wandering around, read or have a small amount of information presented, and take more from that than the video embedded below (from Planet Earth II, via Time), which captures both the beauty and brutality of nature, is cultural insanity.
I have little doubt that if the world were a better place for nonhuman animals, zoos would still exist. I can see the justification now: there are so many giraffes, wolves, seals, etc. that it doesn’t matter if we confine a few (that it would matter to those specific animals is and always has been irrelevant). Human greed can always find way.
Many fervently believe that children need to see certain animals in person in order to develop a sense of empathy for their plight in the Anthropocene. And there may be some validity to that. But there are actual wild animals in our midst, even in cities, which largely go unnoticed, that is, if they’re not regarded as pests. Sure, they’re not as exotic and awe-inspiring as charismatic megafauna from other continents, but they are our neighbors, and intrinsically as worthy of respect and curiosity. I would argue it’s much more interesting to watch sparrows doing sparrow things, than a bored animal in a pathetic representation of its habitat staring off into space or playing infantile games designed by humans to mitigate boredom. Unfortunately, I do realize this is a hard sell to most.
I wonder if it would be sufficient to explain to children, in simple language, the reasons why one might be against zoos and why animal confinement is problematic. For example, my wife, an animal-lover though not as virulently anti-zoo as I, told me about a discussion in the 5th grade class she teaches centered on the book The One and Only Ivan (which I had never heard of, and is about the true story of caged animals living at a mall). Basically, the kids were not okay with this. However, they weren’t able to, nor were asked to think about, how their feelings on the book contrasted with their general affinity for zoos and why caging Ivan in a mall is wrong, while caging animals in zoos is not. It’s likely that parents wouldn’t have been too keen on this and, overall, I’m not sure the general public will be receptive to this line of thinking anytime soon.
I hope one day zoos go the way of SeaWorld and the circus. More so than the latter, they are an ingrained part of society, for better or worse. The preceding has made clear that I see it as more for the worse, but I realize this point of view is in the minority. Zoos are cheap, convenient, profitable, and popular. Anti-zoo zealots such as myself are likely seen as PETA-adjacent lunatics, caring more about nonhuman animals than actual humans. Then again, this is probably what people thought about with regards to SeaWorld before Blackfish. If a paradigm shift ever were to occur, people will likely wonder how and why it took so long.
1. ↩ I’m sure many zookeepers, handlers and technicians care about the animals. Some probably think they have special relationships with them. And I really don’t give a shit. They are part of the problem. I am reluctant to compare human prisoners to nonhuman prisoners, but at least prison guards have reason to think the inmates are guilty of something that necessitated their imprisonment. There are zero reasons for zoo workers to think this.
To dissuade accredited zoos from endorsing sanctuaries — as the Detroit and Milwaukee zoos had done — the [AZA] adopted harsh punishments designed to hurt zoos’ bottom lines.
This summer, the AZA used that power when Toronto City Council members voted to shut down the zoo’s elephant exhibit and retire three African elephants to the California sanctuary. Council members decided that captivity was harmful.
The zoo association revoked Toronto’s accreditation, preventing the exchange of animals with other accredited zoos.
But the association does allow zoos to give their unwanted elephants to circuses, where breeding can occur.
That the AZA had a more favorable view towards circuses than sanctuaries is very revealing. However, this article was from 2012. Last year, one sanctuary was accredited as a “Related Facility” Another sanctuary was accredited in 2011. Though this is publicized on their website, they aren’t currently on the AZA’s list. With animal-centered circuses dying, perhaps zoos are more amenable to coordinating with their ideological enemies – it’s probably becoming a more attractive option than running the risk of animal cull stories reaching the public.
3. ↩ Jensen’s book contains gut-wrenching stories of wild animal capture/imprisonment through the past century in the hunters’ own words, as well as tragic accounts of bought, sold, loaned and discarded animals. Very common themes include destroyed familial relationships, exposure to trauma, and sickening cruelty. Here’s one particularly gruesome example:
William Hampton, the owner of another AAZPA-accredited [now known as the AZA] zoo, came up with an even more ingenious money-making scheme. For several years he bought and traded U.S. zoo animals, until a member of a local humane society discovered a fenced compound with crates bearing the names of major zoos from across the country. Peter Batten describes what happened next: “Further investigation revealed a trailer filled with the putrefying remains of dismembered animals and led to the discovery that Hampton and his associates had systematically slaughtered surplus zoo animals, skinned them, and sold heads and pelts as wall trophies. Living evidence was provided by American alligators, found with jaws taped and starving to assure unblemished hides for eventual sale.”
This example, and other grotesque anecdotes described by Jensen largely occurred before 1990 (but not all). This may give enough wiggle room for zoo proponents to claim that things are surely better. But then again, there doesn’t seem to be evidence to the contrary aside from zoo propaganda. Make no mistake, there are horror stories behind the sanitized spaces open to the public. It takes investigative work to uncover them, and it doesn’t always lead to media attention. Unfortunately, bringing these stories to light is getting even more difficult in the US:
Two weeks into the Trump Administration, thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide have been removed from the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been posting them publicly for decades. These are the inspection records and annual reports for every commercial animal facility in the U.S.—including zoos, breeders, factory farms, and laboratories.
These records have revealed many cases of abuse and mistreatment of animals, incidents that, if the reports had not been publicly posted, would likely have remained hidden. This action plunges journalists, animal welfare organizations, and the public at large into the dark about animal welfare at facilities across the country.
4. ↩ Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier also demolish the idea that animals in zoos live longer than their wild counterparts. This is worth a brief mention, but no more – even if the reverse were true, a long life obviously doesn’t correlate to living a good life.
5. ↩ If you click on the link to the study, note the visitor survey they utilize. It includes a section in which respondents are to write what “comes to mind when you think of biodiversity” before and after visits, and if they can “think of an action that you could take to help save animal species.” None of the raw data appears to be available and it would be interesting to see some of the answers. For example, there is a pie chart labeled “Categorisation of self‑reported post‑visit actions or behaviours to help protect biodiversity,” that contains 11 slices. The second largest portion is “other related comment;” the largest slice is “Recycling and Waste Management” (which surely could’ve been learned elsewhere). I wonder what these “other related comments” were, especially since they evidently weren’t able to easily categorize them.
I have other critiques, but this post is already long enough as it is. Nonetheless, it seems that, given the statistics referenced above, there is already a not insignificant amount of “positive evidence of biodiversity understanding” present before the visit to the zoo. That being said, the presentation is a very slick and impressive looking piece of propaganda.
6. ↩ Far less than half of the animals in zoos are from endangered species. However, the AZA has a Species Survival Plan (SSP) program which many zoos participate in. The program “aims to manage the breeding of specific endangered species in order to help maintain healthy and self-sustaining populations that are both genetically diverse and demographically stable” (the article, from Scientific American, is weirdly undated and no author is listed leading me to think it’s hidden sponsored content). The goal of many, but not all, SSP’s is “is the reintroduction of captive-raised endangered species into their native wild habitats.” There doesn’t appear to be any objective research into the efficacy of these programs, but I’m a bit less cynical about them – attempting to save endangered species is good. But countless variables need to be taken into account for every particular situation in determining what does and doesn’t work. There are criticisms, and it shouldn’t be taken as an article of faith that these programs are effective.
Note that animal sanctuaries theoretically would be able to perform these activities, but with an added component of breeding, and all that that entails. However, money would certainly be an issue if the public weren’t guaranteed to actually see the animals were they to visit.