Zoos are establishments that put captive animals on display for human observation. It began around 2500 BC when Mesopotamian rulers kept exotic animals in cages. Today, the modern zoo has evolved to be a center that promotes the study of animal ecology, behaviors, and husbandry management. However, unsanitary zoo practices still exist in the 21st century. And it begs the question, should zoos be banned?
This article will explore the positive and negative aspects of zoological parks. By examining the pros and cons of zoos, we'll get answers to our burning questions. Should zoos be banned?
What are the positive impacts of zoos on the environment?
Some zoos have positive impacts on the environment and the wildlife ecosystem. Some of these benefits are the following:
1. Zoos are protecting endangered species.
Many zoos protect species on the verge of extinction. Zoos focus on three conservation aspects, says Nabila Aziz, the developer of the International Species Information System. These aspects are practice, advocacy, and research. The World Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) defines zoos as conservation centers responsible for the ecosystem's health and welfare.
Wildlife populations are going extinct at an alarming rate. Wildlife animals are extinct or on the verge of extinction because the rapid growth in the human population destroys their habitats. Climate change, overhunting, habitat fragmentation, and introduction of invasive species also contribute to the extinction of wildlife animal species.
Human urbanization leaves us detached from the horror experienced by the wildlife ecosystem. So, we are unaware of the drastic effects of the extinction of a single plant or animal on an entire ecosystem.
Many zoos have frozen zoos where they freeze plant seeds and animal tissues. Frozen zoos preserve years of genetic evolution and variability. In 2004, the Frozen Ark Project invited zoos to participate actively in their frozen project. The goal is to save the genetic materials of endangered animals before they become extinct.
Apart from this, zoos accredited by the World Association for Zoos and Aquariums must have a conservation plan. Zoos take several species and protect them from extinction. They'd reintroduce the species back into the wild if it does become extinct.
An example of a zoological conservation effort is the United States reintroduction program of the black-footed ferret at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Smithsonian National Zoo. Another example is the conservation of desert antelope and Mexican wolf at the Smithsonian National Zoo7.
2. Zoos educate the public about animals and their habitats.
Zoos are quite vocal about their educational role in society. Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited zoos have a predominant educational theme in their mission statements.
The 1993 Conservation Organization Strategy created specific goals for zoos to include in their educational purposes2. These goals are;
- To clarify that nature conservation affects everyone,
- Increase public awareness of the connections between human consumption and the survival of species and biological systems,
- And inform the public about the threatened status of animals.
Zoos play a huge role in educating the public about wild animals, their habitats, and their role in the ecosystem. Zoos offer guided tours to visitors. Some zoos even send out representatives to schools to educate students with pictures and videos.
An animal lover often visits zoos to learn more about animals and their natural behaviors. Schools and other educational institutions organize excursions to visit zoos to boost students' knowledge about many zoo animals.
The University of Warwick researched 3,000 schoolchildren. Results showed trips to the zoo build a child's science and conservation education beyond classroom learning. The 3000 students tested were between the ages of seven and fourteen. Researchers quizzed them before and after a trip to the ZSL London Zoo. 53% of 3,000 students improved their knowledge of wildlife and conservation topics.
3. They rehabilitate wild animals.
Many zoos help rehabilitate and care for animals like otters, sea turtles, and manatees. Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited zoos work with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). They accept injured animals, nurse them, and release the healthy animals back into their natural habitats.
The Indian government enforced a ban to stop the exhibition and performance of 5 wild animals in circus programs. These animals include lions, tigers, leopards, monkeys, and bears. Then, the Ministry of Environment and Forests allotted the care and rehabilitation of these animals to the Central Zoo Authority (CZA).
Since 1999, the Central Zoo Authority rehabilitated 314 lions and tigers from circuses5. They provide healthcare, food, and a safe space for the animals to revert to their natural well-being. Furthermore, zoos save endangered species from poachers and predators when they take them into their care.
Other examples of zoo rehabilitation were the Cincinnati Zoo, Botanical Garden, and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. They partnered with USFWS to rescue and provide critical care for injured manatees.
4. Zoos engage in captive breeding as a part of animal conservation.
Earlier, we spoke about zoos' contribution to wildlife conservation. Many zoos save many animals from extinction through breeding programs. They collaborate with other zoological institutions to pair and breed captive animals. They don't just produce any animal. Zoos breed animals that are rare and on the verge of extinction in controlled environments. Once the population is large enough, they reintroduce most animals into their natural habitat.
The first successful captive breeding was the Arabian oryx. The Arabian oryx's habitat used to be the Arabian Peninsula, but they became extinct in 1972. However, the Phoenix Zoo started a captive breeding experiment in 1962. They produced over 200 oryxes offspring from 9 captive oryxes. In 1982, they reintroduced the first set of Arabian oryx to Oman. Their population expanded over two decades, and there are over a thousand oryxes in the Middle East1.
Another instance of successful captive breeding happened with the California Condor. The birds were on the verge of extinction in the 1980s because of lead poisoning. By 1987, there were only 27 birds left. The San Diego Zoo successfully bred enough California Condor birds and reintroduced 88 birds in 19998.
What are the negative impacts of zoos on wild animals?
On the other hand, let's tackle the possible adverse effects of this type of establishment. Here are the following negative impacts you might want to look into:
1. Poor animal welfare is prevalent in many zoos.
Some zoos aren't ethical. They have poor animal welfare, making life for animals stressful, unhappy, and boring. Many wild animals are captured from their natural habitats and transported to zoos in uncomfortable enclosures.
Zoos put animals in small, confined cages that limit their movements. These animals no longer have the luxury of living in their preferred habitats. For instance, the space lions and elephants get in zoos doesn't grant them up to 1% of their freedom in the wild. PETA reported Cherokee Zoo confines bears in barren concrete pits. The bears have no access to soft earth they need to dig. These bears have arthritis and cannot walk in their concrete confinement.
Keeping animals in spaces with a lack of adequate physical and mental stimulation leaves them sad and depressed. The lack of environmental enrichment causes animals to lay dormant and uninterested in their surroundings4.
Some zoos try replicating the animal's natural habitat, but it's not just the same thing. Zoos can't copy a natural habitat because it's more than just the aesthetic of the wild. It's an entire ecosystem. Some zoos claim to protect animals but don't care for them adequately. The zoo animals don't have access to proper health care and feeding schedules.
They separate offspring from their parents prematurely, causing irreparable mental damage to both animals. Animals that experience severe stress and mistreatment don't live as long as their mates in the wild.
2. Some zoos exploit animals for the sake of profit generation.
Some zoos exploit the animals in their care for profit. They use unhealthy training methods to train animals to perform tricks so they can attract visitors. The animals perform tricks for entertainment. Unethical zookeepers give stressed animals drugs like antipsychotics, tranquilizers, or antidepressants.
3. Captivity changes the behaviors of animals.
The conditions of captivity cause psychological stress in animals. The stress often leads to bigger problems like weight loss, immune system changes, and a reduction in their reproductive functions. Many humans expect animals to adapt to their captivity conditions because they have adequate food and health care.
However, confinement in a limited space, unfamiliar environment, and human presence do more harm. Animals become a shadow of themselves. They are not as active as they would be in their own natural habitats. These stress-induced behaviors are present in some animals even when they are released into the wild3.
4. Some zoos kill baby animals.
Animal offspring attract more visitors than older animals. For zoos, more visitors equals more profit. So, they force animals to mate and produce more offspring to entertain visitors. Also, most zoos partake in international mating programs to protect endangered species. There are often times when the zoo has more offspring than expected.
These zoos kill surplus animals to avoid overpopulation in the zoo. This is very cruel and unjust. The killing of 'surplus' and unwanted offspring is widespread in European zoos6.
For instance, Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed four healthy male lion cubs and a young male giraffe in 2014. The giraffe's name was Marius. The zookeeper shot the young giraffe and fed his carcass to lions while the children were present. Zoos also kill older animals because they don't fit into the plans to gain profit.
Should zoos be banned?
Humans always debate the existence of zoos. There are usually two sides to the argument. One side claims that the existence of zoos is safe for animals, while the other side argues that the absence of zoos is more beneficial to animals. The unending argument leads to the question, should zoos be banned?
Examining the positive aspects mentioned above gives reasons we shouldn't ban zoos. Modern zoos promote the protection and conservation of wild animals. They also partake in animal rehabilitation and can be a source of education to the public and support wider conservation efforts.
However, their negative impacts outweigh their positive aspects. Humans who think zoos should be banned are not wrong. Most animals die prematurely in zoos because of mistreatment and poor animal care. Some die prematurely because zookeepers murdered them to control the zoo population.
Also, captivity creates psychological stress in animals. They don't function as they would in their natural habitats. They suffer from weight loss, low energy, anxiety, and reproductive problems.
Many would agree that banning zoos makes sense when considering these disadvantages. However, that is next to impossible. This is because zoos are profit-oriented. As long as they make a profit, they will continue to exist. It doesn't matter whether it's safe for animals or not.
Since we can't eliminate zoos, we should move on to the next best solution, which offers more animal protection. Humans should ensure that most zoos in the world maintain healthy animal conditions. Zoos that violate animal safety sanctions should be shut down.
Should zoos be banned? Overall, zoos have positive and negative impacts on animals and the ecosystem - and the variance is largely down to the zoo's quality, animal safeguarding measures, funding, and ethics. But they cause a lot more harm than good. Animal welfare is taken for granted in most zoos. Also, captivity alters the psychological state of most animals. Unfortunately, we cannot ban them because they are profit-oriented.
Instead, we should advocate for stricter policies to keep zoos in check. First, there should be severe fines and punishments for zookeepers who maltreat and murder wild animals. Next, zoos that cannot treat the animals in their care should be closed down. Finally, the government should move the animals to animal sanctuaries.
Rawahi, Q. A., Mijangos, J. L., Khatkar, M. S., Al-Abri, M., AlJahdhami, M. H., Kaden, J., Senn, H., Brittain, K., & Gongora, J. (2022). Rescued back from extinction in the wild: past, present and future of the genetics of the Arabian oryx in Oman. Royal Society Open Science, 9(3).
IUDZG/CBSG (IUCN/SSC). (1993). The World Zoo Conservation Strategy; The Role of the Zoos and Aquaria of the World in Global Conservation.
Fischer, C. P., & Romero, L. M. (2019). Chronic captivity stress in wild animals is highly species-specific. Conservation Physiology, 7(1).
Meagher, R. K., & Mason, G. (2012). Environmental enrichment reduces signs of boredom in caged mink. PLOS ONE, 7(11), e49180.
Gupta, B. K., & Chakraborty, B. (2005). The role of zoos in the rehabilitation of animals in the circus. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 8(4), 285–294.
Gunasekera, C. A. (2018). The ethics of killing “Surplus” zoo animals. Journal of Animal Ethics, 8(1), 93–102.
Patrick, P. G., & Tunnicliffe, S. D. (2012). Rationale for the existence of zoos. In Springer eBooks (pp. 19–35).
Patrick, P. G., & Tunnicliffe, S. D. (2012). Rationale for the existence of zoos. In Springer eBooks (pp. 19–35).