For someone who walks around with animal well-being on the brain all day it should come as no surprise that the concept of a zoo stirs up some strong emotions. Most of us have fond memories of going to the zoo on a school trip and seeing some of the most amazing animals the world has to offer. I know that I’ve always loved the zoo. Never did we consider the conditions the animals were being kept in, the possible struggle they feel being kept in a small pen when their DNA is screaming for acres of open land, or the lack of social stimulation they have by restricting their interactions with others of their species.
Through one prism a zoo is just like a prison. The only difference is that the animals didn’t do anything to be there. They’re not convicted felons, arsonists, thieves, and rapists. And yet I feel like they’re treated similarly to an extent. Many zoos around the world are poorly maintained and these innocent animals suffer for it. A prime example of course is the Copenhagen Zoo. The brilliant officials running that place thought it was best to kill a giraffe simply because they had over-bred/inbred their giraffe family. The giraffe’s genes were too similar to the other giraffes in the breeding program therefore it wouldn’t be wise to continue mashing those chromosomes together. This was not the giraffe’s fault. It did not ask to be the child of a small gene pool. Regardless, it was punished as if it did make the choice to be incompatible. A cruel and pointless death of a perfectly healthy creature.
Likewise, the very same zoo mismanaged their lion pride and killed four healthy lions (two older males and two cubs) to bring in one younger male who was apparently ready to knock up a lioness immediately and would’ve killed the cubs in no time. I’m guessing the idea to perhaps…oh I don’t know…separate the cubs and new male just didn’t cross the officials’ minds. Or even better, leave their pride as it was, intact. But it came down to money and the cubs’ lives simply were not profitable. Sadly, this zoo is not an exception to the rule. Copenhagen is just one of the only ones to get caught.
elephants at Philly Zoo
Breeding aside, the everyday lives the animals endure are something of a concern as well. Giving a polar bear a pool of water big enough to fit maybe two of them is not the equivalent of being “free.” It’s not even the illusion of freedom. Do you know how far a polar bear can swim? How far zebras and elephants can walk? It’s in their nature to roam and the zoo puts a tight lid on that. Nothing about the way they live is natural. Their food is handed to them. Their mates are introduced at specific times. They’re constantly surrounded by people pointing and yelling at them. And we wonder why they pace in circles all day long.
polar bear at Philly Zoo
Zoo advocates can easily say that they may be getting the best, most nutritious food available. That the animals are never in danger of being hunted. That by taking them out of nature they are essentially given a life free of stress. But it’s a known fact that animals in captivity (especially larger animals) get depressed and while their lifespan may be longer I have reservations regarding it being more pleasant. In some instances the depression and/or lack of activity leads to chronic illness. So while they live a long life, is a life in captivity a fair exchange for a few more years? It’s hard to say.
leopard at Philly Zoo
On the other hand, some zoos have excellent programs focusing on saving endangered species. Other zoos take in wounded animals that would have died if left in the wild. For example, the San Francisco zoo houses two bald eagles, both of which were found near the brink of death (one is missing its right wing) but are now basking in the California sunshine rather than turning into compost. There is a zoo in Virginia that is strictly a rescue zoo taking in animals that have been injured and subsequently rehabilitated. It’s a small zoo, but hey, the animals in their care would otherwise be dead because they certainly wouldn’t make it on their own in the wild.
Zoos also give children the chance to see exotic animals up close, hopefully creating a stronger bond (and therefore empathy) between human and animal that might carry over into a growing affinity for participating in conservation efforts….an extremely important cause. Plus, if not for a zoo, where else would most kids get the chance to see a hippo in real life?
In a perfect world we would have wild-life sanctuaries or nature preserves for all the endangered species but let’s face it, that’s never going to happen. Actually, in a perfect world, there would be no endangered species because we, as humans, wouldn’t have continually destroyed the habitat of so many fellow creatures (but that’s a rant for another day). In lieu of wide-spread sanctuaries or nature preserves, if a zoo is truly well run, well maintained and well-managed maybe it’s a good thing.
I’m not going to lie, I enjoy going to the zoo. Certain ones anyway. Unfortunately there are too many zoos that aren’t kept up to the standards I think they should be held to. I feel they need to be strictly monitored but even so, even if the animals are ensured safety by living in this fake habitat; is that worth the cost of their freedom? Ask yourself this: If you could check into a hotel for the rest of your life, all food is paid for, no charge, but you could never leave (hmm…that reminds me of a song), would that be a fair deal? Oh, and people can look in your windows whenever they want. Sound good? No? So then what’s the cost of your freedom? It’s a difficult question. I certainly don’t have the answer to it.
penguins at Philly Zoo