Another Rant — or What is a Zoo’s Worth?

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

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

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

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

penguins at Philly Zoo

17 thoughts on “Another Rant — or What is a Zoo’s Worth?

  1. I don’t enjoy zoos anymore – even the few that are good ones – for in every case I find it to be heartbreaking. I see it in the animals eyes, and I wonder if even the animals that have been saved from death would rather have died in freedom. But, maybe they don’t think in such grand concepts, I certainly don’t know. Anyway, as an adult, I have no use for them. Good post! Peace . . .

    • I agree with you, it is heartbreaking — especially to see the leopards and lions pace in circles which is due to stress and depression. When I went to the Philly zoo on a trip with my daughter’s class, it was very sad to see the penguins, polar bear, and seals living in such small areas. Some of the habitats were adequate but most were too small, too confined. I know they work with what they have money-wise, but my daughter and I both came away very disheartened by the experience.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have not gone to a zoo in decades. When people tell me seeing wild animals makes them appreciate them, I explain those are not wild animals: they are captured wild animals. There is a difference. Capturing a wild animal and especially showing it to children, only gives them the idea of man’s (sic) power over creation (never a fair fight anyway) and our right to wreak havoc in animal communities. I understand there is some value to taking in injured or endangered species, but the point should be to return them to the wild AND as you say not to create the necessity for sanctuaries in the first place!

    Heck, even as a child on a field trip to the Los Angeles Zoo, I knew there was something wrong about a polar bear living in all of that heat!

    • You’re right about humans feeling a power over animals. I’ve ranted about that on here before and I’m definitely of the same mindset as you on that subject. I find most zoos to be disturbing and depressing places. I can count on one hand (and have fingers left over) how many zoos are run well (in MY opinion). But again, no matter how well run and how well managed, I’m not sure the “benefits” of captivity are worth the loss of freedom. It’s sort of like a vicious circle created by humans…we make living in the wild impossible by killing/poaching animals, stealing their habitat or their food, and then to make up for it we place them in cages so people can go and look at them. I wish I had the answers to the problem. Although, I think the answers are easy, it’s the implementation that is impossible.

  3. I am with you 100%. An excellent ‘rant’ or rather powerful argument. The fight should be to maintain natural habitat, not to use animals as a form of entertainment. Thank you for posting this.

  4. Unfortunately there are some endangered species that rely on zoo breeding programmes to survive. Some modern zoos are reversing the way animals are kept. The enclosures are very large and multiple species can roam together. The human visitors are confined instead.

    At what point does a zoo become a sanctuary? In my own country, the only hope for many indigenous species are man-made shelters from introduced competitors and predators. Some cases these may be zoos. In others, it may be large areas protected by kilometres of animal-proof fencing. In other cases it may be offshore islands free from introduced species. Until a time comes when mankind no longer threatens the existence of flora and fauna, zoos/sanctuaries/reserves etc will continue to be a necessary evil in my view.

    • Thanks for reading! I guess instead of sanctuaries, I should’ve said wildlife preserves — by sanctuary I meant the kind you describe where they are acres upon acres in size and are protected. I agree that some zoos have excellent programs for endangered species. The only bad thing about that is the fact that humans made them endangered in the first place — so it’s a vicious circle. I’m sure many zoos wish they could have better habitats and such but it all depends on funding and they’re not funded nearly enough, generally speaking. I couldn’t agree with you more that everything hinges on mankind no longer threatening the existence of so many species of animals…sadly I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  5. Some great points! I used to volunteer at a large zoo that was doing some good work. The polar bears they housed had been rescued from the circus. They were underweight and quite distraught, but begin to gain and thrive at the larger zoo habitat. These are the instances when the animals are better off, but it would be great for animals that can stay in the wild to do so. Like you said, in a perfect world!

  6. Interesting post, and one that tried to take a balanced view. This is not black and white as you say. On balance I would say that well-run zoos are a good thing for the reasons you list – but, sadly, not all meet that standard. A badly-run zoo with stressed / depressed animals is a terrible place.

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