Why the world needs zoos
Dr Dave Hone for The Guardian
The ongoing extinction crises shows that zoos are needed – even for common species
Ring-tailed Lemurs are very common in zoos but critically endangered in the wild
I have written before about the importance of zoos and the role they have to play in the world for conservation and education. They are in particularly important for endangered species – many animals are critically endangered in the wild and may go extinct there soon but are going strong in zoos. Many others are already extinct in the wild and only survive because of populations kept going in captivity. Even those critical of zoos often recognise this role and that it is better to have species preserved somewhere than be lost for all time. However, even species that are common can come under severe threat very quickly or without people realising.
Take the ring-tailed lemur of Madagascar for example. This animal is almost ubiquitous in zoos and few do not keep groups of these pretty primates as they breed well in captivity and the public are fond of them. However, despite their high numbers in collections around the world, they are under severe threat in the wild. A recent survey suggested that a huge 95% of the wild populations have been lost since 2000. This is clearly catastrophic and also means that the remaining individuals are greatly at risk. One bad year or a new disease could wipe out those that are left, and small and fragmented populations will be vulnerable to inbreeding so even a single loss can be keenly felt.
Such trends are not isolated. Giraffe are another species that are very common in zoos and unlike the lemurs are very widespread being found in numerous countries across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Anyone who has been on safari in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa or plenty of other countries will have had no trouble in seeing plenty of them in the wild and yet giraffe populations have gone down by a third in the last thirty years. While less dramatic than the lemurs, this is obviously a major loss and again, whole populations (which some scientists think are in fact unique species) are on the verge of extinction.
Cheetahs too, despite protection and efforts to support populations, are showing a major decline in their wild populations, primates as a whole are doing badly (it is suggested some 60% of species are at risk) and that’s on top of the major crisis facing huge numbers of amphibian species. Many other species are probably facing sudden drops in numbers and some estimates are particularly worrying with suggestions that 50% of species could be gone at the end of this century. Conservationists struggle to monitor even species known to be vulnerable, so it is easy to see why common species might be overlooked especially if the perception is that they are not at risk because there are large numbers. Even a dramatic local loss might be overlooked on the assumption they are populous elsewhere but clearly that’s not always the case.
Ongoing and future issues from climate change (more extreme weather events, as well as things like overall warming and sea level changes) can have dramatic and unexpected effects on wildlife and we will likely struggle to predict which might be at risk. The numbers of species showing major losses, and the number that we overlook until things are already critical is only likely to rise. A new study suggests that climate change has already harmed over half of all mammal species on the endangered species list for example, and that is only likely to increase as more species are put under pressure from climate change and other environmental pressures.
In short, while zoos do provide a critical reservoir for endangered species, many other animals may yet become endangered very soon, or already are and we don’t know about it. Those species that are held in zoos are already protected from any such events and trends. In may not be long until ring tailed lemurs and many other species are only held in zoos and their loss from the world would be otherwise both tragic and irreversible.
There will, I suspect, always be resistance to the arguments for keeping animals in captivity and I will not defend those bad zoos desperately in need of improvement or closure. But if we wish to keep any real measure of biodiversity on the planet, we may lean on zoos and aquaria far more than many realise. If even common and popular species can lose a huge percentage of their populations in a few years, it may be too late to save them with even the best breeding programs or conservation efforts in the wild. As seen here, too often we do not even know a species is under threat until their numbers have crashed to dangerously low levels and this is a trend that is only likely to continue.
Several species, such as the Black Footed Ferret and the Scimitar-Horned Oryx were once extinct in the wild, but were saved by captive breeding programmes and reintroduced to their natural habitat.
Much of the argument that zoos are inherently cruel is based on very dubious anthropmorphism and ignorance about animals’ life in the wild. Whether an animal is unhappy in captivity depends very much on the species and the environment it is kept in.
Zoos: An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone
It’s been many centuries since Montezuma first caged jaguars and monkeys for the public’s entertainment. Today, however, people have become much more informed about the needs and behavior of wild animals and the toll that captivity takes on them.
Animals kept in zoos are denied everything that makes their lives meaningful. Every aspect of their lives is controlled and manipulated. They have virtually no choice in what or when they eat, whom they mate with, or whom they share space with. They are housed in cages that don’t come close to resembling the jungles, savannahs, and forests that are their natural homes.
Instead of providing lifetime care, zoos routinely trade, lend, sell, barter, and warehouse animals they no longer want—despite knowing that many species form lasting bonds that are important to their long-term health and happiness. Removing animals from established social groups and forcing them to adjust repeatedly to new routines, different caretakers, and unfamiliar cagemates is disruptive and traumatic.
Animal welfare often takes a backseat to the bottom line. Precious financial resources, including taxpayer subsidies, are often squandered on fancy entrances and amusement rides when every cent should be spent to improve the animals’ living conditions. But even the biggest cage with species-appropriate enrichment is still a pale comparison to the natural ecosystems where wild animals belong.
Many countries around the world have no laws whatsoever to protect captive animals. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) licenses animal exhibitors and is supposed to enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). But permits are issued to nearly anyone who fills out an application and sends in a fee.
Generally, the AWA addresses basic husbandry issues. Animals must be fed, watered, and provided with shelter, yet cages can have cement floors and there’s no requirement for grass, greenery, or other natural vegetation. Cage space regulations generally are interpreted to require only that the animals be provided with enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around, and move around a bit. Some animals, including reptiles, fish, and other cold-blooded animals, are specifically excluded from the AWA. Appallingly, even though Congress amended the AWA in 2002 to include birds used for exhibition as regulated (protected) animals, the USDA continues to turn a blind eye to captive birds’ suffering.
While local authorities do have the legal power to enforce state cruelty laws for animals suffering in zoos, the vast majority simply refuse to take action, passing the buck to the USDA.
Captivity Drives Animals Insane
Zoos are inherently unnatural environments. Animals who are meant to roam or fly over vast territories are forced to exist in worlds measured in square feet. Predators are housed in close proximity to prey species. Animals who shun contact with humans have no way to escape daily contact with them. Many develop neurotic and self-harming behavior (called “stereotypies” or “zoochosis”) that are rarely, if ever, observed in the wild. Primates throw feces and eat their own vomit. Birds pluck out their own feathers. Elephants sway back and forth all day long. Tigers pace incessantly, and polar bears swim endless figure-eights.
Aquatic animals suffer, too. A study conducted by the Captive Animals’ Protection Society concluded that 90 percent of public aquariums studied had animals who showed stereotypic (neurotic) behavior, such as repeatedly raising their heads above the surface of the water, spinning around an imaginary object, and frequently turning on one side and rubbing along the floor of the tank.
Zoos defend their breeding programs under the pretext of conservation, but many of the species that are being bred aren’t endangered or threatened. Baby animals bring paying visitors through the gates. Very few, if any, of the captive-bred species that do face extinction in the wild—including elephants, polar bears, gorillas, tigers, and chimpanzees—will ever be released back into their natural environments to bolster dwindling populations. Captive breeding replenishes zoos’ animal inventories and ensures that they sell tickets.
Exploitation, Not Education
Keeping animals in cages does nothing to foster respect for animals since all children learn is that animals will spend their lives behind bars for people’s fleeting distraction and amusement. Study after study, including by the zoo industry itself, has shown that most zoo visitors simply wander around the grounds, pause briefly in front of some displays, and spend their time on snacks and bathroom breaks. One study of visitors to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., showed that visitors spent less than eight seconds per snake exhibit and only one minute with the lions. Researchers concluded that “people … treat[ed] the exhibits like wallpaper.” In fact, numerous studies have shown that exhibiting animals in unnatural settings may undermine conservation by leaving the public with the idea that a species must not be in jeopardy if the government is allowing it to be used for display and entertainment.
Even the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) itself has concluded that claims that zoo exhibits might contribute to conservation “were not substantiated or validated by actual research,” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said that it has “sincere doubts” about the conservation benefits from public exhibitions of wildlife and no longer accepts “education” as a basis for issuing Endangered Species Act permits.
Danger Behind Bars
Zoos leave animals vulnerable to a variety of dangers from which they have no defense or opportunity to escape. Animals in zoos have been poisoned, left to starve, deprived of veterinary care, and burned alive in fires. Some have died after eating coins, plastic bags, and other items thrown into their cages. Still others have been killed or stolen by people who were able to gain access to their exhibits. During natural disasters, such as floods and wildfires, there may be no way to evacuate every animal to safety.
A bear starved to death at the Toledo Zoo after zoo officials locked her up to hibernate without food or water—not knowing that her species doesn’t hibernate. At the Niabi Zoo in Illinois,a3-month-old lion cub was euthanized after his spinal cord was crushed by a falling exhibit door.
There are many ways to learn about and appreciate animals without supporting zoos. Nature documentaries abound in which animals are shown behaving naturally in their rightful homes. IMAX theaters offer films such as Born to Be Wild 3D, which documents the lives of orphaned orangutans and elephants and the work of the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them—saving endangered species one life at a time.
John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first undersea park created in the United States. Combined with the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the park encompasses 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps. You can swim there with the animals—in their home and on their terms.
North America’s only natural freshwater “aquarium” is located in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Opened in 1990, The Suncor Energy Fluvarium has nine panoramic glimpses into a real diverted brook, where brown trout swim freely in and out of the viewing areas, which include deep and shallow ponds and a fast-flowing “riffle” where the fish spawn in the fall.
The following are a few examples of how captivity adversely affects the well-being of various species commonly found in zoos.
In the wild, great apes live in dense tropical forests, where these highly social beings are constantly engaged and active in a rich and diverse environment. They show love for one another, laugh, play, and grieve.
Elephants in their natural habitats are on the move for up to 18 hours each day. In a single day, a herd can cover a distance of up to 30 miles. In addition to walking, elephants regularly dig, forage, swim, climb, rub on trees, take mud baths, and experience a variety of terrains and substrates, such as leafy jungle floors, grass, and sand. They live in matriarchal groups and share mothering responsibilities for the herd’s babies.
Bears are long-lived animals, with life spans ranging from 15 to 30 years. In the wild, they live in diverse habitats, including tundra, alpine meadows, and forests. Their home range can cover thousands of square miles. They are opportunistic feeders who are always investigating and exploring their environment, digging up and raking through vegetation, debarking trees, excavating, and lifting and turning over objects to find tasty snacks.
Scientists at the University of Oxford have concluded that large, roving predators show stereotypical symptoms of stress when kept in captivity, because they are unable to satisfy their instinct to roam. Given that the average tiger enclosure is about 18,000 times smaller than the animals’ natural roaming range, it is simply impossible for these animals to express instinctive behavior such as staking out territory in dense forests, choosing mates, running, climbing, and hunting. It’s little surprise that so many captive big cats snap. Countless people have been seriously injured, maimed, and killed by tigers, lions, and cougars.
At the notoriously awful Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park (formerly known as the G.W. Exotic Animal Park) in Oklahoma, an employee had to be airlifted to a hospital after a tiger nearly ripped her arm off. An intern at a California zoo was killed by an escaped cougar who broke her neck. These acts of independence are often their last, as most animals who attempt to follow their natural instincts are killed.
Zoos of the Future
Captive breeding is irresponsible and makes a bad situation even worse. Every year, accredited sanctuaries have to turn away hundreds of exotic and wild animals made homeless by circuses, roadside zoos, and the “pet” trade. While a few zoos, such as the Detroit Zoo and California’s Oakland Zoo, have made the compassionate decision to provide animals who are truly in need with refuge, most zoos reject these animals. The zoo industry must transform itself from a prison to a refuge, where the rights and welfare of individual animals are given the highest priority. Let your local zoo know that the public will support such change by urging it to stop all breeding in order to offer greater space to fewer animals and to make room for wild animals who are confiscated from backyard cages, basements, circuses, and roadside menageries.
What You Can Do
As long as people continue to buy tickets to zoos, animals will continue to suffer. Zoos will be forced to stop breeding and capturing more animals from the wild if their financial support disappears. Talk to family, friends, and coworkers, especially those with small children who may be inclined to go, and explain to them that every ticket purchased directly contributes to animals’ misery.