My dad says Zoo's are becoming politically incorrect. I've seen both arguments but I wanna hear your opinion on it: do you think Zoo's are a good idea?
Well, let’s see if I can keep this response short.
First, I’m guessing that by ‘politically correct’ you mean ‘ethically sound.’ So, is keeping animals in zoos an ethical thing to do? As with many things, there is no easy or even single answer to that question.
Without a doubt, there are bad zoos- private or roadside zoos, zoos that keep their animals in abhorrent conditions, zoos that allow visitors to engage in unsafe things like cub-petting schemes. It is obvious that these types of zoos are unethical and exploitative.
(Hint: something like this is never a good sign.)
On the other hand, what constitutes a ‘good’ zoo? In the best captive conditions currently available, is it okay to keep an animal locked up? Some say no, no matter what; some say what we have now isn’t good enough. Others say yes- the best zoos are able to provide their captives with good lives.
This of course brings us to just what a ‘good’ life is. Those who say that animals should never ever be placed in captivity usually value a sense of freedom above all else. Even in perfect captive conditions, an animal will not be free, wild, or ‘natural.’
However, we must acknowledge that ‘freedom’ is a concept created and defined by humans. A human locked in a prison knows the difference between captivity and freedom, and is able to conceptualize that certain ‘rights’ that they have are being violated. But for animals, this may be too complex to perceive. How far back do you have to move a fence before a kudu decides that he is wild again? The idea that animals sense when they are ‘free’ versus ‘not free’ is, to me, not realistic.
Animals do, however, benefit from the ability to be free to make choices, such as what they eat, where they will go, who they will interact with, and so on. Undeniably, captivity presents animals with fewer choices of these kinds than they would have in the wild. The best zoos are now implementing programs to accommodate these choices, particularly with highly intelligent animals such as elephants and apes.
One such example: the “O Line” at the Smithsonian National Zoo allows orangutans to choose one of two buildings to stay in during the day. Other animals, such as the otters, can choose whether or not to be on exhibit via spaces in their enclosure that are sheltered from the public. Scatter feeding and foraging enrichment is yet another way that zoos allow animals to choose what food they want to eat.
Still, despite these improvements, there will always be limitations of choice in captive environments compared to wild ones by the very definition of ‘captivity.’ Furthermore, while many strides have been taken to update enclosures with choices in mind, the fact remains that the implementation of behavioral science in zoos lags behind the research due to the costs, and often due to the stress of the animals themselves when trying to adjust to new schedules and norms (even if they are theoretically better ones).
A forty-year old captive elephant will have lived through decades of zoo reform, and we can’t erase those negative experiences from her mind.
One danger of comparing captive animals to their wild counterparts is assuming that captive environments should mirror the wild ones as closely as possible. But what the wild even is is not well-defined. ‘Wild’ deer roam my suburban neighborhood: should that habitat be replicated in their zoo enclosure? Wild environments include predators, diseases, and natural disasters: is it better that those be implemented in zoos as well?
In actuality, an animal born in captivity likely has no sense of what its natural environment should look like. Certainly it has natural instincts and inclinations- a tiger likes to urine-mark vertical objects and a gibbon likes to climb- but neither of them specifically needs a tree to do this with- a post or rope swing would also work. The ‘naturalistic’ look of many zoo enclosures is actually for the benefit of the visitors, not the animals. In fact, a lush, well-planted habitat could still be an abysmal one for an animal if all of its needs aren’t being met.
This brings us to one of the most important aspects of zoos: the visitors. Theoretically, one of the major purposes of good zoos is to educate and inspire the public about animals, particularly in regards to their conservation. But do zoos actually do this?
The answer is yes… to a small extent. People given surveys upon entering and leaving a zoo exhibit generally do know slightly more about the animals than they used to, but this depends a lot on how educated they were to begin with. While many visitors express an increased desire to engage in conservation efforts after leaving a zoo, not many of them have actually followed up on it when surveyed again a few weeks later. Still, most zoo visitors seem to leave the zoo with several positive if perhaps short-term effects: interest in conservation, appreciation for animals, and the desire to learn more. If a visitor experiences a “connection” with an animal during their visit, these effects are greatly increased.
However, certain types of animal “connections” and interactions can also produce a negative effect on zoo visitors. This reflects what I said earlier about the naturalistic design of habitats being more for the visitors than the animals. Individuals who view animals performing non-natural behaviors (such as a chimpanzee wearing clothes and acting ‘human,’ or a tiger coming up to be petted) are less likely to express an increased interest in their conservation, and even less likely to donate money towards it. Generally, our own perception of freedom and wildness matters much more than the individual animal’s.
The fact of the matter is that, worldwide, zoos spend about $350 million dollars on wildlife conservation each year. That is a tremendous amount of money, and it comes from visitors and donations. What amount of discomfort on the part of captive animals is worth that money being devoted to their wild counterparts? It’s hard to say.
This is a very, VERY general overview of some of the ethical issues surrounding zoos; to go over it all, I’d need to write a book. But hopefully, it got you thinking a little bit about what your own opinion on all this is. (I didn’t explicitly state mine on purpose, though it’s probably fairly clear.)
Refs and further reading below the cut!