Why zoos are both good and bad

Sanne Welin

Condor; Photo by Jean Vella on Unsplash

Depending on your angle and goal you can paint a picture of zoos as a villain or a hero, because for every tragic story there is also a story of success. For every Harambe there is a Dolly. Harambe was a gorilla killed by his keepers after a three year old boy fell into his enclosure. This led to the discussion about the dangers of humans being able to have these close encounters with wild animals. Dolly, on the other hand, is an example of a zoo’s ability to save a species on the brink of extinction. She is an ambassador for the California Condor, a bird species that had only 27 individuals left in 1987. By 2019, these numbers had increased to about 500 thanks to the efforts of Los Angeles and the San Diego Zoo. When an organisation or article only presents cases similar to Harmabe, zoos are portrayed as animal prisons. While only looking at examples like Dolly, zoos are the protectors of endangered species. 

The slow wheel of change

In the year 1793, the first zoo that resembled today’s zoos,  opened. Its sole purpose was entertainment with no thought of animal welfare. This is of no surprise as the animal welfare debate at that time was far from what it is today. The first known animal protection law was passed in Ireland in 1635. However, it was not until 1967, more than 300 years later, that the U.S. passed the Animal Welfare Act. Furthermore, the role of animal welfare research was only developed in the late 20th century. This means animal welfare is a young concept and has not been applied for very long. We are now in a time of change where we still see ghosts of zoos’ past while many zoos aspire to work towards goals of education, engagement, conservation, and research. 

Close encounters; Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

A sacrifice for the good of the species

The animals in the zoos are deprived of their natural environment for the sake of their species. These two aspects are measured against each other with the suffering of the individual on one end and the benefit to the species on the other. The wolf (Canis lupus) is an example of an animal that has proven to be difficult to keep in captivity. They demand large spaces and high levels of enrichment. Additionally, since wolf packs consist of family groups, zoos have a hard time forming functional groups when individuals from an already existing pack die and need to be replaced. However, being a species with low numbers across the globe, zoos make important contributions as an ark for this species as well as changing attitudes towards them. This is an ethical and moral dilemma for every species where individuals are kept in captivity for the good of their wild cousins. Careful considerations should be made for every species kept in a zoo to ensure there are good and valid reasons for it to be kept behind bars. 

Money does not make the (zoo) world go around

There are a variety of economic models when it comes to zoos; both nonprofit and for-profit examples exist. They rely on donations, grant funding and entrance fees to cover their many costs. A common issue for zoos is when they experience budget losses, with little room for cutbacks. Animals still need their food and care whether they are on display or not. Despite this, zoos should not operate with the incentive of economic profit. Their work has other values that are in the interest of humanity. The Convention on Biodiversity declares that “Contracting parties are conscious of the intrinsic value of biodiversity,“ therefore zoos that work towards this goal should not rely on visitor numbers and donations, but instead be given enough funding from parties of the biodiversity convention. Removing the stress of money to help with conservation efforts would alleviate pressures for financial gain. However, ongoing care should be taken both by the public and by conservation experts in regards to the arguments presented by zoo historian and zoo park director David Hancock in a National Geographic interview:

Wolf; Photo by Michael LaRosa on Unsplash

“If zoos gave serious attention to education we should surely see much greater variety in their collections, to help them better focus on biodiversity; if they were serious about conservation they would give much more attention to local species; and if they truly wanted their visitors to develop better understandings of the natural world they would be showing and interpreting the really small life forms.” 

The future of zoos

Zoos have evolved tremendously over the years and have proven that they can be important contributors to conservation efforts. Highlighting both the good and bad aspects of zoos will help them evolve in a direction where zoo antagonists and zoo protagonists unite.

Sources: AZA, National Geographic, PETA