Practical Issues > Animals Used for Entertainment > Zoos - Index

(above) Gibbon in captivity, gibbon in sanctuary

A survey of the problems with zoos
by Alison Green

Regarding the question about zoos, I think we must oppose them because the animals' lives are changed for the worst.

Even under the best of circumstances, captivity can be hell for animals meant to roam free. Captive animals (who, in some zoos, are kept in small, barren cages, forced to sleep on concrete slabs, and imprisoned behind iron bars) often suffer from malnutrition, loneliness, the denial of all normal pleasures and behaviors, and loss of freedom and independence.

Even at the best zoos, animals are rarely kept in normal social or family groups. Habitats are usually very small and inhibit or preclude natural behaviors like flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging, and partner selection. The animals' physical and mental frustrations can lead to abnormal, neurotic and even self-destructive behavior. And, even at zoos considered good, horrible events such as beatings of animals have occurred to keep them "manageable." I have an L.A. Times article about an African elephant who was transferred from the San Diego Zoo to the San Diego Wild Animal Park--her old caretakers reported seeing her new caretakers chain her, pull her to the ground, and beat her on the head with ax handlers for two days. One described the blows as "home run swings." In the same article, San Francisco zookeeper Paul Hunter was quoted as saying of elephants. "You have to motivate them and the way you do that is by beating the hell out of them."

As for conservation, most animals in zoos are not endangered, and while confining endangered species to zoos keeps them alive, it does nothing to protect wild populations; returning captive-bred animals to the wild is difficult and costly, and most zoos can't even attempt it. (Also, a 1994 report by the World Society for the Protection of Animals showed that out of 10,000 worldwide zoos, only 1200 are registered for captive breeding and wildlife conservation.) The scientific director of the Bronx Zoo wrote in his book, The Last Panda, that zoos are actually contributing to the near-extinction of giant pandas by constantly shuttling them from one zoo to another for display. (And of course endangered animals are no happier in zoos than their unendangered counterparts.)

The money spent on zoos would be far better spent on programs to protect wildlife populations and their habitats. The ultimate salvation for endangered animals lies in protection of their habitats, not in a life sentence in a zoo. On those occasions when animals must be kept in captivity (i.e. those who have been born into captivity or are unable to be rehabilitated) a zoo situation is still far from ideal. Far better are facilities like non-profit animal sanctuaries, where the emphasis is on the animals themselves, not on profits.


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