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Are Zoos Ethical? Let’s Talk About Zoos and Animal Welfare.

There are lots of opinions on whether modern-day zoos are ethical or beneficial for the animals. Here are my thoughts on the question “Are zoos ethical?”

are zoos ethical
Are zoos ethical? Some animal activists think that no animal should be held in captivity. Photo: Alexas_Fotos

Does the zoo experience as amusement for humans justify wild animals living in captivity?

That has been the big dilemma facing the future of zoos as we know them. Is “captivity for conservation” a sustainable justification to keep zoos in existence?

Animal welfare–minded people understand that the purpose of zoos as entertainment is a thing of the past.

Most first-class zoos have evolved from virtual circuses into institutions fostering education and conservation programs. Zoos strengthen the human–animal bond, zoo proponents claim, and educate people to be more aware of and have empathy for animals.

Are these reasons good enough to justify widespread captivity?

As animal welfare advocates aggressively continue to change public opinion, and as more is discovered about the animal brain and the emotional life of animals, are zoos ethical?

Are Zoos Ethical?

According to an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association titled “Is It Ethical to Keep Animals in Zoos?”:

“The primary benefits zoos provide to society are education and conservation of species and habitats.… [But] conservation alone is not enough to justify the existence of zoos.… A strong commitment to individual animal welfare is equally important.”

The article concludes that, yes, zoos are ethical as long as the zoos meet “these dual goals of animal welfare and conservation.”

This Veterinarian’s Experiences With Zoos

Like many kids, I was fascinated by animals.

I took out animal books from the library, I watched Mutual of Omaha’s Animal Kingdom, and I begged my parents to take me to the Bronx Zoo and the Catskill Game Farm again and again.

My first trip to the Bronx Zoo was memorialized on a bit of 1950s home movie footage.

I was 2 years old, all puffed up in a pink cupcake of a dress. As I gawked at the magnificent gorilla behind metal bars in a cement block, pointing and waving my tiny fingers at his magnificent head, he proceeded to urinate all over me in my dad’s arms.

I had insulted his grandeur, one that belonged in a lush jungle, not in the Bronx.

His act of defiance told me exactly how this animal felt to be locked up in that cage.

I didn’t visit many zoos in adulthood. Then my twins were born.

Living an inner-city life once again with 2 little boys, I began to visit the Philadelphia Zoo often. As a veterinary student who was engaged in animal welfare issues, I found the zoo visits with my children both enthralling and enraging.

  • I saw the big cats pacing and circling the perimeter of their cement cages smaller than my living room
  • I gazed at giraffes munching on vegetation while in earshot of city traffic.
  • The wolves stalked back and forth on a small city hillside.

“Hadn’t things changed?” I thought. Weren’t these small display enclosures a thing of the past?

The Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest and still one of the most respected zoos in America, still had exhibits fashioned from the 19th century.

When it came time to apply for special clinical assignments in my senior year of veterinary school, I applied to the Philadelphia Zoo and was accepted. My preceptorship there gave me a coveted behind-the-scenes glimpse of life inside one of the most famous zoos in America.

It also gave me basic training and a desire to treat birds, reptiles and little mammals.

But experiencing these animals in captivity made me realize where I stood on the zoo controversy. The “Noah’s Ark” zoo design of the last century was looking more and more inhumane.

I expected to see big changes in my lifetime.

Many zoos today are redesigning their facilities to better accommodate large animals. Photo: Alexas_Fotos

Current Trends in Zoo Design

My time at the Philadelphia Zoo was over 30 years ago.

Today, Philadelphia is one of the leading innovators in zoo design. Philadelphia’s Zoo360 is designed to better suit the animals yet thrill the human participants.

Zoo360 is a network of see-through mesh trails around and above zoo grounds. Gorillas, big cats, gibbons, meerkats and monkeys cavort on treeways and suspended trails.

The designer, Jon Coe, sees the future of zoos as “unzoos,” which will turn our notion of zoo upside down, giving animals more freedom to roam. The zoo says it is committed to excellence in animal care and to inspiring guests to conservative action.

Even so, some critics say these new environments are scarcely better for the animals than older designs. Time and public opinion will tell.

Zoo360 and other innovative exhibits are trying to enhance the human–animal experience by improving the point of view on both sides:

  • City zoos are looking to house fewer and fewer large animals that require large amounts of space.
  • In general, zoos are downsizing in the variety of animals (the Noah’s Ark model) and giving attention and space to fewer, more specialized exhibits.

But even some of these more animal-friendly exhibits have succumbed to public scrutiny and derision. For example, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo shut down its innovative elephant exhibit amid animal rights activists’ cries of it being inhumane and the death of an elephant in 2014.

State-of-the-art exhibits like St. Louis’ polar bear exhibit and Wichita’s elephant boat ride are huge and expensive undertakings. Zoos going in this direction must undoubtedly reduce the number of animals they have.

The fear is that zoo patrons will lose interest if they can’t walk from polar bears to giraffes to lions and tigers and bears.

The Noah’s Ark model is getting smaller and smaller. Zoos are turning into pleasure yachts for only a few of the grand creatures of the world.

Will this be enough to quell the anti-captivity voices and put an end to those who ask, “Are zoos ethical?”

Time will tell.

Zoos will always be a controversial topic, even if they include compassionate conservation in their programs. Photo: Pexels

Dedicated Zoo People

My biggest takeaway from my time at America’s oldest zoo was the compassion and dedication I saw in action every day from the zoo staff.

Zoos may remain controversial, but the ethical caring and instinctual knowledge of the zookeepers and veterinarians was never in question.

The zoo vets taught me that observation and minimalism is the best policy:

  • Observe, observe, observe.
  • Be as minimally invasive as possible, trust the zookeepers’ observations of the animals they know so well and follow your own instincts.

Any handling, chemical restraint or even close human proximity is a major stressor for these creatures. Treatments and visual, physical or chemical restraint can push a sick animal over the edge or make a healthy animal stressed.

The animals know their keepers, and a special bond exists between them.

Early mornings and evenings, when the zoo is closed, is a special time. The animals are more relaxed, more peaceful. Their keepers make a small footprint, respecting their privacy.

This is a respite in their captive lives when they are not on display as exotic oddities for the public.

Take a deep dive into this discussion about whether or not zoos are ethical:

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Final Thoughts on “Are Zoos Ethical?”

Animals are our greatest wonders of the world.

They should never fall prey to an amusement-park mentality again.

Let conservation and endangered species work go on as naturally as possible: Reduce captivity.

Compassionate conservation and treating animals as individuals with rights — particularly those already in captivity — is the wave of the future.

vet-cross60pThis animal welfare content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed May 16, 2018.