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Practical Issues > Animals Used for Entertainment > Zoos - Index

Facts About Zoos

Zoos often claim that they are "arks" which can preserve species whose habitat has been destroyed, or which were wiped out in the wild for other reasons (such as hunting).  They suggest that they can maintain the species in captivity until the cause of the creature's extirpation is remedied, and then successfully re-introduce the animals to the wild, resulting in a healthy, self-sustaining population.  While many zoos claim to be concerned for the general well-being of the animals who live within their confines, zoos remain little more than prisons for those who have committed no crime except that of being of the wrong species. Zoos tell us and our children that it is acceptable to keep animals in captivity, leading lives of boredom in settings that bear almost no resemblance to their natural homes.  But modern zoos tell us that all this is important for the preservation of species.  Zoos often defend their existence against challenges from the Animal Rights movement on these grounds. 

There are several problems with this argument, however.  First, the number of animals required to maintain a viable gene pool can be quite high, and is never known for certain.  If the captive gene pool is too small, then inbreeding can result in increased susceptibility to disease, birth defects, and mutations; the species can be so weakened that it would never be viable in the wild.

Some species, like marine mammals, many bird species and so on, are extremely difficult to breed in captivity.  Pandas, which have been the sustained focus of captive breeding efforts for several decades in zoos around the world, are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.  With such species, the zoos, by taking animals from the wild to supply their breeding programs, constitute a net drain on wild populations.

The whole concept of habitat restoration is mired in serious difficulties.  Animals threatened by poaching (elephants, rhinos, pandas, bears and more) will never be safe in the wild as long as firearms, material needs, and a willingness to consume animal parts coincide.  Species threatened by chemical contamination (such as bird species vulnerable to pesticides and lead shot) will not be candidates for release until we stop using the offending substances, and enough time has passed for the toxins to be processed out of the environment.  Since heavy metals and some pesticides are both persistent and bio-accumulative, this could mean decades or centuries before it is safe to re-introduce the animals.

Even if these problems can be overcome, there are still difficulties with the process of re-introduction.  Problems such as human imprinting, the need to teach animals to fly, hunt, build dens, and raise their young are serious obstacles, and must be solved individually for each species.  There is a small limit to the number of species the global network of zoos can preserve under even the most optimistic assumptions.  Profound constraints are imposed by the lack of space in zoos, their limited financial resources, and the requirement that viable gene pools of each species be preserved.  Few zoos, for instance, ever keep more than two individuals of large mammal species.  The need to  preserve scores or hundreds of a particular species would be beyond the resources of even the largest zoos, and even the whole world zoo community would be hard-pressed to preserve even a few dozen species in this manner.

Contrast this with the efficiency of large habitat preserves, which can maintain viable populations of whole complexes of species with minimal human intervention.  Large preserves maintain every species in the ecosystem in a predominantly self-sufficient manner, while keeping the creatures in the natural habitat unmolested.  If the financial resources (both government and charitable), and the biological expertise currently consumed by zoos, were redirected to habitat preservation and management, we would have far fewer worries about habitat restoration or preserving species whose habitat is gone.

Choosing zoos as a means for species preservation, in addition to being expensive and of dubious effectiveness, has serious ethical problems.  Keeping animals in zoos harms them, by denying them freedom of movement and association, which is important to social animals, and frustrates many of their natural behavioral patterns, leaving them at best bored, and at worst seriously neurotic. 

Zoos, like any other business, are designed to make a profit.  With money as their first priority, it is not uncommon for zoos to sacrifice the welfare of individual animals to save financial resources.  Animals who "misbehave" at the zoo are often "encouraged" to behave through the use of violence.  The life of boredom and purposeless existence which goes along with captivity often causes the animals to engage in abnormal and self-destructive behaviors called "zoochosis".  The animals are closely confined, lack privacy, and have little opportunity for mental or physical exercise.  Symptoms of zoochosis include nervous pacing, head rocking, and self-mutilation. 

In captivity, it is almost impossible to meet the animals' natural needs.  For example, birds' wings may be clipped to prevent flying and animals who would naturally live in large herds or family groups (such as elephants) are kept either in pairs or alone. A problem most zoos encounter is the existence of "surplus" animals.  To free up space for "cuter" - and therefore more profitable - animals, many zoos sell surplus animals to dealers who ultimately sell the animals to laboratories for experiments.

While most zoos claim to educate the public about endangered species, the vast majority of animals in zoos are not endangered, nor are they being rehabilitated for release into the wild.  If we truly want to help animals in the wild, we must preserve their habitats and combat the reasons humans kill them.  Keeping animals behind bars for the sake of our entertainment is not the solution.

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