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Zoos - Conservation Or Cruelty

Updated: May 7, 2022

Zoos have existed in one form or another since at least 3000 BCE in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The rich would keep animals like giraffes, bears and dolphins, inviting people to look at them to show off their wealth. The oldest zoo in the world that is still operating is in Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna, it opened in 1752 and is still going. Zoos were used as a show of wealth and for entertainment until the 1970's when ecology became an issue of public interest. This caused a shift in focus for zoos, from entertainment to conservation. The trained animal shows were stopped, elephants didn't have to dance anymore, chimpanzees no longer had to perform tricks. Zoos have come some way from where they began, the humans kept in cages next to the animals so that they could be compared are gone. But, are zoos purely a force for good now? Has the cruelty ended with only the ambition to educate future generations and to help the animals?

giraffe in a zoo
This looks like fun but is the giraffe enjoying this


Nobody goes to the zoo to see animals suffer, bears chained up and giraffes waving their head from side to side for lack of stimulation is not entertainment for anyone. But, there's more to it with small enclosures and poor environments being part of the problem. In 2014, Marius, a perfectly healthy two-year-old giraffe, was killed and fed to the lions in Copenhagen Zoo. There was nothing wrong with Marius, he hadn't attacked anyone or caused any other trouble, so why was he fed to the lions?

Every year, around 3,000 to 5,000 animals are culled in European zoos. These animals are killed to ensure that the zoo has the number of male and female animals that they want. Too many male giraffes? Feed feed a couple to the lions. This is only done if another home cannot be found for the animal that they no longer want, but it still doesn't seem right.

“Zoos have had an important role for many years, breeding animals, but, actually, 90 per cent of the animals in zoos aren’t endangered.”

Liz Bonnin

Zoos will often state that their missions is to save animals, to conserve, breed and release animals into the wild, but this simply isn't happening. Around 70% of the adult male gorillas kept in North America have heart disease. It is the leading cause of death among gorillas in captivity, but a disease that doesn't exist in wild gorillas and other great apes have similar health problems when they are kept captive. Research has shown that elephants kept in zoos live to around 19 years old, less than half the average 40-year lifespan of elephants in the wild. They develop arthritis and chronic foot problems because zoo enclosures do not have the space for the miles of walking that elephants do everyday. Then there's the ground; zoos do try to make the environment mimic the one that the animals would naturally live in, but it's not the same and differences in the ground can cause huge problems for animals feet, then of course there is the weather. A study of 35 species of carnivores, that included brown bears, cheetahs, and lions, found that zoo enclosures were too small for the animals to carry out their normal routines, the animals stopped exhibiting normal behaviours and developed mental health problems that led to behaviours such as pacing, aggression and a high rate of infant deaths. Polar bears, for example, had an infant mortality rate of 65% due to small enclosures.

These animals belong in the wild, not enclosures


Zoos aren't all bad and there are success stories, corroboree frogs, eastern bongos, regent honeyeaters, Bellinger River snapping turtles, golden lion tamarins, and Amur leopards, among others, have been saved from extinction by zoos. Przewalski’s horses, the last wild horses in the world, were declared extinct in the wild in the 1960s. There were around 12 lived in zoos, but that was it. By 2018, breeding programs at zoos increased the number to 2,400 horses, and 800 were reintroduced to the wild.

Zoos can't save all animals from extinction, though, the northern white rhino, like the Przewalski horses, are extinct in the wild, but breeding rhinos is quite different to breeding horses. For 40 years, zoos have tried to breed these animals but, since 1975, only four northern white rhino calves have been born in captivity. The remaining females are now unable to breed, scientists are trying to use stem cells and surrogates to increase the white rhino numbers and beyond this the truth is that zoos spend very little money on saving animals from extinction, less than 5% of their daily spend.

Another argument is that as well as the conservation efforts, zoos are also places of education. By exposing children to the animals, giving them the opportunity to see them up close they show them how similar the animals are to us, and yet how different that can be. They, hopefully, teach the children to respect the lives of others, whether those lives have four feet, two or even none, they can also encourage children to get jobs helping animals. However, if you really want to teach children about the animals, the best way is to see the animals where they are, not to rip them away from their home. With so many stunning documentaries and wildlife programs available, wildlife cameras set up all over the world, live streaming 24 hours a day, there is no need to keep them captive.

The Deep Green Resistance have a great article on zoos and what they teach. It encourages parents to not take their children to zoos and asks how you would feel if you were taken from your family, taken to a place that you've never been to before and locked in a cage. There was a time that this was done to humans, but that is now illegal, what about the animals? They don't like it either. Then there are the polls and the surveys. There have been many surveys carried out, asking people if they think that zoos are good and should stay open or are bad and should close. Overwhelmingly survey results make it clear that zoos are not wanted, they are not supported and are seen as being cruel and unnecessary.

What's The Alternative?

If seeing animals on the television isn't enough for you and you really want to see them up close there are different ways to do it in a way that will support animals and not harm them:

  • Take a trip to the beach. Depending on where you live, you may be able to spot crabs and small fish or even dolphins, sea otters or whales.

  • Explore your local river. Spend an afternoon finding creatures in your local area. Springtime if great for tadpoles. You don't have to catch anything, you definitely don't take anything home, but seeing the fish swimming in and out of pools of light in the water is special.

  • Go bird watching. Bird watching can be a great day out, you can take a picnic and spend some time where the birds are, enjoying being there to see them going about their day. Nest building time is always interesting, watching the birds pick exactly what they need to make the best nest that they can for their young.

  • Volunteer at an animal rescue centre. Animal rescue centres will have animals from your local area that are sick, injured or lost. The animals are cared for until they are well enough to be released, or if this is not possible, suitable homes will be found for them. Taking the time to help rehabilitate injured animals is really rewarding, hard work, but also fun.

  • Visit a national forest. Spending time in a national forest is amazing, you are surrounded by plants and trees and more animals than you realise. Walking through the trees you will hear rustling and see leaves move then an animal will pop out. The fresh and clean environment is fantastic too.

  • Spend time at an animal sanctuary. At an animal sanctuary you won't see many wild animals, most of them will be animals that have escaped slaughter or have been abandoned. Because of this most of the animals will be farm animals, but you will be hands on with them, taking care of all of their needs. This can be back breaking work, but it is rewarding.

  • Create a wildlife-friendly space. Bring the animals to you by creating a space for animals where you are. It doesn't take a lot of space, a window birdfeeder, a bowl dug into the ground to serve as a pond for small aquatic insects, foxglove planted by your front window to attract bees. There are so many options. If you have a huge garden then go crazy, if you don't have a garden at all try to find a local area that you can make wildlife friendly. Lay flower seeds around the trees on your street or plant some wildflowers in an area of your local park that won't be disturbed, then sit back and watch the bees and the butterflies collecting nectar.

There are some people that argue that without zoos where would a child living in the inner city get to see a gorilla? This doesn't meant that you take a gorilla and lock it in a cage for its entire life so that people can look at it. What right do we have to do that and why should we? Do we really need to see a gorilla in front of us to understand what it is, do we even need to understand exactly what it is? Can't we appreciate them being different to us, learn about those differences and just leave them alone.


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