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Experts Agree: Zoos Do More Harm Than Good

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Updated 5/2021

Many of us were taken to zoos as children, and it was there that we had our first encounters with many different members of beautiful species. For some of us who love animals, these may have been some of our most meaningful experiences.

And yet, zoos have a dark side. The vast majority of the animals held captive inside their compounds are depressed. They live in perpetual captivity and lack access to all of the things that make life interesting and enjoyable. And, often, they die far earlier than they would if they lived in nature. As it turns out, zoos do far more harm than good.

Read on to discover:

Why Do We Keep Animals in Captivity?

Simply put, humans keep other animals in zoos for our own convenience.

We like animals. And we like to be around them, and we like to be able to conveniently encounter animals without any significant effort on our part.

And so we capture animals from the wild and lock them up in cages for our amusement.

How Do Zoos Hurt Animals?

Yes, zoos harm animals in a wide variety of ways.

  • Wild animals are killed and kidnapped to supply zoos. For starters, animals are not naturally found in zoos. The way animals initially find themselves in zoos is that they are kidnaped from nature and then brought to zoos. Zoos prefer to capture and display young animals, but the parents stand in the way. So zoos often hire hunters to kill the parents and then put the bereft baby animals in shipping containers and then ship them to their final destinations. Many animals die in transport.
  • Brutal invasive techniques are used to collect semen from male animals and artificially inseminate female animals. Once a species is brought into a zoo, zoos often use captive breeding programs to produce younger animals who are a steady draw for visitors. Zoos often keep animals in solitary confinement for long periods of time or sometimes for an animals’ entire life. When they are introduced to members of the opposite sex of their species, it is not uncommon for captive animals to refuse to mate in such a hostile setting. Instead, zoos often sexually violate the bodies of animals and artificially impregnate animals to produce young.
  • Animals are not allowed to choose their own mates or friends. For captive animals, we restrict what they can do and with whom they can socialize. We often separate them from their families and friends. We decide with whom they can mate with, or deny them access to a mate entirely and artificially induce pregnancy instead.
  • Animals are not allowed to make their own decisions about how to spend their time. We limit their movements, their behaviors, their ability to fully realize their higher-order needs, such as the desire to live autonomously, to make decisions, and to do meaningful work. We naively assume that only we humans can have a sense of purpose or partake in actions for “the common good” of our species or all species and we deny animals’ the existence of their very real experiences.
  • Lastly, when animals get old, zoos often decide they are not worth the expense of keeping them, especially when baby animals are such box office hits compared to older animals. Zoos often kill “surplus” animals or sell them to hunting ranches, medical laboratories, or poorly run roadside zoos.

Mounting research shows that holding intelligent, social animals in captivity is an inexcusable cruelty.

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What Are the Negative Effects of Zoos on Animals?

Zoochosis is the name of the mental illness that develops in animals held captive in zoos. Most often, it is seen in what are called stereotypical behaviors, which are often obsessive, repetitive actions that serve no purpose.

Zoochosis is displayed through a wide variety of diverse stereotypical behaviors. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Pacing
  • Circling
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Swaying
  • Head-bobbing
  • Over-grooming
  • Hair-pulling and feather-plucking
  • Bar-biting
  • Excessive licking
  • Vomiting and regurgitation
  • Playing with excrement
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia
  • Addiction
  • Self-harm

Here’s a simple way to think about it. If you saw a child pacing back and forth endlessly, or pulling out his hair, starving herself, or rocking back and forth as if in a trance, it would be an indication that something may be wrong. So it is with animals.

 
 

What's Bad About Zoos Overall?

At the end of the day, zoos are businesses (regardless of how they’ve financially structured themselves) and zoos care more about profits, than they do about animals.

Accordingly, they provide animals with the smallest possible cages, limit access to veterinary care, and do not provide animals with the social companionship that animals need to be happy.

In an effort to hide the sadness of the animals held captive behind their displays, zoos use antidepressants, antipsychotics, and tranquilizers to reduce signs of aggression and depression.

More generally, zoos send the wrong message. The lesson that zoos teach all of us, but especially impressionable children, is that other animals exist for our human entertainment, that it’s acceptable to take them from their homes, and that it’s okay to keep them locked in cages. This kind of speciesist thinking is incredibly harmful and outdated.

Zoos Do More Harm than Good

Zoos often claim that they are helping animals. But these claims that captivity somehow benefits animals at-risk in the wild ring false.

Zoos are full of “charismatic megafauna,” which is to say famous animals such as lions, bears, giraffes, and elephants. They keep these animals to attract visitors.

The problem is that these animals belong in the wild. When you remove them from their natural environments, you disrupt their native ecosystems. Imagine the impact among people when a friend or loved one dies unnaturally. People can become depressed, or grow so sad or fearful that they can no longer function. This happens with other animals too.

In addition, animals who have lived for years in zoos lose the knowledge that is required to live in the wild. This is one of the main reasons zoos cannot be trusted when they claim to be protecting animals. What sort of protection is it to deny animals the knowledge they will need to once again live in the wild?

In fact, though zoos talk a lot about their intentions to protect endangered species with the implication being they will eventually reintroduce them into the wild, this almost never happens. In fact, elephants for example are dying more quickly than zoos can breed them, so zoos are still kidnapping them from nature. Does this sound like the behavior of an organization looking to protect animals?

Better Alternatives to Zoos

If zoos really wanted to help animals, they would instead transition over into being animal sanctuaries.

Zoos buy, trade, borrow, and sell animals as if they were property. True sanctuaries do not buy, sell, breed, or trade animals — ever. Nor do they kidnap animals from the wild. Instead, sanctuaries take on the “surplus stock” zoos no longer want, as well as confiscated illegal exotic animals used as “pets,” and injured animals who cannot be returned to the wild. Zoos use animals to make money. Sanctuaries spend money to keep animals safe and happy.

Moreover, technology gives hope for a future free of animal captivity. For decades now we have had documentary footage of animals on TV and in films. More recently a new kind of wild animal experience is emerging. These “virtual zoos” keep no captive animals; instead, they use sensory stimuli, cutting-edge technology, and magnificently filmed nature content to simulate the experience of being out in the wild amongst other species of animals. Not only is this experience better for wild animals, it has the power to provide a superior educational experience, since it allows for animals to be seen in their natural habitats, while behaving as they would in the wild.

It may be taking humanity thousands of years to evolve beyond live animal capture and lifelong zoo incarceration, but with creative alternatives emerging, we can be active participants to help build a more humane future for our wild kin.

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