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Animal Rights Uncompromised: Zoos

PETA opposes zoos because cages and cramped enclosures at zoos deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs. The zoo community regards the animals it keeps as commodities, and animals are regularly bought, sold, borrowed, and traded without any regard for established relationships. Zoos breed animals because the presence of babies draws zoo visitors and boosts revenue. But the animals’ fate is often bleak once they outgrow their “cuteness.” And some zoos still import animals from the wild.

In general, zoos and wildlife parks preclude or severely restrict natural behavior, such as flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging, foraging, digging, exploring, and selecting a partner. The physical and mental frustrations of captivity often lead to abnormal, neurotic, and even self-destructive behavior, such as incessant pacing, swaying, head-bobbing, bar-biting, and self-mutilation.

Even large, well-known, and popular zoos engage in unscrupulous practices, such as dumping unwanted  animals or taking animals from the wild. In 2003, the San Diego Zoo and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo imported 11 African elephants from Swaziland. In 2006, accredited zoos in Denver; Houston; Litchfield Park, Arizona; San Antonio; San Diego; and Tampa, Florida, imported 33 monkeys who had been illegally trafficked by poachers in Africa, rather than working with wildlife rehabilitators to return the primates to their natural habitat.

Proponents of zoos like to claim that zoos protect species from extinction—seemingly a noble goal. However, wild-animal parks and zoos almost always favor large and charismatic animals who draw large crowds of visitors, but they neglect less popular species that also need to be protected. Most animals in zoos are not endangered, and while confining animals to zoos keeps them alive, it does nothing to protect wild populations and their habitats.

Returning captive-bred animals to the wild is, in most cases, impossible because animals who are reared in zoos are denied the opportunity to learn survival skills, can transmit diseases to their wild counterparts, and often have no natural habitat left to return to because of human encroachment. Breeding programs simply produce cute baby animals to attract zoo patrons and generate revenue, creating a surplus of unwanted adult animals. As a result, zoos often become extremely crowded, and older animals may be “warehoused” behind the scenes or shuffled off to shabby roadside zoos, animal dealers, or auctions.

According to a 2004 report by the World Conservation Union, the world’s biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate primarily because of human activities that cause pollution, climate change, and the destruction of animals’ habitats and because of the exploitation of animals for food, the pet trade, and medicine. Captive breeding does nothing to address these serious problems, which currently put more than 7,000 animal species in jeopardy of extinction. In fact, the many millions of dollars that zoos regularly squander—on redesigning enclosures that do little to nothing to improve animal welfare, erecting statues and amusement rides, and building gift shops and concession stands—would do far more to help animals if spent on habitat-preservation projects.

Warehousing animals for life is not the way to save them from extinction. Their salvation lies in protecting habitats, not in creating animal prisons. Instead of patronizing zoos, you can help animals by supporting organizations that work to protect captive animals from exploitation and preserve habitats.