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Zoos: An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone

It’s been many centuries since Montezuma first caged jaguars and monkeys for the public’s entertainment. Today, however, people have become much more informed about the needs and behavior of wild animals and the toll that captivity takes on them.

Animals kept in zoos are denied everything that makes their lives meaningful. Every aspect of their lives is controlled and manipulated. They have virtually no choice in what or when they eat, whom they mate with, or whom they share space with. They are housed in cages that don’t come close to resembling the jungles, savannahs, and forests that are their natural homes.

Instead of providing lifetime care, zoos routinely trade, lend, sell, barter, and warehouse animals they no longer want—despite knowing that many species form lasting bonds that are important to their long-term health and happiness. Removing animals from established social groups and forcing them to adjust repeatedly to new routines, different caretakers, and unfamiliar cagemates is disruptive and traumatic.

Animal welfare often takes a backseat to the bottom line. Precious financial resources, including taxpayer subsidies, are often squandered on fancy entrances and amusement rides when every cent should be spent to improve the animals’ living conditions. But even the biggest cage with species-appropriate enrichment is still a pale comparison to the natural ecosystems where wild animals belong.

Lax Laws

Many countries around the world have no laws whatsoever to protect captive animals. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) licenses animal exhibitors and is supposed to enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). But permits are issued to nearly anyone who fills out an application and sends in a fee.

Generally, the AWA addresses basic husbandry issues. Animals must be fed, watered, and provided with shelter, yet cages can have cement floors and there’s no requirement for grass, greenery, or other natural vegetation. Cage space regulations generally are interpreted to require only that the animals be provided with enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around, and move around a bit. Some animals, including reptiles, fish, and other cold-blooded animals, are specifically excluded from the AWA. Appallingly, even though Congress amended the AWA in 2002 to include birds used for exhibition as regulated (protected) animals, the USDA continues to turn a blind eye to captive birds’ suffering.

While local authorities do have the legal power to enforce state cruelty laws for animals suffering in zoos, the vast majority simply refuse to take action, passing the buck to the USDA.

Captivity Drives Animals Insane

Zoos are inherently unnatural environments. Animals who are meant to roam or fly over vast territories are forced to exist in worlds measured in square feet. Predators are housed in close proximity to prey species. Animals who shun contact with humans have no way to escape daily contact with them. Many develop neurotic and self-harming behavior (called “stereotypies” or “zoochosis”) that are rarely, if ever, observed in the wild. Primates throw feces and eat their own vomit. Birds pluck out their own feathers. Elephants sway back and forth all day long. Tigers pace incessantly, and polar bears swim endless figure-eights.

Aquatic animals suffer, too. A study conducted by the Captive Animals’ Protection Society concluded that 90 percent of public aquariums studied had animals who showed stereotypic (neurotic) behavior, such as repeatedly raising their heads above the surface of the water, spinning around an imaginary object, and frequently turning on one side and rubbing along the floor of the tank.

Conservation Con

Zoos defend their breeding programs under the pretext of conservation, but many of the species that are being bred aren’t endangered or threatened. Baby animals bring paying visitors through the gates. Very few, if any, of the captive-bred species that do face extinction in the wild—including elephants, polar bears, gorillas, tigers, and chimpanzees—will ever be released back into their natural environments to bolster dwindling populations. Captive breeding replenishes zoos’ animal inventories and ensures that they sell tickets.

Exploitation, Not Education

Keeping animals in cages does nothing to foster respect for animals since all children learn is that animals will spend their lives behind bars for people’s fleeting distraction and amusement. Study after study, including by the zoo industry itself, has shown that most zoo visitors simply wander around the grounds, pause briefly in front of some displays, and spend their time on snacks and bathroom breaks. One study of visitors to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., showed that visitors spent less than eight seconds per snake exhibit and only one minute with the lions. Researchers concluded that “people … treat[ed] the exhibits like wallpaper.” In fact, numerous studies have shown that exhibiting animals in unnatural settings may undermine conservation by leaving the public with the idea that a species must not be in jeopardy if the government is allowing it to be used for display and entertainment.

Even the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) itself has concluded that claims that zoo exhibits might contribute to conservation “were not substantiated or validated by actual research,” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said that it has “sincere doubts” about the conservation benefits from public exhibitions of wildlife and no longer accepts “education” as a basis for issuing Endangered Species Act permits.

Danger Behind Bars

Zoos leave animals vulnerable to a variety of dangers from which they have no defense or opportunity to escape. Animals in zoos have been poisoned, left to starve, deprived of veterinary care, and burned alive in fires. Some have died after eating coins, plastic bags, and other items thrown into their cages. Still others have been killed or stolen by people who were able to gain access to their exhibits. During natural disasters, such as floods and wildfires, there may be no way to evacuate every animal to safety.

A bear starved to death at the Toledo Zoo after zoo officials locked her up to hibernate without food or water—not knowing that her species doesn’t hibernate. At the Niabi Zoo in Illinois,a3-month-old lion cub was euthanized after his spinal cord was crushed by a falling exhibit door.

Friendly Fun

There are many ways to learn about and appreciate animals without supporting zoos. Nature documentaries abound in which animals are shown behaving naturally in their rightful homes. IMAX theaters offer films such as Born to Be Wild 3D, which documents the lives of orphaned orangutans and elephants and the work of the extraordinary people who rescue and raise them—saving endangered species one life at a time.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was the first undersea park created in the United States. Combined with the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the park encompasses 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps. You can swim there with the animals—in their home and on their terms.

Key West’s Eco-Discovery Center offers interactive displays and walk-through labs, but the animals are swimming freely. And it’s free!

North America’s only natural freshwater “aquarium” is located in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Opened in 1990, The Suncor Energy Fluvarium has nine panoramic glimpses into a real diverted brook, where brown trout swim freely in and out of the viewing areas, which include deep and shallow ponds and a fast-flowing “riffle” where the fish spawn in the fall.

The following are a few examples of how captivity adversely affects the well-being of various species commonly found in zoos.

Great Apes

In the wild, great apes live in dense tropical forests, where these highly social beings are constantly engaged and active in a rich and diverse environment. They show love for one another, laugh, play, and grieve.

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Elephants in their natural habitats are on the move for up to 18 hours each day. In a single day, a herd can cover a distance of up to 30 miles. In addition to walking, elephants regularly dig, forage, swim, climb, rub on trees, take mud baths, and experience a variety of terrains and substrates, such as leafy jungle floors, grass, and sand. They live in matriarchal groups and share mothering responsibilities for the herd’s babies.

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Bears are long-lived animals, with life spans ranging from 15 to 30 years. In the wild, they live in diverse habitats, including tundra, alpine meadows, and forests. Their home range can cover thousands of square miles. They are opportunistic feeders who are always investigating and exploring their environment, digging up and raking through vegetation, debarking trees, excavating, and lifting and turning over objects to find tasty snacks.

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Big Cats

Scientists at the University of Oxford have concluded that large, roving predators show stereotypical symptoms of stress when kept in captivity, because they are unable to satisfy their instinct to roam. Given that the average tiger enclosure is about 18,000 times smaller than the animals’ natural roaming range, it is simply impossible for these animals to express instinctive behavior such as staking out territory in dense forests, choosing mates, running, climbing, and hunting. It’s little surprise that so many captive big cats snap. Countless people have been seriously injured, maimed, and killed by tigers, lions, and cougars.

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Zoos of the Future

Captive breeding is irresponsible and makes a bad situation even worse. Every year, accredited sanctuaries have to turn away hundreds of exotic and wild animals made homeless by circuses, roadside zoos, and the “pet” trade. While a few zoos, such as the Detroit Zoo and California’s Oakland Zoo, have made the compassionate decision to provide animals who are truly in need with refuge, most zoos reject these animals. The zoo industry must transform itself from a prison to a refuge, where the rights and welfare of individual animals are given the highest priority. Let your local zoo know that the public will support such change by urging it to stop all breeding in order to offer greater space to fewer animals and to make room for wild animals who are confiscated from backyard cages, basements, circuses, and roadside menageries.

What You Can Do

As long as people continue to buy tickets to zoos, animals will continue to suffer. Zoos will be forced to stop breeding and capturing more animals from the wild if their financial support disappears. Talk to family, friends, and coworkers, especially those with small children who may be inclined to go, and explain to them that every ticket purchased directly contributes to animals’ misery.