Zoos: An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone
Zoos evolved at a time when travel for most people was impractical. Nowadays, wildlife watchers can hop on a plane to Africa, Australia, or Costa Rica for photo safaris or even stay at home and catch nature documentaries on television or view live Internet video feeds, which capture animals’ natural behavior that is rarely, if ever, seen in zoos.
Zoos once boasted attendance of more than 142 million people each year. Now, however, zoos are of declining interest to a public that has become much more knowledgeable about the needs and behavior of wild animals and is more aware of the toll that captivity takes on animals who are meant to roam free.
There is no excuse for keeping intelligent, social animals in cages for our fleeting distraction and amusement. Habitat loss and other perils of the wild are not prevented by confining animals in cramped conditions and depriving them of everything that is natural and important to them.
Zoos often separate bonded individuals, who are traded and shuttled from place to place to suit breeding programs, leaving their complex and multifaceted social relationships in tatters.
Animal welfare typically takes a back seat to the bottom line. Precious financial resources, including taxpayer subsidies, are often squandered on gift shops and amusement rides instead of being spent to upgrade the exhibits.
Captivity Drives Animals Insane
Most zoo exhibits provide animals with little, if any, opportunity to express natural behavior or make choices in their daily lives, and this can lead to boredom and neurosis. With nothing to do, animals in zoos sleep too much, eat too much, and exhibit behavior that is rarely, if ever, seen in the wild. Primates throw feces and engage in “regurgitation and reingestion”—vomiting and then consuming the vomit.
Wide-ranging animals such as bears and big cats pace incessantly. Primates and birds mutilate themselves, and chimpanzees and gorillas become overly aggressive. Hooved animals lick and chew on fences and make strange lip, neck, and tongue movements. Giraffes twist their necks, bending their heads back and forth repeatedly. Elephants bob their heads and sway from side to side. Captive animals might show no interest in mating or, alternatively, become obsessed with sex.
Marine mammals repeatedly swim in the same repetitious patterns in their tanks. Fish suffer too. A study conducted by the Captive Animals’ Protection Society concluded that 90 percent of public aquariums studied had animals that showed stereotypic (neurotic) behaviors, such as interacting with transparent boundaries, 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.
Zoos know that nothing brings paying customers through their gates faster than newborn animals. But breeding programs—which often operate under the guise of species preservation—inevitably result in a surplus of adult animals who are less crowd-pleasing. So zoos routinely trade, lend, sell, barter, and warehouse adult animals they no longer want.
Unwanted animals may be sold to dealers, who then sell the animals to dilapidated roadside zoos or traveling circuses. Some animals end up at canned hunt facilities, where they become targets for hunters who are eager to shoot “big game.” From 2006 to 2009, Missouri’s Dickerson Park Zoo handed over “surplus” giraffes, zebras, kangaroos, wallabies, and exotic antelopes to questionable entities including Buddy Jordan, a notorious animal dealer who is known to have sold animals to hunting ranches, exotic-animal breeders, dealers, and unaccredited zoos. New Jersey’s Cape May County Zoo sold two giraffes, Twiggs and Jeffrey, to an animal broker who then sold them to a traveling circus.
The exotic-pet trade has become saturated with tigers and other big cats because of the zoo industry’s reckless disposal of exotic animals. Other animals are simply sold for slaughter. Each year, when baby animals who are exhibited in the Minnesota Zoo’s farm display grow up and lose their appeal, the zoo sends them to livestock auctions, and from there, many are ultimately sent to slaughter. The following spring, more babies are born, only to meet the same sad fate at the end of the season. The chief of veterinary services at the Cleveland Zoo has even called on members of the zoo community to support the use of surplus zoo animals in medical experimentation.
Not a single U.S. zoo has a policy of providing lifetime care for the animals who are born at its facilities, and many zoos breed species knowing in advance that the offspring—especially males—will be difficult to place when they mature.
Danger Behind Bars
By their very nature, zoos leave animals vulnerable to a variety of dangers from which they have no defense or opportunity to escape. Animals in zoos from coast to coast have been poisoned, left to starve, deprived of veterinary care, and burned alive in fires. Many have died after eating coins, plastic bags, and other items thrown into their cages. Animals have been beaten, bludgeoned, and stolen by people who were able to gain access to their exhibits.
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, a 3-month-old lion cub was euthanized after his spinal cord was crushed by a falling exhibit door. Despite knowing that two Asiatic bears had fought dozens of times, the Denver Zoo continued to house them together until one finally killed the other. A kangaroo who was struck by a train running through the exhibit at the Cleveland Zoo was so severely injured that she had to be euthanized; she was at least the fifth animal to be struck by the train. A hyena at the Buffalo Zoo was crushed to death by a boulder in the exhibit. At the Saint Louis Zoo, a polar bear died during exploratory surgery, which revealed that pieces of cloth and a plastic trash bag had obstructed his digestive tract.
At the National Zoo, dozens of animals have died in recent years, including two zebras who died of malnutrition, two red pandas who died from eating rat poison that was spread in their enclosure, and an orangutan who was euthanized because zoo officials mistakenly believed that she had cancer.
In the event of natural disasters such as floods, wildfires, or hurricanes, animals are often left to fend for themselves. When wildfires broke out near the Los Angeles Zoo, officials admitted that they had no evacuation plan. And during Hurricane Katrina, most of the 6,000 aquatic animals at a New Orleans aquarium perished when the power failed and employees were forced to vacate the premises.
The following are a few examples of how captivity adversely affects the well-being of various species commonly found in zoos.
In the wild, great apes live in dense tropical forests where these highly social beings are constantly stimulated by their rich and diverse environment. They show love for one another, laugh, play, and grieve.
In captivity, however, some become neurotic while others may try to escape. At least 14 zoos have resorted to treating gorillas suffering from captivity-induced madness with medications such as Haldol, Prozac, and Zoloft.
In 2004, Jabari, a young gorilla who was as curious and full of life as any human teenager, escaped from his enclosure at the Dallas Zoo, injured four people, and was shot to death by police officers. In 2003 at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, a gorilla named Little Joe led more than 50 police officers and zoo staff members on a two-hour chase through darkened woods and along a nearby street outside the zoo.
Gorillas are normally shy and gentle animals who are capable of selfless acts of compassion. In 1996, Binti Jua, a gorilla in Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, was sitting in an exhibit with her infant on her back when a human child fell into the exhibit’s moat. Binti made a beeline for the boy, gently picked him up, and—with her own child still on her back—carried him to a spot at the back of the exhibit where a zookeeper could reach the child through the metal dividing door.
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.
In contrast, elephants in zoos are rarely afforded opportunities to meet their physical and psychological needs by experiencing similar activities. Even the largest zoo enclosures are inadequate to provide sustained and varied exercise, so captive elephants typically must endure long hours of standing on hard surfaces, often amid their own waste. These conditions are major contributors to foot infections and arthritis, the leading causes of death and euthanasia among captive elephants. In addition, elephants in zoos are subjected to manipulative breeding techniques, traded between facilities without regard for established relationships, subjected to frigid climates, and often dominated and controlled with bullhooks.
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, lifting and turning over objects, and capturing small animals or insects.
In captivity, bears are especially prone to stereotypic behavior associated with poor welfare. PETA has documented cases of neurotic bears at zoos across the country. These frustrated animals spend much of the day pacing, walking in tight circles, swaying or rolling their heads, and demonstrating other signs of psychological distress. Some bear enclosures show not only a path worn by the animals’ constant pacing but also the actual paw impressions in the soil where the bears step in the same spot repeatedly. These bears aren’t just bored; they are in a profound state of despondency.
Scientists at Oxford University 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. When animals who have been denied their basic needs see opportunities to escape their dreary lives, they often take them.
Just as the San Francisco Zoo was closing for the day on December 25, 2007, a 350-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped and mauled three zoogoers. One person was killed before police shot and killed the tiger. One year earlier, a tiger named Enshala at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo escaped from an unlocked cage and ran loose for 50 minutes before the zoo director killed her with four shots from a 12-gauge shotgun.
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 Baltimore Zoo, have made the compassionate decision to provide refuge for animals who are truly in need, 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 provide 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
Zoos will be forced to stop breeding and capturing more animals from the wild if their financial support disappears, so the most important way to help animals who are imprisoned in zoos is simply to boycott zoos and urge everyone you know to do the same.