For many people, zoos are the only chance they’ll have in their entire lives to see beautiful animals native to far-flung ecosystems — lions, elephants, pandas, lemurs — the list goes on. And they’re popular — over 181 million people visit a U.S. zoo every year. But zoos face criticism from animal welfare organizations and environmental activists for inhumane treatment of the animals they claim to protect. Zoos maintain that they are important aspects of conservation and education.
So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of zoos? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of these controversial organizations.
What Are Some Pros and Cons of Zoos?
First, not all zoos are created equal. While it is easy to imagine animal ethics as a binary of evil and moral, zoos can vary widely on how they treat their animals, how much space they are given and how the animals are obtained. Still, most zoos tend to have the same positives and negatives overall.
Arguments Against Zoos
Poor Conditions for Animals
Animals Often Only Have Quite Limited Space
Many zoos’ enclosures are too small, especially for animal species that are used to roaming, flying or swimming large distances in the wild. For example, polar bears are used to home ranges of about 1,000 square kilometers in the wild — large swaths of land and ice they enjoy exploring. In zoos, they get a couple hundred square feet.
Zoos Are Crowded
In addition to limited space, many zoos cram in as many animals as possible into the enclosures. Many visitors prefer seeing animals up close, instead of peering at them from afar, hidden in their dens or nests. This encourages zoos to increase the number of animals per exhibit, increasing the likelihood of visitors seeing animals on the move near the boundaries of the enclosure.
Animals Are Trapped in Unnatural Environments
Anyone who has visited a zoo knows the exhibits are a far cry from the natural landscape they are trying to imitate. Nearly all zoo enclosures contain fences, glass or other barriers for visitors to look through, which are inherently artificial. And the natural-seeming landscapes can sometimes be made out of astroturf, concrete or plastic.
Confinement May Alter the Behavior of Animals
The lack of space, unnatural environments and crowded conditions can directly affect the behavior of animals; most notably in the form of what’s known as “stereotypy.” Stereotypy is a condition in which non-human animals engage in repetitive behaviors with no apparent purpose, such as pacing for hours on end, wagging tails abnormally or picking their own fur.
The structure of zoos increases the likelihood of stereotypic behavior due to a lack of enrichment, mundane environments and boring, repetitive schedules. This prevalence of stereotypy in zoos even has its own name: “zoochosis,” or psychosis caused by zoos.
‘Surplus’ Animals Can Be Killed
After an animal has reproduced successfully and the zoo no longer requires the animal to maintain an exhibit, the animal is deemed “surplus.” At this point, the animal’s welfare is no longer profitable. Zoos can sell the animal to private owners (who may keep the animal in tiny cages for amusement or kill the animal for taxidermy purposes), sell the animal to other zoos or enclosures, or “euthanize” the animal.
Animals Are Often Mistreated
Animal mistreatment is much more than hitting or beating an animal. It also includes harmful training techniques, separation from family members and forcing animals to behave in abnormal ways.
In a report from World Animal Protection, three-fourths of zoos include human-animal interactions, many of which can be very stressful or physically harmful for animals. In some extreme cases, visitors rode on the backs of animals (causing injury) or encroached on the animals’ enclosure (causing stress).
Investigations into popular zoos sometimes reveal that caretakers don’t always clean the exhibits frequently, leaving the animals to live near their feces. The research also reveals many zookeepers hitting animals who “misbehave,” and not helping animals with injuries sustained in the enclosures. While not all animal caretakers behave this way, the reporting suggests many zoos around the world are lax with animal welfare.
Animals Don’t Like Being Visited
The mere presence of human beings can negatively affect wild animals, especially in massive crowds that are common at zoos. Being bombarded by the sounds, smells and appearances of swaths of humans can trigger the stress responses of some animals. Some studies show that the number of visitors correlates with the amount of stress hormones in many animal species.
Animals Struggle to Form Connections
Many animals are highly social creatures. Elephants, lions, pigs, cows and many more species are shown to have complex connections, hierarchies and relationships with members of their own kind — especially with friends and family. However, zoo animals rarely stay with the same herd or family for their entire lives. Instead, zoos opt to transfer, sell, buy or relocate animals throughout their lifespans, making it difficult for animals to form social connections. This lack of bonding can harm the animals emotionally.
Zoos Are for Humans, Not Animals
Most zoos are for-profit enterprises, meaning they have one goal in mind: maximizing revenue. It is easy to see how making more money can come at the expense of animal welfare. For example, a zoo is unlikely to fund an exhibit expansion if it isn’t cost-effective, regardless of its benefits for the animals inside. While many zookeepers form real bonds with their animal companions, the animals still exist under a for-profit, human-centered organization.
Zoos Promote Human Superiority
The aesthetic nature of zoos — animals in panopticon-like enclosures, viewed 24/7 by members of a different species — can reinforce human superiority. As moral philosopher Lori Gruen writes in her book, “visitors leave the zoo more convinced than ever of human superiority over the natural world.” Of course, zoos also reinforce the idea that humans have a right to take away animals’ freedom and bodily autonomy.
Zoos Don’t Always Help with Conservation — Some Wild Animals Have to Be Caught to Bring Them to Zoos
Many animals in zoos are born in captivity, but that’s not the case for all. Many animals are taken directly from the wild, often when they are babies, to make the transition to captivity a bit easier. At times, this is done in the name of conservation, or when a wild animal is very ill. But many zoos will take animals from the wild, or buy animals from unethical animal traders.
It’s Often Not Possible to Return Animals to the Wild
Releasing an animal into the wild isn’t always successful, especially if the animal has spent time in climates different from their native regions, like jungles, savannas or ice caps. Properly preparing animals for success in the wild is a multi-stage process that can require thousands of dollars — and it doesn’t always work. Captive-born predator species — disadvantaged by being born and raised in an artificial environment — only have a survival rate after being released into the wild of 33 percent, according to one study. As a result, re-release is not a priority for many zoos.
Zoos Are Poorly Regulated
While there exist many laws that protect animals, such as the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Endangered Species Act, they only offer minimum protections. For example, the AWA excludes entire species of animals, like mice, farmed animals, birds and all cold-blooded animals. Its “minimum” standards of care usually ensure the animals’ safety, not their welfare or happiness. Many animal law experts say these regulations don’t go far enough.
What Are the Pros of Having Zoos?
They Can Be Important for Researchers
Biologists and zoologists can benefit from studying animals in zoos. Some breakthroughs in animal behavior and treatment, like why elephants swing their trunks or how gorillas develop heart disease, have been made possible because of zoos’ ease of access. However, not all animals behave the same in captivity as they do in the wild, so not all research is possible in zoos.
Zoos Are Educational — People May Behave “Eco-friendlier” After Going To the Zoo
Zoos can kickstart individuals’ interest in biodiversity, which is a critical aspect of environmental protection. Many zoos include calls to action in their exhibits, highlighting how endangered animals are being poached, driven away, or otherwise killed by human activity. This can inspire some people to behave more conscientiously. One limited survey found that 35 percent of eco-friendly people learned sustainable behavior from zoos. ‘
Zoos Can Help Educate Children About Animals
Zoos are a quintessential school experience for many young people. Children love learning about animals up-close in a safe environment — in fact, education is possibly the biggest advantage of modern zoos. Many programs, like school presentations, guided tours, informational exhibits, and talks with zookeepers can trigger a lifelong love of animals in children.
But zoos aren’t perfect in this regard. According to a study of zoo visitors in the UK, only 34 percent of children learned more about animals at zoos (the result was slightly better when the children were given a guided tour). Worse, children did not feel empowered to help with conservation efforts after visiting a zoo. This suggests that if zoos care about education, they need to more actively reach out to schoolchildren for empowerment and education.
Going to the Zoo Is Affordable
More ethical ways of engaging with animals without removing them from their natural habitats — like whale watching, safaris, hikes, or excursions — are usually expensive or inaccessible for many people. Zoos tend to be relatively cheap for the average family that wants to learn about animals.
Zoos Can Protect Endangered Species from Extinction
Zoos often claim they can protect entire species from extinction through conservation programs that involve breeding more animals in captivity and then releasing them into the wild. This is especially important for endangered species like pandas.
While these conservation efforts are truly important, they don’t represent the majority of a zoo’s activities, nor are zoos leaders in conservation worldwide. At the National Zoo, for example, only one-fifth of animals are endangered. In North America, zoos only contribute about 14 percent of all animals reintroduced into the wild as part of a conservation program. Zoos also tend to focus on headline-grabbing endangered animals to bring in visitors, like pandas, elephants or tigers, as opposed to lesser-known but crucial species, like tamarins, kakapos or wombats.
Are Zoos Good or Bad for the Environment?
Zoos claim to support global biodiversity through conservation efforts like protecting endangered animals. This is somewhat true, although it varies greatly from zoo to zoo.
On the other hand, zoos are big polluters and use up lots of resources, especially energy and water. Aquariums in particular use tons and tons of water. Zoo animals also generate waste that may or may not be composted or disposed of correctly.
Should Zoos Exist or Be Banned?
Given the many ways that zoos are unethical to animals, the flawed attempts to contribute to conservation, and the positioning of humans as superior to animals, many animal ethicists believe zoos should not exist — or at least, not exist in their current form.
For example, animal philosopher Dale Jamieson says in his book Ethics on the Ark that zoos primarily “alleviate our sense of guilt for what we are doing to the planet, but they do little to help the animals we are driving to extinction.” He continues to argue that zoos exist for humans alone, and that it is very difficult to wave away the inherent immorality of depriving animals their liberty for the sake of human amusement.
Instead, private conservation programs can benefit endangered animals without showcasing them to the public. Animal sanctuaries, which are areas of land in which endangered and other animals are protected by humans, are also advantageous for both individual animals and global biodiversity.
Zoos do have advantages — fostering curiosity and education chief among them. But experts believe there are other ways of accomplishing these goals without resorting to zoos with tiny enclosures. Excursions, nature documentaries, safaris, local gardens, hikes, boat tours and other ways of interacting with nature don’t involve taking animals out of their natural habitats.
The Bottom Line
If you do choose to visit a zoo, opt for zoos that have certifications from independent animal welfare organizations. If you are interested in animal conservation, you’d be more impactful donating to a non-zoo animal protection organization instead. And if you do want to visit animals, consider an animal sanctuary or an ethical safari, where you can see animals in their native environments.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.