Animal Aid Articles Magazine

The Ethics of Zoos


By Chere Di Boscio and Renee Nat

I vividly remember my most recent trip to a zoo. I had seen a French documentary called ‘Nannette’ about an orangutan living in the Paris zoo, and people’s reactions to her. When I saw that these normally solitary animals were living with many others of their species in a very small space, I was shocked–how could the French zookeepers not understand that orangutans prefer to be alone? But when I saw the lone snow leopard enclosed in a cage beside them, looking forlornly out of his cage, I was completely depressed.

Originally the privilege of royals, who were often given exotic animals as gifts by visiting diplomats, these former ‘menageries’ have now become what some see as living examples of public education, whist others view them as nothing more than animal jails.


The white tiger at the Paris zoo lives in a woefully small cage.

Many have argued that they have valuable programs working with endangered species including plans for breeding and releasing animals back into the wild. However, famed zoo historian and former park director David Hancocks said in a speech, “In truth, hardly any animals born in the world’s zoos are returned to the wild. Breeding zoo animals is basic sound business: zoos must breed animals merely to preserve their collections.”

That may well be the case, but zoo advocates argue that conservation is also an important role that zoos play. For example, this year the Belfast zoo celebrated the first captive breeding of a red squirrel, which faces extinction in its native home of Britain and Ireland. While Belfast was helping a local species, many zoos are also doing a better job of taking into account the natural habitats of their animals compared to their local climates and are moving their resident beasts into more appropriate homes. To illustrate, former Toronto zoo elephants were moved to California after it was obvious they were suffering in the chilly Canadian city.  I

However, these efforts can’t change certain inherent aspects of zoos that leave animal activists in a rage. Organisations like PETA say that zoos violate the right of animals to live in freedom and rarely provide the opportunity to satisfy their basic needs. “In general, zoos and wildlife parks preclude or severely restrict natural behaviour, such as flying, hunting…digging, exploring, and selecting a partner,” says PETA.

Nowhere is this more evident than at many SeaWorlds around the globe. The plight of orca whales in captivity has recently been pushed into the spotlight thanks to a brilliant documentary film, Blackfish. The devastating living conditions at SeaWorld aquariums are hard to witness, and the film highlights the terrible consequences of denying an animal its natural social structures and habitat.


Gorillas are very social animals. Keeping them alone in a confined space can lead to severe depression.

In fact, even when conditions are made to imitate the animal’s natural habitat as much as possible, not being in nature as they are meant to be is detrimental to most species. For example, Knut, the famous polar bear, was born in captivity in Berlin’s Zoological Garden, and was the first polar bear cub to survive past infancy at the Berlin Zoo in more than 30 years. Even so, he died at the age of four from drowning after he collapsed into his enclosure’s pool while suffering from encephalitis–something that would never have happened in the wild. 

Some animals are so unhappy that they risk their lives in desperate attempts to free themselves. At the Dallas Zoo, a gorilla named Jabari tried to escape his lonely life of solitude by jumping over the walls and moats of his enclosure, only to be tragically shot by police. A witness later confessed that teenagers were taunting the poor creature by throwing rocks at him.


Ota Benga lived in the Bronx Zoo with chimps

Furthermore, many animals become physically unwell after exposure to unnatural weather and climates. For example, elephants typically walk up to 30 miles in just one day, but Lucy,  the lone elephant at the Edmonton Zoo, is locked inside a barn when the zoo is closed and during Edmonton’s frigid winter months, which means she spends most of her time indoors, cold, and without much room to move. The near-constant confinement because of the harsh weather has caused Lucy to develop painful arthritis.

But in developing countries, animals suffer much more than that. Unbelievably, in the Badaltearing Safari Park in China, zoo visitors can throw live goats into the lions’ enclosure and watch them being eaten, or can purchase live birds tied to bamboo rods to dangle into lion pens. Visitors can also drive through the lion’s compound on buses with specially designed chutes leading into the enclosure into which they can push live chickens.

In the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Mountain Village near Guilin in south-east China, live cows and pigs are thrown to tigers to amuse visitors. In the Qingdao zoo, visitors engage in “tortoise baiting”, where tortoises are kept inside small rooms with elastic bands round their necks, so that they are unable to retract their heads. Visitors then throw coins at them. The marketing claim is that if you hit one of them on the head and make a wish, it will be fulfilled.

China and other developing countries often can’t afford to continue to feed and keep their animals, and so kill them sell them to a taxidermist for some extra cash. Southern Weekend (SW), an investigative newspaper recently revealed that rising demand for stuffed tigers, lions and even elephants for home decor is encouraging zoos to kill their exhibits and sell their pelts to state-licensed taxidermy firms.

Still not convinced zoos should be banned because you think they may play an important role in conservation and breeding projects? Well, quite often zoos may be unable to keep a large enough number of individuals to provide a sufficiently varied gene pool for the species (especially rare ones) to breed without problems. Moreover, the animals are often artificially inseminated or don’t get to choose their partners, which often results in miscarriage or the mother rejecting her baby.Knut_der_Eisbär_Januar_2011

As for conservation, is it really worth conserving species in captivity? There are already far more tigers and gorillas living in zoos than there are in the wild. Is that truly fair to the animal? Isn’t there a better approach we could take, such protecting endangered species in their natural habitats, or raising animals in captivity and then releasing them back into the wild?

This is unlikely to happen as long as the animals who live in zoos are a big business draw. And in the developed world, they are–there were over 700million visitors to zoos and aquariums around the world in 2011 alone. Yet, despite their popularity, the closure of zoos is not a total impossibility: after all, humans were once locked into the cages with animals.

It seems shocking, but it’s true: this was done supposedly to illustrate the differences between people of European and non-European origin. For example, the Bronx Zoo in New York had Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy, displayed in a cage with the chimpanzees, then with an orangutan and a parrot. The exhibit was intended as an example of the “missing link” between the orangutan and white man. More recently, human beings were displayed in cages during the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, and as late as 1958 in a “Congolese village” display at Expo ’58 in Brussels. If we now find this behaviour appalling, is it really such a leap to think we may once day perceive zoos as being just as terrible to animals as we have been to our own species?

One alternative for those who argue that zoos are necessary for species conservation would be to aim to primarily tackle the serious challenges facing animals in the wild such as poaching, climate change and loss of habitat.


Another zoo alternative could be learning about animals by watching nature documentaries or observing the animals in their own natural habitats through eco-tourism instead.

Whilst zoos still exist, there are groups, such as the UK’s Zoo Licensing Act, dedicated to keeping an eye on zoos to ensure that they (and aquariums) are operating in a way that put the animals’ welfare first. If you believe the animals could be living in better conditions in captivity–speak up to the zoo itself, your municipal government, or failing that, an animal rights group such as PETA.

Now that I’ve thought about the ethics of zoos, I personally don’t visit them, and I encourage my friends and family to boycott them as well. I love animals, and I want to see them free, not held captive behind bars, no matter what the justification.


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