Are Zoos Ethical? Here’s Why We’d Say NO

They’re a popular place for families, and even animal lovers. But are zoos ethical? Here’s why I’d answer with a hard NO!

By Chere Di Boscio

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 small cage, my mood dropped even lower. In fact, I became completely depressed. And I just had to ask myself: are zoos even ethical?

After doing some research, the unfortunate answer was more than negative. Here’s why.

Are Zoos Ethical?
The white tiger at the Paris zoo lives in a woefully small cage.

The alleged benefits of zoos

Zoos were 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. Others, however, view them as nothing more than animal jails.

Many have argued that zoos are ethical because they have valuable programs working with endangered species. Some also have 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.”

Still, 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. Yet, I have to ask myself: isn’t it better to get to the root of why species are facing extinction, then addressing those issues instead?

Finally, many a parent will tell you that they love taking their kids to the zoo so they can ‘learn about animals’. Sorry, but I’d argue that what the children are actually learning is that it’s ok to lock up wild beings for our entertainment. That’s not a great lesson to impart on young minds! If they want to learn about animals, they can watch a David Attenborough documentary instead.

Where do they come from?

You might ask yourself where the animals in zoos come from. How are they captured and taken to zoos? The answer shows yet again why zoos are not ethical.

In most cases, hunters go to faraway lands to sell exotic species for profit. As you can imagine, it’s more difficult to trap adults than babies, so getting younger animals is the goal. To do so, parents (who defend their babes) are often killed.

This is also true for sea animals. The way hunters corner dolphins for their meat, but also to sell to aquariums and places of ‘entertainment’ like SeaWorld was well documented in the film The Cove.

In other cases, animals are traded and transferred to and from different zoos. Such moves are very traumatic to the animals, and cause them great distress.

Natural behaviours repressed

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. The film highlights the terrible consequences of denying an animal its natural social structures and habitat.

In fact, these poor, intelligent orcas become so depressed, they try to kill themselves. And some actually succeed.

evil zoos

Even the ‘good’ are bad

Some zoos try to be more ethical by imitating the animal’s natural habitat as much as possible. But habitats are complex, and 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. He was the first polar bear cub to survive past infancy at the Berlin Zoo in more than 30 years. That says a lot in itself. Clearly, if animals are not making it to adulthood, it’s because they’re not meant to live in captivity.

Even so, Knut 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.  

Still wondering: hmmm…but are zoos ethical? Consider this: many animals become physically unwell after exposure to unnatural weather and climates.

For example, female elephants are very social creatures. They typically walk in groups up to 30 miles in just one day. But Lucy, the lone elephant at the Edmonton Zoo in Canada, is locked inside a barn when the zoo is closed during Edmonton’s frigid winter months. This means she spends most of her time indoors, very cold, and without much room to move. It’s essentially like being in jail, for no crime. The extreme isolation and near-constant confinement because of the harsh weather has caused Lucy to develop painful arthritis and severe depression. And you can bet she’s not the only elephant in that situation.

No sympathy

The lack of ethics behind keeping animals in zoos is bad enough. But what’s even worse is the lack of sympathy our society has for those animals.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at what happens when some animals are so unhappy that they risk their lives in desperate attempts to free themselves.

At the Dallas Zoo, for example, a gorilla named Jabari tried to escape his lonely life of solitude. He managed to jump over the walls and moats of his enclosure, and just about freed himself. However, he was soon tragically shot by police after his escape. A witness later confessed that Jabari was pushed over the edge as teenagers were taunting the poor creature by throwing rocks at him.

We need to question ourselves as a society. Why were these teenagers so cruel to this captive animal? And why were the police instructed to kill this endangered species, rather than sedating him instead? Where is our collective empathy? How is it possible that we don’t seem to understand that animals are sentient beings, just like us?

Disgusting suffering in poorer countries

Zoos aren’t ethical in developed countries. But in developing ones, it’s even worse.

For example, rather unbelievably, in the Badaltearing Safari Park in China, zoo visitors can throw live goats into the lions’ enclosure and watch them being eaten. They can also purchase live birds tied to bamboo rods and dangle them, terrified, into lion pens, to see if they lions will eat them. 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”. That’s 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 ‘for luck’. 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 and sell them to a taxidermist for some extra cash. China Dialogue, 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.

Reproduced…for a life of misery?

Still wondering: are zoos ethical? Still not convinced zoos should be banned because you think they may play an important role in conservation projects? Well, know this. 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

And 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 700 million 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.

Sick human bigotry

It seems shocking, but it’s true: different races of human beings were once on display in zoos. This was supposedly to illustrate the differences between people of European and non-European origin. In other words, the same ‘educational purposes’ that many parents cite today as the reason for taking their kids to zoos.

For example, just over 100 years ago, the Bronx Zoo in New York had Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy, displayed in a cage with chimpanzees, an orangutan and a parrot. The exhibit was intended to ‘educate’ us about the “missing link” between the orangutan and white man. Just like the orcas at SeaWorld, after being held in captivity, Benga developed depression, and died by suicide in 1916.

Unfortunately, Benga wasn’t the only case of an individual being put into a human zoo. There are many, many cases of human beings displayed in cages. For example, 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? After all, both humans AND animals feel pain, suffer in isolation, and deserve to be free. So, how is locking up an animal in a zoo different than locking up a human being?

are zoos ethical
Ota Benga


  • In place of locking animals in zoos, we need to tackle the serious challenges facing animals in the wild, such as poaching and loss of habitat.
  • Instead of going to zoos, children should learn about animals by watching nature documentaries or observing the animals in their own natural habitats through eco-tourism.
  • Discourage anyone you know who goes to zoos from doing so. Explain why they are perpetuating harm to animals.
  • Complain to your municipal government about the presence of zoos in your area.
  • Failing that, go to an animal rights group such as PETA, and get them to raise hell on your behalf.
  • Support a charity that aims to preserve animal habitats and end zoos. Zoocheck is a good one, for example.

Obviously, I personally don’t think zoos are ethical at all. I don’t ever 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. And if you love animals too, tell your friends and family that visiting zoos and aquariums is simply wrong, too. Show them this article, and encourage them to share it, too.

After all, once we learn about how unethical zoos are, anyone with a heart will want to see them shut down forever.

What do you think? Are zoos ethical? Let us know in the comments, below

Chere Di Boscio
Latest posts by Chere Di Boscio (see all)

5 thoughts on “Are Zoos Ethical? Here’s Why We’d Say NO”

  1. I last visited a zoo about 27 years ago and i cried looking at the pathetic animals locked up in tiny placed. Yes, banning zoos is the right thing to do.

    1. That was 27 years ago but its 2019 cages got bigger yes it still not right to have animals locked in a cage but at least they’re alive and getting fed and not getting killed by another animal or human

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