Should zoos be banned? Or is there still a positive function that zoos could serve? Here we outline the pros and cons and explore whether or not zoos should be forbidden.
Zoos: A Short History
Right up until the early 19th century, the sole function of zoos was to symbolize the power of royalty and indulge their extravagant tastes. People working at zoos during this time paid little to no attention to the concept of wildlife conservation or expanding our scientific understanding of the animal kingdom. This long history of exploitation is one of the main reasons many activists today still call for zoos to be banned.
Evidence of the existence of zoos and menageries can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, circa 3500 BC. The Roman Empire was founded 27 BC and many Roman emperors kept private zoo collections. Sometimes these captive animals were used for study, but most of the time they were simply used for entertainment in the arena, which invariably ended in a cruel death.
The modern zoo that we know today emerged in the 19th century in the United Kingdom. It was only then that the transition was made from royal menageries designed to entertain the elite to public zoological gardens aiming to educate the wider population. Growing urbanization and industrialization led to heightened demand for new forms of public entertainment. This need for entertainment, as well as the requirements of scholarly research, came together in the founding of the first modern zoos.
According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) by 2020, the USA would boast 230 accredited zoos and aquariums, accommodating nearly 800,000 animals and 6,000 species with around 1,000 of these species being on the endangered species list. These zoos provide 200,000 jobs with an annual budget of $230 million set aside for wildlife conservation. They attract more than 200 million visitors per year, with special educational programs designed specifically for school groups.
Over the past 30 years, many established zoos have endeavored to improve the level of care for animals and rehabilitate the public perception of zoos. However, despite many good intentions and considerable financial effort, the concept of zoos is nonetheless fraught with many serious problems. So much so that calls to ban zoos are still loud and persistent from many activist groups even now.
How can we effectively help protect the natural world in our own small way? Find out more here: Environmental Organizations: 8 NGOs and Non-Profits Worth Supporting
Smaller Zoos Often Lack Regulation
Aside from the significant moral dilemma of keeping wild animals in captivity, the sheer size and complexity of the zoo system as a whole, and the vast range of diverse animals that are in their care, a myriad of problems inevitably arise, which cannot be solved so easily. This is where some animal activists maintain that a total ban of zoos would be imperative. The most urgent of these issues would arguably be the lack of uniform regulation for zoos. For example, according to PETA roadside zoos, which are found throughout North America, serve only to make a profit by attracting visitors to an adjacent facility, which is usually a gas station.
Often animals in such zoos are trained to perform tricks and visitors are allowed to get closer to them, which is virtually unheard of in larger, better-regulated zoos. In fact, the USDA has made it clear that allowing visitors to handle animals like baby tigers or lions is a violation of the Animal Welfare Act.
These roadside zoos are consistently reported for neglect and severe mistreatment of animals. This is often seen as a consequence of the fact that their workers have little to no training when it comes to the welfare and safety of the animals in their care. A ban of zoos or at least more regulation, could also protect these untrained workers from serious injury or death due to unpredicatable animal behavior. Moreover, these smaller, unregulated zoos may contain animals procured through illegal trafficking channels, which is a serious global problem. Banning zoos could possibly bring this nefarious criminal enterprise to a halt, or at the very least greatly reduce its negative impact on the natural world.
Zoos and Animal Welfare
It has long been observed by organizations such as the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and The Humane Society of the United States that restrictive cages and enclosures severely impact the normal behaviors of animals, sometimes leading to shorter lifespans. Animals in captivity will often develop dangerous and destructive habits as a result of the stress that they feel because of restricted living space and the lack of normal social interactions that they would experience in the wild. These abnormal behaviors can also put zoo workers at great risk.
Zoos may also house species of animals not native or acclimatized to the local environment, leading to animals suffering at the hands of extreme weather conditions that they would otherwise never encounter in their natural habitat.
The live feeding of certain species, particularly big cats, again presents a unique set of problems and where banning zoos might prove beneficial. Often touted as a positive for the animals since it encourages normal predatory behaviors, it comes with a downside since this artificial method of feeding larger predators invariably leads to further exploitation and cruel death of species bred and purchased for this sole purpose.
Should Zoos Be Banned? The Pros & Cons
When ecological conservation emerged as a matter of public interest in the 1970s, zoos increasingly engaged themselves in conservation programs. The American Zoo Association even stated that conservation was to become its number one priority. In order to push conservation issues, many large zoos put a stop to having animals perform tricks for visitors and began expanding and redesigning animal enclosures with a view towards improving the lives of captive animals.
Given that the mass destruction of wildlife habitat across the globe continues unabated and species such as elephants, big cats, birds, primates, rhinos, reptiles, and many others are at real risk of extinction, larger zoos have now stepped in with the hopes of stopping or at least slowing the decline of these endangered species.
In the face of sharp criticism and loud calls for zoos to be banned, modern zoos today now state that their primary function is to breed endangered species and reintroduce these animals into the wild. Modern zoos claim that they also aim to help teach visitors the importance of animal conservation and mindfulness when it comes to the ecosystem as a whole.
Critics and a majority of animal rights activists insist that zoos, despite their noble intentions, are inherently immoral and primarily serve to entertain humans at the expense of animals. Zoo advocates maintain that their efforts do make a difference in wildlife conservation and will continue to have a positive environmental impact well into the future.
Putting aside these opposing views, it does remain a sad reality that the welfare of zoo animals varies widely depending on where you are. While many zoos have been working hard to improve their animal enclosures to better fit the needs of captive animals, constraints such as limited space and funds can seriously hinder this process. Smaller, poorer zoos simply do not have the luxury of hiring well-trained zoological staff or expanding their breeding programs and facilities to maintain the ethos of conservation. A ban of these smaller, less well-funded zoos could be seen as a reasonable strategy in reducing harm to wildlife.
There is no quick fix for the issues that zoos across the country (and around the world) have to contend with, but a more uniform, robust, and compassionate regulatory system based on the humane care and conservation of wildlife could be seen as a major step in the right direction. Furthermore, targeted bans for certain zoos that simply do not meet the criteria that firmer regulations might designate could then become an option.
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