Are zoos really cruel? Is animal abuse in zoos actually common?
Answer: It completely depends on the zoo. Some zoos have gone to great trouble and expense to recreate habitats for the animals in their care. Most reputable zoos are staffed by people with university degrees in animal science.
As a society, we have come a long way since the days of caged tigers and chimpanzees.
Now zoo animals have constructed habitats that look like the savannas or rock formations in which those animals would exist in the wild. The animals are surrounded by real vegetation that would typically exist in their native habitat.
Zoo animals receive exactly the right foods in the right amount. And, if they are naturally social, they usually get to socialize with others of their kind.
Zoos have three important functions:
- To educate the public about animals in various parts of the world. When a zoo is doing its job, it posts a sign in front of the animal exhibit that tells you important information about that animal–where it is from and something about its lifestyle.
- To protect endangered animals, implement breeding programs to ensure the survival of the species, and create public awareness of the plight of endangered animals.
- Many zoos take in injured animals and save them. If the animal recovers without losing its wildness, it can be re-released to the wild. That was the story of a bald eagle who was dying of lead poisoning until a zoo nursed him back to life.
Zoos prolong life in many animals
Some animals that have made it into reputable zoos have basically drawn the high card. According to a 2016 study, eighty percent of the mammals at the zoo will live longer than they would have in the wild.
Zoos, you see, remove the threat of predation while providing medical care. Instead of dying of a bacterial or fungal infection, a white tail deer in the zoo gets a shot of antibiotics and goes on living.
It is true that zoos severely limit the range of animals that have the instinct to roam. Big cats, wolves, elephants, zebras, and many birds would typically migrate over thousands of miles.
But one might conclude that, for some animals, the benefits of expert medical care and freedom from predators outweigh the benefits of roaming.
Zoos are not right for some species
Does that mean that animal abuse in zoos is a thing of the past? Not really. There are some animals that should never be in a zoo or marine park. Polar bears, for instance, should never be in zoos, except as a last resort to save their lives. It is simply too difficult to recreate the freezing natural habitat of a polar bear. And polar bears will overheat to the point of psychosis in a zoo environment.
Similarly, sea turtles, dolphins and whales do not belong in a zoo or marine park unless they are so badly injured that they cannot survive in the wild. Dolphins and whales have big brains. They understand that they are captive.
While they might take some joy from performing, in general they are miserable. Captive dolphins who swim around their tanks with their eyes squeezed shut are testament to this fact.
We all need to welcome the recent trend of marine parks to quit acquiring new marine mammals.
Beware cruel roadside attractions
Meanwhile, there are a number of small, private animal attractions that need to shut down. These exhibits are sometimes called “roadside zoos.” The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have compiled a list of the worst of these zoos. These roadside attractions, sometimes billed as “adventures,” definitely participate in animal abuse in zoos.
One of these institutions kept a primate in isolation for decades, even though all primates are extremely social animals. Another one pits tiger cubs against chimpanzees for the amusement of visitors.
The downside to zoos is that they encourage people to see animals as entertainment. Animals have rights to live as they were born to do, independent of what they may or may not provide to humans.
What you can do:
If you are concerned about animal abuse in zoos, don’t spend any money at small zoos that are advertised on billboards off the highway. Instead, visit only zoos that have made every effort to create appropriate habitat for animals. Make sure that the zoo you support allows animals of a kind to socialize and does not isolate any social animals.