Growing up, my mom has been the biggest animal lover and animal rights supporter I have known. We would visit zoos when we traveled and take pictures of the animals, but I never questioned how the animals were being treated or cared for by their zookeepers. I recently visited a zoo with my young cousins expecting the same leisurely experience. Maybe the change was caused by my recent visit to Africa and safari experience, but it finally hit me how differently the animals are forced to live compared to their natural lifestyles and habitats.
We walked from one enclosure to the next reading about the life spans, eating habits, and natural habitats of the individual species and noticed how differently the animals lived from how the plaque told us they should. For example, we saw bongos that lived in an enclosure covered in dirt and rocks and decorated with sparse grass, but the sign told us that in the wild, bongos live in the rainforest with thick undergrowth. It was difficult to keep a positive attitude towards our outing and the zoo as we noticed the stark differences, and as soon as I got home, I began researching animal cruelty in zoos.
It is obvious that the animals live very boring lives in their enclosures at zoos. The space they are given is too small, and it would be no matter how large a space they were given, because it could not compete with their natural habitat that offers plenty of open roaming space and freedom. Many arguments could be made that in captivity, animals can live longer and safer lives. The depression and harsh conditions they experience can actually cause their lives to be much shorter than in the wild. For example, elephants live about 16-18 years in captivity, while in the wild they can live upwards of 50 years. This difference is too significant to be ignored.
Animals in zoos show signs of stress and boredom, and the same signs may also signal depression or psychoses. When elephants sway from side to side, onlookers usually think it is a quite normal motion for the animal, but it is actually a signal of stress. Behaviors like these are mainly caused by a lack of privacy, mental stimulation and physical exercise. Some zoos give tranquilizers or antidepressants to control these kinds of behaviors in animals.
Zoos often use baby animals to attract visitors and because of this, they are constantly breeding more and more infant animals. With a constant increase of animals in captivity without an increase of space in zoos, a surplus of animals is created. Surplus animals are either killed and fed to other animals or sold to other zoos and private dealers. They may also be sold to the public online, exotic meat companies, pet shops, circuses, or hunting ranches.
A major argument for zoos is based on research and animal conservation. At least 750,000 animals live in zoos around the world, while only 1,000 of the 6,000 species are actually threatened or endangered. If conservation of the 1,000 endangered species is the reason for zoos, only that 1,000 need to be held in captivity.
Zoos provide an educational experience for adults and children alike, but it is very rare that either age group actually absorbs the information provided about the animals and their habitats. It could be argued that zoos foster an appreciation for animals and their rights, and that people will be more motivated to protect the animals. While that is a good reason to keep a zoo open, it also may lead to people protecting the animals by promoting the end of zoos.
Of course, there are requirements that each zoo must meet by the federal Animal Welfare Act, but the standards are so low that they don’t necessarily help the animals. The act requires only that there be enough space for each animal to be able to make “normal postural and social adjustments” with enough freedom of motion. Punishments are not very severe, and deadlines are given for the corrections to be made.
In my opinion, zoos have several, strong positive attributes including their educational and conservation values. I believe that having private caretakers nurse sick or hurt animals back to health would be a better method for conservation than public zoos. This way, the animals that are in good health could live in the wild as they are meant to, and the common cycles of nature could continue.