No one can deny that the list of endangered and threatened species is quite long, and hundreds more are on the waiting list. But did you know that some activists are claiming that zoos themselves are a form of abuse of animals/endangered species and should be categorized as such? What does that mean? Well, animal rights activists are speaking out against zoos, saying that keeping animals in zoos is like keeping them in prison. They claim that it is unfair treatment and abuse of the animals to keep them in small enclosures at the zoo instead of letting them roam free in their native habitats.
Others say that these claims are nonsense, that the animals are either fine or even better off than they otherwise would be, and that they’re well taken care of. This side states that zoo animals often live longer than they would in the wild, and that the research done on zoo animals helps improve the lives of many species. Let’s look at both sides and you can decide for yourself which argument you feel is more accurate.
Lawsuits and Claims
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal rights groups are threatening lawsuits, citing the Endangered Species Act and claiming that zoos and aquariums are unfair to animals. These groups profess that keeping animals confined does nothing to help the animals in the wild and that it is a form of illegal “abuse.”
These groups tend to use the elephant as an example, because zoo or circus elephants don’t usually end up living as long as wild ones. And clearly, the animals just don’t have nearly as much room to roam around as they otherwise would.
Rebuttals and Denials
Those who are in favor of zoos have their own solid arguments as well. They maintain that zoos have greatly improved over the years, allowing the animals wider spaces and more natural micro-habitats that better match their own. The steel bars and glass cages of the past have been vastly upgraded, ensuring that the animals have more room to roam and feel more at home.
Pro-zoos and Endangered Species
Not only do some zoos rescue animals that would be orphaned or homeless, often zoos are working or have worked toward breeding and replenishing threatened or endangered species. Zoos in Los Angeles and San Diego have been able to restore the population of the California condor from under 25 to about 170 birds over a ten-year period. Also, zoos in China and Europe successfully restored a deer population to be self-sustaining after previous extinction in the 1980s. Many pro-zoo advocates also assert that zoos protect certain animals, saving them from the effects of the wilderness or poachers in the wild. As evidenced by these two examples, endangered species can indeed be protected and rehabilitated in the zoo environment.
These days, zoos have the opportunity to become accredited, and the zoos that are accredited are held to a higher standard when it comes to their treatment of animals. Many zoos take in animals while working with partner organizations to improve conditions for their counterparts in the wilderness. Several zoos allow scientists to research certain species and develop methods of helping them, whether it be with medicine, survival methods, or conservation efforts.
Anti-zoos and Endangered Species
Those in favor of making zoos extinct argue that zoos tend to feature large, well-known animals that draw attention and bring in many visitors, ignoring the lesser-known, smaller species on the endangered list. Visitors recognize pandas or elephants, but not many have heard of the black-fronted piping guan, which is equally endangered if not more so. Granted, not every zoo can help every endangered species; there are too many on the list. However, the majority of animals in zoos are not endangered at all, and while the animals within the zoos are alive and safe, this doesn’t change anything for the species and habitats out in the wild.
Not to mention, anti-zoo activists point out the fact that breeding programs and efforts to replenish wild populations in captivity don’t always work. Animals bred in captivity are largely used to attract visitors to the zoo with their cuteness factor, and the adults are crowded or ushered out behind the scenes. Also, it’s virtually impossible to return a captive-bred animal to the wild due to the fact that they lack the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness. They may also deliver outside diseases to the wild animals or be rejected by them—if, that is, they even have a home to return to. Humans have taken over so many natural habitats that animals are left with fewer and fewer to live in each year.
Other Anti-zoo Arguments
Proponents of doing away with zoos cite several further reasons that zoos should become extinct. Animals cannot live in captivity like they do in the wild, and too many things can go wrong. Even with upgraded captivity habitats, animals are not allowed the space they would otherwise have in the wild; some animals would roam up to 30 miles in the wilderness, and that kind of land in a zoo is just impossible. Many animals have been neglected, starved, and mistreated; animals often appear distressed and sad in captivity. While zoos bring in revenue and provide educational entertainment, one has to think about the animals: is it fair to them?
Other Pro-zoo Arguments
Pro-zoo advocates insist that zoo animals live longer and are treated better than in days past, and remind anti-zoo activists that zoos have helped with scientific research and the US economy. Advocates even go so far as to say that including elephants in public zoos and circuses has potentially benefited the species by educating the public and helping to end the ivory trade. Not to mention—what would happen to the zoo animals if all US zoos were suddenly shut down? They wouldn’t be able to survive on their own. Pro-zoo advocates insist that rather than work to shut down zoos and end the use of animals for not only zoos but circuses and even farms, they should work toward improving the zoos and making conditions even better for the animals that are already captive. They should encourage more zoos to partner with organizations for further conservation efforts, rather than making all zoos extinct. Advocates insist that doing away with zoos will only further hurt species that are already endangered or threatened.
As you can see, both sides have valid points, and it isn’t an easy, clear-cut decision. Regardless of the fate of zoos in the US, the list of endangered species grows ever longer, and that should be our focus: helping the animals as much as possible and helping to restore our habitat and environment to what it should be. After all, there are a lot of things that can’t function properly on this planet without a balanced natural environment, and that includes plants and animals. So what do you think: should zoos become extinct?
The Pegasus Foundation exists to protect and support animal welfare through grants and education, partnering with non-profit organizations to share resources, educate the public, and facilitate communication. For more information, please contact the Pegasus Foundation directly.