Almost all of us grow up with fond memories of visiting
the zoo with our parents, grandparents or friends. Where else do you get to see those
amazing, large elephants? Or these cute monkeys
climbing and playing? Or those giraffes with their
long, long, long necks? Unless you are able to afford a trip to Kenya, the
zoo is the only place where you can see these amazing animals up close.
Zoos: What is so Bad About Them?
I just mentioned what is so great about zoos,
but I wouldn't have listed my Zoo pages under "Animal Cruelty", if I didn't
think that zoos were bad for the animals that live in them.
The major problem with zoos is that the
animals who live there are kept in enclosures that don't allow them to live
their lives in a natural way. No matter how big some zoos try to make the
enclosures, no matter how many branches they put in them, no matter how
beautiful they make the background paintings on the wall, they don't
compare with the natural habitat the animals were meant to be in. Zoo
animals have to spend day after day, week after week, year after year in the
exact same enclosure. This makes their lives very monotonous.
Elephants in the Wild
Elephants at a Zoo
Elephants in the wild for instance, are used
to traveling many miles a day in herds of about ten related adults and their
offspring. They are very social animals.
In zoos, elephants are usually kept in pairs
or even isolated. Their enclosures are incredibly small, compared to what
they are used to in the wild. Elephants often show many signs of being stressed
out or bored, like engaging in repetitive movements. This was very evident at the Milwaukee
County Zoo, which I visited. You can read my report of that zoo at
It is no surprise that elephants don't do
well in zoos at all. The average lifespan of zoo elephants is about
16-18 years, while wild elephants can live 50-70 years.
When I visited a zoo recently, one
of the elephants was swaying her trunk back and forth. I took a clip of
her, which you can view on the right. At the end of the clip you can hear a
woman say: "if I could just do that all day, man that would be pretty
sweet.". I also overheard a little
girl ask her mother what the elephant was doing. Her mother answered that
the elephant was "dancing".
The sad truth though is
that repetitive movements like trunk swaying are clear signs of stress. Since most of us only know these wild animals from seeing
them in zoos, it isn't easy to recognize stress behaviors. Zoo keepers either aren't aware of
these signs themselves, or they aren't eager to explain them to
Elephant at a Zoo Swaying her Trunk
Rhinoceros Pacing and Retracing his
Other signs of stress or boredom that you can
see in zoo animals are pacing backwards and forwards,
head bobbing, rocking, repeatedly retracing their steps, sitting motionless or biting
The scientific term for repetitive behaviors
in captive animals is "Abnormal Repetitive Behavior" also know as ARB. This
covers all the strange-looking repetitive behaviors we can recognize in
captive animals, like zoo animals. These behaviors are caused by conditions
like depression, boredom and psychoses. Some zoos actually give
anti-depressants or tranquillizers to control the behavior problems of some
of their animals.
Zoos: Collection of Unhappy Animals
What makes life
so difficult for zoo animals is that they hardly have any privacy and lack
mental stimulation and physical exercise. Even though you might think
that zoo animals would get used to a life in captivity, they really
don't. Even animals that are bred in zoos still retain their natural
instincts after many generations of captive breeding.
Animals like polar bears or felines are used to
hunting; this habit is replaced by the zoo with regular feedings. Most
animals kept in zoos would naturally roam for tens of miles a day.
Once you start recognizing the signs of
stress in zoo animals and understand how sad and boring their lives must be,
zoos will look completely different to you.
Polar Bear at a Zoo
Endangered Siamang Raising her Baby at a
Do Zoos Serve a Purpose?
Zoos claim to help with conservation. However, hardly any zoo registers
their animals on an international species database and most zoo animals
are not endangered at all.
Even though there are thousands of endangered
species, zoos have only been able to return about 16 species to the wild
with varying level of success. Most zoo animals released in the wild don't
survive. This is because zoos don't provide the right environment for a
successful captive breeding project. The animals would need to live in
habitats resembling their natural ones, especially in terms of climate and
fauna. The animals would also need to be raised with minimal human contact
and in populations large enough to provide a natural social balance and a
suitable gene pool.
Zoos: Breeding Programs
Zoos spend huge amounts of money on their breeding
programs, even though breeding animals in captivity isn't the best way to
help in conservation. It is at least 50 times more expensive to
maintain elephants in zoos than to protect equivalent numbers of elephants
in the wild. Using the money for conservation programs in the wild - by
creating more protected reserves for instance - will not only allow the animals to live in their natural
habitat, it also helps balance whole eco-systems.
So why are zoos so interested in breeding animals?
Just look at baby Mahal on the picture to the right. They attract huge
amounts of people! Zoos main interest is always to make money and baby
animals are their most powerful marketing tool.
Mahal was rejected by his mother. It is not
uncommon for zoo babies to be rejected by their mothers. In some situations
zoo keepers will step in and take care of the rejected babies, in other
situations they choose to simply leave the babies to die.
Baby Orangutan Mahal at a Zoo
Lions at a Zoo
Surplus lions have sometimes been destroyed by zoos.
Zoo keepers also
choose to remove babies sometimes, even when their mothers have not rejected
them. They do this to make the babies "better exhibit animals": safer to
work with and more at ease around people.
Zoos: Surplus Animals
What are surplus animals? Surplus animals are
the unwanted animals for whom there is no more space, when zoos have
bred yet another cute little baby to attract visitors. They can even be the
cute babies themselves when they've stopped being cute at the end of the
season. Zoos have a
systematic "overproduction" of animals. These surplus animals are either
killed - and sometimes fed to their fellow zoo habitants - or sold to
other zoos or dealers.
Selling animals is a profitable way for zoos to dispose of
them. Dealers will sell them to hunting ranches, pet shops, circuses, the
exotic meat industry and research facilities. Surplus animals are also found
for sale on the internet.
Zoos: Teaching Tool?
Zoos are considered a great teaching tool where children
and adults can learn a lot about wild animals. Zoos however, hardly teach
you anything about how wild animals live and behave in nature. Just compare the picture of the
hippopotamuses in nature (to the right) with the one I took at the zoo
(below). Zoos are not much more than a collection of sad and exploited
animals and are giving a very bad example about how we should treat the
fellow occupants of our Earth.
Hippopotamuses in Nature
Hippopotamuses at a Zoo
What is the Alternative?
So if we shouldn't visit zoos, how else can we learn about
these amazing animals?
Animals should be observed in their natural habitat, where
they are living the live that they were meant to live. If we can't afford to
visit them, we can learn about
these amazing wild animals by watching wildlife videos, television programs
or by reading about them on the internet or in books and magazines. It is
simply not right to enjoy seeing these animals while they are living a
horribly sad life.