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Giraffes at a Zoo

Zoos: What is so Great About Them?

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 this link.

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.

Stress behaviors

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 us.

Elephant at a Zoo Swaying her Trunk

Rhinoceros Pacing and Retracing his Steps

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 themselves.

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 Zoo

Do Zoos Serve a Purpose?

Zoos: Conservation

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.

More Information

Sad Eyes and Empty Lives by CAPS
5 minute sample clip giving arguments against keeping wild animals in zoos. The full length video can also be ordered at the link.

Kangaroos at a Zoo

Copyright 2008-2011 by Wanda Embar and its licensors. All Rights Reserved.
Hippopotamuses: GNU FDL License. Other pictures and clip by Wanda Embar, Vegan Peace.
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