Zoos: Cruelty or Conservation?

As an advocate for conservation and a self-proclaimed animal lover, people are sometimes surprised to learn that I don’t oppose zoos.  

To many animal rights champions, zoos are depressing, concrete prisons—and unfortunately, many zoos are. For example, a video of Hangzhou Safari Park recently resurfaced for all the wrong reasons; it shows keepers beating tigers for refusing to ‘perform’. The astounding lack of compassion highlights just how awful zoos can be. Animals are seen as objects used for profit, rather than as living creatures who deserve dignity and care.

A bear in a dirty, concrete cage in a zoo. Visitors peer down at the depressed-looking bear through the bars of the cage.
Doomed to a life of pain and humiliation. Sometimes, it’s hard to have faith in humanity when zoos like this exist.

Despite the fact that some zoos serve as a dreadful reminder of the darker parts of human nature, they can also be used as forces for good. Many provide funding and resources for conservation projects, ensuring the future of endangered species. Populations of animals bred in captivity secure the long-term survival of wild populations, with release schemes used to supplement or establish wild populations. In addition, zoos provide helpful insights into the behaviour and biology of animals, and this information can aid conservation efforts in the wild. The infographic below (taken from the AZA – Associations of Aquariums and Zoos – website) demonstrate the growing efforts of groups like the AZA in species conservation.

Zoos have the power to instil a love of wildlife and conservation in a whole range of people, regardless of their background. There is something very special about being able to see these majestic creatures in the flesh, and I firmly believe that my passion for wildlife stems partially from my visits to zoos as a child. In addition, many zoos are beginning to use conservation as a point of focus; posters next to the enclosures describe the threats animals are facing, the efforts being made to save them, and what we can do to help. This shines a spotlight on the growing issues facing wild animal populations, and could help to inspire a whole generation of conservationists.

An infographic from the AZA highlighting the conservation benefits provided by zoos

We cannot let zoos become the museums of the future; establishments used to house relics of animals, long since extinct in the wild. Imagine this: people would marvel at the amazing diversity of animals on display, breath-taken by their beauty and majesty, in disbelief that previous generations let them die out. Beloved animals like giraffes, pandas and cheetahs would live out their days in enclosures, unaware that they are the last of the kind. Being able to see wild animals in their natural habitat would be come a luxury of the past, long since impossible following our destruction of species across the globe. We cannot let this prediction become reality.

By supporting reputable zoos, you support nature. In an ideal world, no animal would live in captivity. They would thrive in abundance in their natural habitats, unthreatened by human devastation. Unfortunately, that is not the nature of our society. Our ecosystems require our support in order to secure their long-term success; we must repay them for the damage we have caused. 

How to Support Ethical Zoos

If you want to visit a zoo, make sure that the animals have the highest level of welfare possible. There are a few easy ways to do this:

  • Does the AZA approve of the zoo? This can be a good indicator of high animal welfare. However, try to use my other suggestions in combination with checking the zoo’s AZA approval status
  • What do the reviews say? Sites like TripAdvisor are great for this because you can filter reviews for a particular word. Search for “welfare” and see what people are saying
  • What sort of animals does the zoo keep? Many animals can live fairly fulfilled lives in captivity, while others should remain in the wild. For example, if you’re in a hot city and the local zoo has polar bears, avoid it at all costs. Similarly, animals with an expansive natural range (whales, for example) are bound to suffer within a zoo’s confines.

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