Comment Editor Weronika Bialek weighs up the potential for saving endangered species against the physical and psychological impact of captivity.
Most people have been to a zoo at least once in their lives and the conversations surrounding the ethics of zoos have been around for as long as zoos have. The way animals are kept in zoos has changed a lot since their rise in the 18th century, but are modern zoos ethical and should we keep supporting the industry by visiting them?
Should we support the existence of zoos?
The main argument for keeping animals in zoos is that zoos save endangered species and take care of animals which wouldn’t survive in the wild, such as injured animals. Some species that have been saved from extinction by zoos include the Arabian Oryx, the Eastern Bongo and Golden Lion Tamarin. Zoos also allow for the rehabilitation of injured or ill animals, which means that the animal will eventually be released back into the wild, allowing it to live a happy and fulfilled life which may have been cut short if not for the help of a zoo.
Another argument in support of zoos is that they educate the public and create empathy towards animals which may encourage people to do more volunteering and scientific work to help animals in the future. Many veterinary and zoology careers have begun in zoos, as children get to finally see creatures which had previously only existed to them in books and cartoons.
Lastly, it can be said that even though there are unethical zoos which do not provide enough freedom and comfort for their animals, there are also ethical zoos which give their animals a good life. Organisations such as BIAZA team up with zoos to provide conservation, education and research; looking for zoos which are BIAZA accredited can be a good option when wanting to visit more ethical zoos.
But do the positive impacts outweigh the potential damage?
Despite some accomplishments in the saving of endangered species, according to PETA, most animals in zoos are not endangered and will not be prepared for release into natural habitats. Moreover, animals which are captive-bred cannot be released back into the wild. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology found that conservation in the wild is needed to help species which are close to extinction to survive rather than captive breeding, therefore it can be said that even though conservation work is absolutely necessary for the protection of certain species of animals, zoos may not be the best option for achieving it.
Furthermore, it is true that seeing animals up close, and perhaps even getting to touch or play with them in zoos incites curiosity in people, especially young children; however, considering the popularity of shows such as Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, it is clear that people become attached to animals and their survival just as much when they learn about them through the screen as when they see them in real life. In fact, perhaps learning about how animals act when they are free in their natural habitats interests people more than seeing them sitting in a cage.
Lastly, even though the standards of zoos are much higher now than they were a couple of decades ago, it cannot be ignored that even an “ethical zoo” will most likely have a negative effect on the animals’ mental and physical health. In fact, there is a form of psychosis specifically formed in zoo animals called zoochosis which includes symptoms such as pacing, self-mutilation and overgrooming.
To conclude, the world of zoos is constantly evolving…
Clearly, zoos are a grey area in ethics, as many people generally disagree with the enclosed areas and mistreatment of animals, yet still decide to pay to visit zoos, whether it be for educational or entertainment purposes. Supporting accredited zoos which try their best to give their animals a happy life is clearly a step in the right direction, however, maybe in the future we will be able to move away from zoos completely.
With the growth of virtual reality, the possibility of engaging with animals and learning about them through simulations is becoming increasingly likely, and with the advancements in tracking technology and medicine, taking care of animals in their natural habitats rather than in enclosures is becoming a more accessible and moral option.
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