That a zoo in Cumbria is having its licence revoked as a result of nearly 500 animals dying there over a two-year period comes as no shock – but it still slightly surprises me that anybody thinks that we should have zoos at all. The animals always look miserable in captivity. If you don’t believe me, visit a farm park. It’s as likely as not that you will see a goat, pleading with its eyes to be euthanised, while a sign on the enclosure says: “Gerry the goat is quite the character – he often plays a game in which he looks like he has been crying for many, many hours!”
A lot of zoos play the conservation angle, which is a rationale that has been reverse engineered. That’s not really why zoos exist. Zoos exist so that we can wander round with our children and say: “No, don’t bang the glass, Timothy, he’s getting agitated,” before going home to post on Facebook about the educational day that we have had.
The argument that zoos have educational merit might have once seemed convincing, but there is less reason to see animals in captivity than ever before. David Attenborough’s Planet Earth shows you all the animals you could ask for in their natural habitat, with added drama and narrative arcs. We are surely only a few series away from filming inside the animals, with Attenborough using his dulcet tones to give the origin story of an elephant turd. Why, then, do we need to see them in prison?
On holiday recently, I was persuaded by my family to visit a marine theme park that bombards you with messages of preserving marine life. We spent the afternoon seeing seals and penguins that looked to be in varying stages of depression before taking in the dolphin show, which meant watching a two-minute video about saving dolphins, and a 10-minute demonstration of how the park has managed to enslave them and get them to perform tricks. I wondered about the message behind getting the dolphins to pull some kids around in a boat almost as much as I wondered why my own children hadn’t been offered that experience.
When Cecil the lion was killed, the general public were so incensed that the dentist who shot him became an international hate figure; the perfect example of the public picking and choosing when to give a shit about animals. It’s apparently really bad to shoot Cecil despite the fact he has had a much better life than the huge number of lions that we continue to keep in captivity. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to care about Cecil, but if we are in uproar about that, why aren’t we as upset about the animals in tanks and cages, or the ones that we eat? I wonder if we would have been so upset if the lion didn’t have a name. Or was called Piers.
There are counter-arguments, of course. After a visit to the Sea Life centre in Brighton, my eldest son took a passionate interest in marine life that has stayed with him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if animal conservation went on to be one of his primary concerns. This is almost certainly as a direct result of our visit, but it’s also first-world privilege in micro form: “We must have some animals in cages for little Stephen to look at, otherwise how will he learn?”
Similarly, the idea that kids only get excited about things they can see in the flesh is ridiculous. My kids are obsessed with dinosaurs that no longer exist, and Skylanders, which have never existed. One of our sons watches endless YouTube videos of Kinder Surprise eggs being opened, so the bar is set pretty low in terms of what will get him interested. I would, however, be delighted to hear that the YouTubers responsible for these videos had been put in a series of cages for our enjoyment.
I have no doubts that the people working in zoos, safari parks and conservation centres all really care about the animals. But there is a pretty strong argument that there is a negative effect on conservation awareness, given that children take away the message that “endangered species” are probably OK because they have seen them in the zoo. Plus, zoos and conservation spaces are impossible to effectively regulate. Have a look online and see the number of cases of animals being killed because of lack of space, horses being painted to look like zebras, animals in aquariums showing clear signs of distress.
Still, I was struck by my own hypocrisy when I was looking to get a family pet. When I found myself Googling: “How long will a puppy cry for its mother and siblings,” it occurred to me that I probably no longer wanted to do it. The idea that I don’t want animals to be imprisoned, but that I quite fancy having a prisoner of my own doesn’t sit comfortably. This might sound extreme and no doubt cat owners will tell me that their cats are free to go wherever they want but always return. I live in Crawley, however, and often when I’m out I immediately want to return straight home. I could never be sure if the cat coming back was a thumbs-up for the family, or a silent protest against the lack of amenities in town. I’m also starting to consider setting my children free.
Would a person feel angry if he or she were in a prison for nothing? Anyone would say, “Of course!” Then why do people think that animals feel happy in zoos, which are the same as prisons? I remember once I visited Los Angeles Zoo, and I compared this zoo to what I saw in my country. I noticed a huge difference between them. In the zoo in my country, all the animals were kept in cages, while in Los Angeles Zoo they had more space to wander around. However, this is still a “prison”…”Even under the best of circumstances at the best of zoos, captivity itself is hell for animals meant to roam free” (Kaufman, 1997, p. 611K7091). People should consider this and make a right decision.
Zoos should be closed to the public. There are many other ways to teach people about the wildlife, such as TV, radio, magazines and newspapers, books in schools, and so on. As Kaufman points out, zoos “are teaching the wrong lesson — that it is acceptable to keep animals in captivity, bored, cramped, lonely and far from their natural homes” (June 11, 1997, p. 611K7091). In zoos, a great number of people walk by each animal every day; this must irritate all the animals. For example, Morgan says that “hundreds of people [regularly] wait for the endangered giant leather-backed turtle to lay eggs”, and that “their noise and flash cameras frighten turtles and interfere with the egg-laying” (1995, p. 136).
“Animals are not marketable goods to be torn from their families and homes at our will and displayed for human entertainment,” says Kaufman (1997, p. 611K7091). There are several ways for middlemen to make money on an animal that has been acquired from a zoo, points out Goldston (February 11, 1999, p. K1903): it can go “to a game farm, to an auction, the meat man or as an exhibit.” Then there are people willing to mount it, which can bring them $5,000 to $10,000, and demand for which is great because “Animals from zoos are in much better condition than animals in the wild,” according to the aforementioned article by Goldston. In addition, many zoo dealers do not do what they are supposed to do – that is to bring the captive-bred animals back to their natural habitats. Most of them even simply kill a parent and take its babe to sell it to zoos or any other collectors (“Monkey business,” p. 65). Thus, zoos should be closed so as not to attract those middlemen.
All the animals in zoos are imprisoned, so zoos should be eliminated to free the captives. As anyone can notice, they are unable to do what they want to; they just walk back and forth in their enclosures. This leads to the likelihood that after returning from zoos, they might not be able to “hunt and fend for themselves in the wild,” says Sarel van der Merwe, chairman of the African Lion Working Group, in “Almost impossible to teach” (2002, p. 1008318u8613). Furthermore, since returning them to the wild is difficult and costly, many zoos cannot even attempt it. “A 1994 report showed that only 1,200 out of 10,000 zoos worldwide are registered for captive breeding and wildlife conservation. Only 2 percent of the world’s threatened or endangered species are registered in captive breeding programs” (Kaufman, 1997, p. 611K7091).
Instead of running zoos, people should protect biodiversity. “Public money…should go into habitat protection, into keeping poachers and trophy hunters at bay, and into nonprofit sanctuaries that are interested in helping animals, not making a profit from them” (Kaufman, 1997, p. 611K7091). As Morgan states, a third of forest, without which most species cannot exist, “has been lost since agriculture began 10,000 years ago” (1995, pp. 136-143). Therefore, let’s be more concerned about the safety of ecosystems rather than keeping animals in zoos by taking their freedom from them. Zoos should help wildlife but not attract public or zoo dealers that may harm the “balance of the natural systems” (Morgan, 1995, p.136).
Work Cited List:
Almost impossible to teach captive tigers to hunt, says expert. (2002, November 14)
Africa News Service, p. 1008318u8613.
Goldston, L. (1999, February 11). Professional dealers emerge as gatekeepers for thousands of animals from zoos. Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service,
Kaufman, R. (1997, June 11). Zoos are ‘a lost world.’ Knight Ridder/Tribune News
Service, p. 611K7091.
Monkey business. (1990, September 1). The Economist (US), 316, p. 65.
Morgan, S. (1995). Ecology and the environment. New York: Oxford University Press.