Why Do Zoos Still Exist?

When I was a child, I loved zoos. My father would take me and I would ramble along the paths to look at all the animals, fascinated in particular by the big cats and the penguins. I would press myself as close as possible to the edge of the pen to look at the tigers sprawled on the rocks, and I loved going to feeding time in the lion house at the San Francisco zoo. If we went to the zoo, or the aquarium, watching the penguins zoom around was one of my favourite things to do.

As an adult, my stance on zoos has changed. They make me deeply uneasy, and I haven’t set foot in one since I was about 20. There’s something deeply sad about seeing animals penned up in tiny enclosures where they aren’t free to roam, can’t enjoy the enriched natural habitat they deserve, and struggle for survival in a world absolutely filled with boredom. Even as zoos claim to be expanding their paddocks, creating more natural environments, and working to make their animals more content, it’s simply not possible to provide sufficient room and environmental enrichment for animals in a zoo.

Others bill themselves as conservation facilities, arguing that natural habitats in the wild are effectively gone, and/or that numbers of a species are so low that keeping them in captivity is a tragic necessity. They have nowhere else to go, and need to be kept in zoos to keep their numbers up and preserve the chance of someday releasing the species back into the wild and repopulating their home territory. That’s a laudable goal, as is working to preserve territory on the ground, but I still feel conflicted about it — are we preserving animals because we care about biodiversity? Yes. Are we also using them as displays for people to gawk at? Well, yes, we are.

I was at an aquarium recently looking at the various fish and other creatures, and I was struck by how sad the whole thing made me. The Academy of Sciences is hardly a woeful, depressing, miserable facility like some of the zoos I have seen, and I wasn’t looking at mammals, which tend to evoke more of a response for me, but it still made me sad. I saw a giant eel with an unhealthy eye¬†and scurfy, scaling skin. I saw the famous white alligator, which looked uncomfortable and unhappy in its tiny enclosure. I saw swirls of fish with flaking scales and dulled eyes.

The whole thing just left me feeling kind of down, and we didn’t even get to the penguins in their tragic, miserable little enclosure, which was just as well, because the ferocity with which I adore penguins probably wouldn’t have been up to seeing the poor creatures cooped up like that. As we drifted through the Academy to various displays and exhibits, I kept finding myself coming back, in my mind, to the animals living in the aquarium below and what their lives must be like in the darkness and heavily-controlled environments they lived in.

Maybe I’m just getting sentimental these days, but, bluntly, zoos depress me. I love animals. I care about animals. And it disturbs me to see them incarcerated for me to view, as though I’m supposed to derive some sort of pleasure in seeing a moray eel that’s lost all vibrance and lust for life. As though I’m supposed to be pleased to see an octopus trapped inside a tiny, uncomfortable habitat. As though it’s supposed to be amazing to see a tiger behind heavy-duty plastic, on display within inches of me, listlessly¬†lifting her head to stare through the plastic and out at the environment beyond me — a space filled with people carrying pamphlets and pushing strollers and gabbing about the animals.

I wonder if there will come a time when we’ll get rid of zoos. Already, the use of animals in entertainment is starting to be frowned upon, with more and more circuses and other entertainment groups getting rid of animal acts in favour of other options. And roadside zoos, with their terrible conditions and horrific animal abuse, are also starting to become a thing of the past (thanks in large part to animal welfare groups putting the thumbscrews to regional animal welfare offices to seize animals being abused in such facilities). Yet, we still allow people to privately keep exotic animals, and we don’t closely monitor those conditions. We still allow zoos to exist, and hand out shiny praise for those that keep their animals in conditions we deem acceptable or even state of the art.

This makes me uneasy, deeply so. It discomfits me to live in a world where so much of our relationship with animals is one of exploitation — and I say this as someone who eats animal products, and is aware of the nuances and complexities of this issue. Animal products, though, offer me sustenance. Zoos offer me nothing — and they do not contribute to society in a meaningful way. I’m not sure we’d lose anything by not having zoos, just as I’m confident that we wouldn’t lose anything by getting rid of abusive, horrific factory farms and encouraging people to eat fewer animal products and to source them from small farmers that treat their livestock with respect and compassion.

Why do zoos still exist? When will we reach the point where we stop capturing and breeding animals for exhibition?

Image: Dudley Zoo Sarah the Sumatran Tiger, Mikey Jones, Flickr