Almost each and every one of us has grown up with fond childhood memories of visiting the local zoo amongst family and friends. After all, where else can one see animals from all over the world in one place? In the midst of all the fun and enjoyment we have all experienced from zoos, we have failed to take into account the life of the things that we are so excited about seeing there – the animals. Each and every day, the animals enclosed in zoos for human entertainment are exposed to abuse, cruelty, and most importantly stress due to an unnatural living environment, creating a collection of unhappy animals.
In this essay, I will also explore other examples of zoos in which animals are used for paid human entertainment such as circuses and aqua parks, where creatures like dolphins are dumped into a small glass pool and forced to perform tricks for merely human satisfaction. This essay will also explore acceptable forms of animal zoos; ones that are used solely for the purpose of breeding and conserving highly endangered species.
While it is true that zoos can sometimes be beneficial, and used to aid animals in conservation and breeding, the sad reality is that zoos confine wild animals into tiny, artificial habitats and expose them to great amounts of stress, cruelty and abuse for the purpose of profit and human entertainment. For this reason, modern zoos are immoral and should only be allowed to exist if they are large-scale conservation centers used to aid in the preservation of endangered species. Zoos have become a very hot topic of controversy in today’s world.
It is common knowledge that zoos are not the natural habitats of animals. Animals around the world are held captive and kidnapped from their natural life for the duration of their lives solely for the purpose of our viewing pleasure. Zoos can be defined as “public parks, which display animals, primarily for the purposes of recreation or education,” (Jamieson, Dale). The first modern American zoos were created in Philadelphia and Cincinnati in the 1870s. Today in the United States, there are hundreds of zoos that are visited by millions of people every year. Jamieson, Dale). “Iron-barred concrete-floored cages” and animals behind bars (Millar, Royce, and Cameron Houston) is a typical sight at many popular zoos. They vary from “roadside menageries run by hucksters, to elaborate zoological parks staffed by trained scientists” (Jamieson, Dale). Other popular forms of zoos are aqua parks and circuses. Aqua parks such as the Sea World amusement park in Florida (Singer, Peter) are home to many animals such as whales and dolphins, which are held in captivity and forced to perform tricks and shows for public entertainment.
Animals in captivity are forced to abandon all their natural characteristics and instincts. “It is possible to visit zoos and see bored animals pacing back and forth in cages, with nothing to do but wait for the next meal” (Singer, Peter). Regular meal times means that they no longer have the need to hunt for survival. While this may sound like a good thing, there are a few things to take into account. The first is that the zoo animals, all of which are born natural hunters, will no longer be able to survive and fend for themselves if they are released back into the wild (Zoos: Imprisonment or Preservation).
The second is the degree of confinement which zoo animals are forced to live under in their small cages and aquariums. To take this idea into perspective, imagine the world’s fastest animal, the cheetah. When it is crammed in a cage, which no matter how large can never compare to the vast size of the wilderness, the cheetah is unable to run at the fast speeds that make it unique. In the long run, confinement will cause the cheetah’s natural running skills to wear away (Zoos: Imprisonment or Preservation). The same principle can be applied to sea animals confined in aqua parks. No tank, no matter how large can come close to meeting the needs of animals who spend their lives in social groups swimming long distances in the ocean” (Singer, Peter). Taking animals out of their natural habitats, transporting them great distances and keeping them in alienated environments in which their liberty is restricted are examples of how animals taken from the wild and confined in zoos are deprived of many things like gathering their own food, developing their own social orders and behaving in ways natural to them (Jamieson, Dale).
Studies have shown that the artificial environment of zoos can create intrinsic animal welfare problems such as self-mutilation, feeding disorders, stereotypical behavior like pacing, neck twisting and rocking, reproductive disorders and physiological disorders (Zoos: Imprisonment or Preservation). A lot of the time, it is typical for an animal to experience these without the public noticing. An example of an animal exhibiting this behavior was a polar bear in the Dublin zoo that howed signs of stress and boredom. Locked in a small cage, the polar bear had nothing to do all day but walk from one side of the enclosure to the other, also known as pacing. Eventually, the animal was moved to a much larger home in the Czech Republic (Zoos: Imprisonment or Preservation). This is evidence that while we may think pacing is a normal behaviour for animals in zoos, the truth is that we don’t know any better and what we think is customary is actually very stressful and harmful to the zoo animals.
Contrary to popular belief that zoos are very friendly environments, many people don’t know that “since 1990, 42 people have been killed and 100 others injured by elephants worldwide” (Zoos: Imprisonment or Preservation). A recent article by philosopher Peter Singer in The Guardian provides a clear example of the stress animals are put through. An orca whale named Tilly; acting out of anger of being held captive in a sterile concrete tank at Florida’s SeaWorld grabbed a trainer, pulled her underwater and killed her. Tilly had also been previously involved in two other human deaths at SeaWorld.
In addition, one of Tilly’s offspring, which was sold to an amusement park in Spain, also killed a trainer. There have also been many other instances of orcas involved in deaths (Singer, Peter). “We will never know exactly what was going on in Tilly’s mind, but we do know that he has been in captivity since he was about two years old – he was captured of the east coast of Iceland in 1983. Orcas are social mammals, and he would have been living with his mother and other relatives in a pod. It is reasonable to suppose that the sudden separation was traumatic for Tilly” (Singer, Peter).
It has been argued that circuses, especially those on the road, are even worse places for animals. Their living conditions are said to be “deplorable” (Singer, Peter), particularly in travelling circuses where animal cages have to be extremely small in order to be able to go on the road. Furthermore, circuses have been known to be brutal because “training animals to perform tricks often involves starvation and cruelty. Undercover investigations have repeatedly shown animals being beaten and given electric shocks” (Singer, Peter).
Countries such as Austria, Costa Rica, Denmark, Israel, India and Sweden have banned or severely restricted the use of wild animals in circuses (Singer, Peter). The conditions animals are exposed to in circus environments clearly lead to the intrinsic welfare problems described earlier. An example of this was seen in Brazil, where “a movement to ban wild animals from circuses stared after hungry lions managed to grab and devour a small boy” (Singer, Peter). The most common benefits of zoos are amusement, education, and the preservation of species. Amusement was certainly an important reason for the establishment of the early zoos, and it remains an important function of contemporary zoos as well” (Jamieson, Dale). The fact remains that most people visit zoos in order to be entertained. Unfortunately, zoos must provide amusement to the public in order to stay profitable. Even though entertaining the public is viewed as a very important function of zoos, it cannot be justified as a reason to keep wild animals imprisoned and held in captivity. The second reason for having zoos is education.
The idea that education is a big part of having zoos is “part of the commercial entertainment industry” (Singer, Peter). “The most important lesson they teach impressionable young minds is that it is acceptable to keep animals in captivity for human amusement” (Singer, Peter). This is the exact opposite of the attitudes we should be embedding in the young minds of children. Of course some learning takes place in zoos. However, the very lessons being learned about the physical and mental states of animals being held captive are certainly not beneficial, and should not require animals to be held captive.
Furthermore, similar educational experiences can be achieved through films and lectures. Documentaries such as The Life of Animals and The Blue Planet are known to be very educational and can in fact provide a better understanding of animals in their true, natural habitats. Observing animals in their natural surroundings will also allow for a better understanding of survival tactics, hunting, and the food chain, all of which are abandoned as soon as a wild animal is brought into a zoo. The final reason for having zoos is that they preserve soon-to-be extinct species, and put breeding programs in place to re-populate the species.
There are several problems associated with zoo breeding programs. As previously mentioned, captive animals have very different traits than the ones of surviving animals in the wild. The lack of genetic diversity among the captive animals can create an enormous problem in breeding; more particularly it conflicts with Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Perhaps the biggest problem with zoo breeding programs is that they created unwanted animals. In certain species, only a few males can service an entire herd of animals in reproduction.
All the extra males are unnecessary to zoos and become a financial burden (Jamieson, Dale). “Some of these animals are sold and wind up in the hands of individuals and institutions which lack proper facilities” (Jamieson, Dale). Others end up shot and killed by hunters and poachers in private camps. “Ninety-five percent of animals that are kept in zoos aren’t endangered” (Zoos: Imprisonment or Preservation). With preservation of soon-to-be extinct species also comes the debate whether it really is better for animals to live in the artificial environments that we create for them, as opposed to becoming extinct. Is it really better to confine a few hapless Mountain Gorillas in a zoo than to permit the species to become extinct? ” (Jamieson, Dale). The answer to this question may be obvious to many, however, in doing this, are we not using the animals as “vehicles for their genes”? (Jamieson, Dale). In preserving extinct species, we are essentially creating a new species that can only survive in artificial zoo habitats. Even if the above-mentioned problems were non-existent, the current system of zoos does not provide a suitable environment for the preservation of endangered species.
The reason for this is that of the little breeding programs that zoos offer, they only breed animals that are not endangered. “Many of the major breeding programs are run in special facilities which have been established for that purpose. They are often located in remote places, far from the attention of zoo-goers” (Jamieson, Dale). For example, the Bronx Zoo operates its Rare Animal Survival Centre far away on St. Catherine’s Island off the coast of Georgia. In conclusion, taking animals out of the wild and placing them in captivity in zoos affects their welfare and causes the animals unnecessary stress and anger.
This disruption of their natural lifestyle has caused many animals to fatally injure or kill humans in an attempt to release some of the anger caused by their confinement in small, artificial habitats. Even though it is true that zoos provide amusement and entertainment, education, even though animals are not in their natural environment and learning may be distorted, and small-scale preservation, the above-mentioned reasons for having a zoo do not outweigh the detrimental affects captivity has on a wild animal. Under no circumstance should the amusement and entertainment of humans be a eason to put animals through stress and deprive them of their natural skills and environment. Even though some may believe that soon are beneficial for education, they are overlooking the fact that animals held captive in zoos are not in their natural habitats; therefore they do not behave as they normally would in the wild, making learning biased. Finally, even though it is a controversial topic, I believe preservation should be the only reason to keep animals captive. However, this cannot be done in the zoos we have established today.
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