Considering Zoos and Aquariums
June 1, 2013

JsuJsu and I are rarely separated for long, but last week I needed to go to California and alas, JsuJsu had to stay home with her Dad. During my trip I saw big ranches with horses running about freely and huge sea lions sunbathing. Like many others, I love the opportunity to see animals moving about in their natural environments. However, I also visited a beautiful zoo by the sea and left with some conflicting thoughts about it and zoos in general.

Even as a kid, I struggled with the concept of zoos. It was always hard for me to see animals in cages---it seems so unnatural and wrong.  Sure, I get the opportunity to see gorillas up close, with only a plate of glass between them and me. I can also see meerkats, eagles, and polar bears closer than I could in the wild—if I could GET to them in the wild. Seeing and connecting with animals in person is deep and meaningful. But, what is the cost to them? Can zoos be beneficial for both animals and people? 

There are many basic essentials that zoos must have in order to be successful and humane. First off, a good zoo must have a responsible financial plan and commitment to provide each of its inhabitants with proper care for life. Animals are expensive. They need proper housing with plenty of space and surroundings that are as natural as possible. This means that marine mammals need big open pools that are climate-controlled, as well as areas on which to haul out, or rest on land. It means that rainforest birds must have the opportunity to fly in safe areas with exhibits that simulate their natural humid forests. Exhibits need places in which animals can retreat so that they can get away from the noise and disturbances of people when they need some peace and quiet. At the same time, gregarious—or social—animals must have others of their kind with which to interact. When these criteria cannot be met for a certain species, then it is likely most humane for that species not to be housed in a zoo.

There are many other considerations that zoos must take into account, including the feeding and overall welfare of their animals. Animals in zoos should be given the foods that they normally feed on in the wild—or at least the closest substitutes that can be found. In order to ensure that the animals stay healthy and fit, food quantities must be monitored so that the animals do not become over- or underweight. Additionally, no matter how well cared for the animals in a zoo may be, zoos can be stressful places for animals. Exposed to unnatural germs from other animals and people, zoo animals need quality veterinary care. They also need behaviorists to monitor their mental health, as some animals may not adapt well to the unnatural environment of a zoo. If an animal is not doing well, special considerations—such as relocation to a sanctuary—may be necessary in order to relieve the animal’s stress and look out for his or her best interest.

So, where do the animals in a zoo come from? Nowadays many are bred specifically for a life of confinement in a zoo or animal park. Zoos trade or sell animals that they have successfully bred or raised in exchange for species they need. In some cases, animals may be taken from the wild—hopefully legally—but is this truly ethical? It is my belief that animals should not be taken from the wild for the benefit of man. Every animal has the basic right to live a natural life, in his own habitat with his own kind. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, like an animal is on the brink of extinction and is the last of his kind, he should not be removed solely for the benefit of humans. In some cases, animals are taken from the wild because they are injured; in those cases, the zoo acts as a permanent sanctuary of sorts, as the animals may not be able to survive re-release into the wild. That, to me, may be the wisest and most humane choice for selecting animals from the wild for zoos.

Good zoos provide educational opportunities that would otherwise not be easily available to most people. Reading about an animal is fabulous, but actually seeing one, in person, creates an unforgettable experience. There is much to learn at zoos, since there is often a good deal of information presented alongside the animals about their natural habitat and lifestyle, as well as threats they may face in the wild. When people are educated about an animal they care about, they tend to make choices in their own lives that are beneficial to that animal. For example, reading about koalas and meeting them in zoos has helped illuminate the plight of their habitat’s deforestation.

Research is also a key component in making a good zoo great. Zoologists of all kinds---from behaviorists to infectious disease specialists---have virtually unlimited opportunities to study a great variety of animals all in one place. The results can help save species that might otherwise go extinct in the wild. Researchers can also learn valuable information about more elusive species or ones too difficult to study in the wild. Scientists can learn about animal-human interactions that may possibly lead to better outcomes for the animals. The possibilities for research and discovery are truly limitless, again, provided that there is ample funding to allow for this. Some zoos also support conservation efforts of wild populations such as highly endangered black rhinos. Zoos have the potential to play a vital role in conservation through both research and financial support.

In the very best of situations, zoos showcase animals for the benefit of man, for the advancement of science, and, in some cases, for the preservation of a species. But, without the priority of consideration given to each animal, some zoos have forgotten the responsibility they have to each and every animal. I don’t know what the exact solution is, but I do know that zoos need proper funding, caring and competent people to run them, and huge investment in educational and research programs. We may also need to consider having fewer, better zoos to ensure that we are doing the very best for the wildlife we treasure. Zoos have already improved vastly from when I was young and they have the potential to make an even greater impact on the world as people become more aware of the importance of animal welfare and conservation.

Three things YOU can do:

1.    READ!  If you get the chance to visit a zoo, check out the information provided there on each species. Is it thorough? Great zoos will offer information about the animal—where it lives, what it eats, how it breeds, and its status in the world. Is it threatened? If so, why? Follow up with reading more on your own. There are endless topics about wildlife in books and on the Internet, including from reputable animal welfare groups. If the zoo you visit doesn’t have good amounts of information available, consider writing a letter to the zoo letting them know what you think could be improved.

2.    CONSIDER HOW YOU CAN CONTRIBUTE TO ANIMAL WELFARE! If you’re passionate about animals, consider taking classes in the life sciences both in and out of school. There are many opportunities to study animals in classes and lectures through local colleges, museums, aquariums, and zoos. Consider volunteering at many of the places that help animals as they rely on an army of people to help make them successful. As you get older, you may even decide to pursue a career with animals. There is always a great need for caring and motivated people who are dedicated to helping animals.

3.    SPEAK UP! When you visit a zoo and see something that just doesn’t feel right, take the time to speak to someone. Perhaps it is an animal who appears bored and is pacing, or a larger animal in a cage that’s too small for him, or maybe you see people taunting an animal. Find a zoo employee and speak up. If it still feels as though your concerns have not been adequately addressed, take the time to write to the zoo or your local SPCA. There are guidelines, rules, and regulations for the proper and humane care of zoo animals. Be a voice for the animals in zoos, and help ensure that they get the proper care that they deserve.