Zoological gardens are a controversial component of human society. They provide a safe refuge for endangered or injured animals, but these parks can be abusive in their treatment of creatures as well. Some zoos even put humans on display involuntarily, keeping them in cages well into the 20th century. All animals in a zoo or menagerie are kept in an enclosure, displayed to the public, and given access to veterinary care.
More than 180 million people visit the zoo in the United States each year. The first gardens were started in 1828 in London to help with scientific research, and then it opened its doors to the public for the first time in 1857.
Some zoos are calling themselves a “biopark” or “conservation facility” as a way to remove themselves from the negative connotations of the past or the institutions that do not treat their animals correctly today.
The idea of keeping animals to display is not a new one, with excavations in Egypt suggesting that a menagerie of elephants, wildcats, and hippopotami were kept in Hierakonpolis. It was known that King Ashur-bel-kala built a botanical garden and zoo in the 11th century BC, while Empress Tanki in China built a refuge for deer in the 2nd century BC. By the 4th century BC, almost all Greek city states had their own zoo as well.
List of the Advantages of Zoos
1. There are multiple types of zoos to visit around the world.
We have moved away from the traditional zoological park to create habitats that replicate nature to the best of our ability while still maintaining the protective qualities that some animals need. There are still the standard settings where an animal lives in an enclosure or housed in buildings that protect them from humans and vice-versa to create safe viewing experiences.
These are the additional options that are available today.
- Safari parks keep animals in larger outdoor enclosures and use moats or fencing instead of cages to keep visitors safe. You would then drive through the facility to come into close contact with the animals.
- Roadside zoos are small, for-profit facilities found in rural areas that bring you into close contact with the animals.
- Petting zoos feature livestock, farm animals, and other domestic creatures that offer low-risk settings for close encounters.
2. Most animals are not sourced from wild captures.
Before the year 2000, there were still zoos operating on the principle that they could develop exhibits based on the types of animals they could capture. Except for a handful of facilities in southeast Asia, that is no longer the case. Most of the animals that are on display were either injured and could not return to the wild or were born in captivity. When zoos transfer animals, they take appropriate quarantine measures to ensure that an illness does not come into the facility. This trading process eliminates the idea of an open market, so profits are taken out of the equation.
3. Zoos are useful as an educational tool.
When families visit the zoo, they get to witness animals which may not be possible to view in their local region. There is the controversial entertainment consideration about going to a facility to look at animals for fun, but there is also the chance to learn a lot of valuable information about each species.
Most zoos offer tours that can take you behind the scenes so you can see how trainers feed the animals and work with them. There are information points that you can find along the way so that children and adults can increase their knowledge. It is usually easier to retain info when you can interact with the animals instead of seeing their picture in a book.
4. These facilities help us to conserve endangered species.
Zoos have brought several animal species back from the brink of extinction. The Arabian oryx was hunted to extinction in the wild, but the Phoenix Zoo worked with other conservationists to bring the species back. Przewalski’s horses were also extinct in the wild but are now coming back to a population in the thousands after only a dozen were left. California condors were down to 27 before facilities in Los Angeles and San Diego started breeding programs to protect them.
Several other animals can take credit for their survival thanks to zoos as well. The Corroboree frog, bongos, Regent Honeyeaters, and the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle have all benefitted from the conservation process.
5. Zoos provide an economic boost to their community.
Zoos can be a local, national, or international attraction that people want to see. These attractions are often safe spaces for young families to come out and enjoy a day together. School trips come out to these facilities as a way to help kids learn more about the animals. The facilities create good-paying jobs, encourage entrepreneurs to be active in their community, and provide indirect benefits to local businesses as well.
6. Animals receive the veterinarian care they might need for their survival.
Most zoos in the United States (roadside zoos can be an exception) have on-site medical facilities and care options for every animal in the facility. If there are any health concerns that come up, then the vets can provide the necessary intervention almost immediately. When you are managing some of the rarest or most endangered creatures in the world, this advantage makes it possible to halt extinction events in some situations.
Vets also design breeding programs that can help the numbers of a specific animal species to begin recovering. There are regular assessments for infectious disease, parasites, and other concerning health dangers that wouldn’t be available in the wild.
7. Zoos are typically required to provide specialist care to each animal species.
It requires a lot of in-depth knowledge to understand the exact needs of the animals which are cared for by the modern zoo. Handlers must know about their behaviors, their dietary requirements, and the health symptoms that necessitate a call to the on-staff vet. It is a unique opportunity for students to study and train with the animals they love so that they can help the species later in life.
Many zoos work with local universities and colleges to provide internships, allowing the next generation of caretakers to know how to protect the animals and their environment.
8. An accreditation process exists for zoos.
For zoos to continue operating, they must go through a rigorous accreditation process that verifies they follow the correct conservation and breeding program procedures. There must be evidence of security, proper daily care, and cleanliness to earn certification as well. Inspections occur regularly to ensure compliance with the program. If the facility fails to meet the expected standard, then they can lose their license to operate. Should that event occur, the animals will transfer to a different zoo.
The primary accreditation programs recognized in the United States is the Zoological Association of America, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
9. Many of today’s largest zoos help to create undergraduate programs for future caretakers.
One of the most notable zoos in the United States, the Smithsonian National, works with local educational institutions to create undergraduate zoological degree programs. They have also partnered with universities and colleges in the area for graduate and doctoral studies. There is even a training program for veterinary students where real-life practicums occur on the grounds. All of these options would not be possible without the presence of a zoo.
Although some critics might argue that these positions would be unnecessary without the zoo being there in the first place, that isn’t necessarily true. Zoos help animals in the wild too, and this advantage makes it possible to treat the injured.
List of the Disadvantages of Zoos
1. When animals are born in captivity, they become dependent on humans.
The reason why most of the animals that are in zoos today are the offspring of captured animals from the generation before is the fact that the descendants are unable to cope in the wild by themselves. Having a successful breeding program can save a species, but it can also create lucrative profit opportunities for the businesses involved.
Unless there are specific, protected areas for the animals, such as the Przewalski’s horses being released into the Chernobyl exclusion zone, most will fail to make the transition. That means the animal has no choice but to stay in the facility for the remainder of their life.
2. There is an ethical question that we must answer.
Most wild animals thrive when they can live in their natural habitat. When we bring them into an enclosure of any type, then it can have a direct and adverse impact on their health. Orcas are an excellent example of this issue. Their lifespan sees a reduction of 70% when they live in captivity.
The best manmade habitats are not a suitable substitution for the ones that animals can find in the wild. Although injured animals can rehabilitate successfully in many situations with the help of a zoo, keeping an animal enclosed for the rest of its life is a challenging ethical question that all of us must answer.
3. Zoos can struggle to stay profitable.
Many zoos are failing to meet their annual financial targets. Even popular facilities are seeing lower visitor numbers, which translates into less money going toward the care of the creatures living at the facility. When expenses exceed incoming revenues, then animals might need to go to other zoos. Staff shortages and limited budgets can even mean euthanizing some of the animals if another appropriate living space cannot be found.
In January 2016, a lion ruled to be excessive was euthanized in a small Danish zoo. Then staffers performed a public dissection on the animal. In 2014, a facility in Copenhagen shot a young giraffe, dissected it in public, and then fed the pieces to their lions. Then these actions are justified by the idea that if some money isn’t raised, they’ll need to do the same thing to all of the other animals at the facility.
4. The enclosures at a zoo alter the natural behaviors of the animal.
There are some animals which are not built to withstand the conditions found at your normal zoo. Hibernating animals and those who follow specific migratory patterns struggle the most. Large animals can also see changes in their behaviors because they don’t have enough room to move around. Elephants are usually the subject of this disadvantage since their artificial habitats are almost always too small and the fences restrict their natural desire to migrate.
When an elephant is unable to accomplish instinctive tasks, it has an emotional reaction that is similar to what humans would experience in that situation. The only difference is that there are a couple thousand extra pounds of aggression to manage with the animal.
5. Zoo animals can have health issues that wouldn’t come up in the wild.
There are times when the efforts of a facility to mimic an animal’s natural environment just doesn’t work. Polar bears are used to arctic temperatures, so having one live in an environment that is hot with high humidity can placed added stress to their health. Penguins typically endure frigid temperatures with their mating processes, but then get stuck in tropical climates where the only place to cool down might be a small blast freezer.
The natural environment is more than a few trees, a large rock, and a pool to use that has a high enough of a fence to keep humans away from them. The climate and weather are part of their natural habitat as well. This disadvantage can create significant health problems for some animals.
6. A zoo can be focused on the profits instead of the welfare of the animal.
Conservation facilities and breeding programs are a way to save endangered animals, but they can also become a marketing gimmick. Customers need to come through the doors to help a zoo stay financially sound. Because of the ethics of animal captivity, more people are staying away from these facilities today than in the past, which emphasizes the need for survival. The behind-the-scenes practices can make few efforts to live up to the morals and ethics of animal care.
This disadvantage means that it is up to each of us to work with local facilities who have a mission to protect animals and to do so in the right way. When we can work together, we can save or conserve many species.
7. Zoos cause the life of an animal to become secondary to the life of a human.
In one fateful week in May 2016, one gorilla and two lions were killed after humans entered their enclosures. Harambe was killed after a 4-year-old boy fell at the Cincinnati Zoo into his enclosure, even though animal experts observed the behavior and noted that there was an attempted to protect the boy. Six days before this incident, a pair of lions in Chile were shot after a suicidal man entered their enclosure, became naked, and tried to get the animals to eat him.
When the lions dragged the man to their den, the zoo intervened – and saved the man’s life. There was a 2012 incident when an African painted dog was shot after a 2-year-old toddler fell over a wooden railing that his mother placed him on top of in Pittsburgh. Then there was the horrific incident in 2007 in San Francisco when a Siberian tiger leaped out of her enclosure after a group of people were throwing rocks at the animal. She mauled the entire group, killing one before a police officer shot the animal.
8. Zoos may set the wrong standard for the next generation.
Our children will learn from our example when looking at the advantages and disadvantages of zoos. Do we go to these facilities to support the scientific and conservation process? Or do we make it more about entertainment than education?
If we go to a zoo to look at animals who are not free to roam about, then it is important to remember that a very nice enclosure is still a cage. We may have created dependencies that require some animals to stay in captivity, but that doesn’t mean we need to create another generation that faces the same risks. If we are willing to accept these results with animals, some critics of zoos fear that it wouldn’t take long to think the same way about human beings.
9. Conservation programs do not guarantee the survival of a species.
Giant Pandas are in zoo conservation programs around the world, generating money for China in the process. Until the 1990s, only 3 in 10 attempts at breeding were successful in confinement. Even if the first stage of the process was successful, only 40% of the cubs would make it through their first days of infancy.
Today’s zoos have more than doubled the survival rate of these animals, but it also creates a situation where there is yet another issue of dependency. The cubs that are born in captivity cannot return to the wild. That means they will rely on us for their survival for the rest of their life.
10. Our good intentions and expert care is not always enough to support animals in a zoo.
Maggie the Elephant lived in Alaska, which is arguably the worst place on the planet to keep such an animal. Conservations cared for her since the age of 1 after her entire family was culled. She shared the space with an Asian elephant named Annabelle from 1938 to 1997, but then Maggie lived alone. She had to endure long winters on unheated concrete. It took several years for the facility to build a custom treadmill, but she refused to use it. By 2007, she was found lying on her left side and unable to move.
Now Maggie lives in an animal sanctuary in a better climate and her health is much better. She’s not the only animal in this situation though. That’s what the challenge of zoos ultimately involves. We often think that our efforts are good enough for the animals without taking their stories into consideration.
Verdict on the Advantages and Disadvantages of Zoos
Zoos are one of those parks that people either love to visit or hate because of the ethics involved with such a facility. Although the cost of spending a day outside with the animals is increasing, there are thousands of these organizations around the world who are doing their best to help the injured, save the endangered, and restore natural habitats.
The modern zoo wants to sell you a story of empathy and refuge. When public dissections or euthanasia occurs, that narrative goes away. The standing of an animal is highly dependent on the financial outlook where it lives.
There are 321 members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria that transfer animals for no fee, with the receiving institution responsible for shipping costs. The advantages and disadvantages of zoos will always take on a personal tone. Some people support the concept, while others would prefer that these facilities go out of business. Maybe there is some middle ground to find.
Natalie Regoli is a seasoned writer, who is also our editor-in-chief. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our editor-in-chief a message here.