Why zoos are good

Many years ago I ended up doing a radio debate on national radio over zoos. I’m still not sure if it was a mistake. I had a couple of opportunities to kill my opponent dead but my inexperience and nerves got the better of me. By all accounts (both neutral and partisan) I did rather well, and my failing was that I had rather expected my opponent to respond to reason, logic and data. It was not to be.

Still, the core issues have stayed with me and given my general love of good zoos (note the adjective) I’ve long thought of writing something more formal about why zoos are good. Here is that attempt.

Now first off I am perfectly willing to recognise that there are bad zoos and bad zoo exhibits. Not all animals are kept perfectly, much as I wish it were otherwise and even in the best, there might still be room for improvement. However, that some politicians and police are corrupt does not mean we should have government officials or that a group to enforce the law is a bad idea. It merely means we need to pay more attention to the bad and improve them or close them. In either case, zoos are generally a poor target – they have to keep the public onside or go bust. They have to stand up to rigorous inspections or be closed down. While a bad collection should not be ignored, if you are worried the care and treatment of animals I can point to a great many farms, breeders, dealers and private owners who are in far greater need or inspection, improvement or both.

If you are against animals in captivity full stop then there is perhaps little scope for disagreement. But even so I’d maintain that some of the below arguments (not least the threat of extinction) can outweigh any argument against captivity. Moreover, I don’t think anyone would consider putting down a 10000 km long fence around the Masai Mara to really be captivity, even if it restricts the movement of animals across that barrier. But at what point does that become captivity? A 10000 m fence? 1000 m fence? What if veterinary care is provided? Or extra food? Or the animal is left alone, but has a tracking collar attached? I’m not pretending that an animal in a zoo is not in captivity, but clearly there is a continuum from zoos and wildlife parks, to game reserves, national parks and protected areas. Degree of care and degree of enclosure make the idea of ‘captivity’ fluid and not absolute.

What I would state with absolute confidence is that for many (but no, not all) species, it is perfectly possible to keep them in a zoo or wildlife park and for them to have a quality of life as high or higher than in the wild. Their movement might be restricted (but not necessarily by that much) but they will not suffer from the threat or stress of predators (and nor will they be killed in a grisly manner or eaten alive) or the irritation and pain of parasites, injuries and illnesses will be treated, they won’t suffer or die of drought or starvation and indeed will get a varied and high-quality diet with all the supplements required. They can be spared bullying or social ostracism or even infanticide by others of their kind, or a lack of a suitable home or environment in which to live. A lot of very nasty things happen to truly ‘wild’ animals that simply don’t happen in good zoos.

So a good zoo will provide great care and protection to animals in captivity. These are good things for the individuals concerned. But what do zoos actually bring to the table for the visitors and the wider world? This is, naturally, what I want to focus on, but it is I hope worth having dealt with the more obvious objections and misapprehensions.

Education. Many children and adults, especially those in cities will never see a wild animal beyond a fox or pigeon, let alone a lion or giraffe. Sure documentaries get ever more detailed and impressive, and lots of things are on display in museums, but that really does pale next to seeing a living creature in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it, watching what it does and having the time to absorb details. That will bring a greater understanding and perspective to many and hopefully give them a greater appreciation for wildlife, conservation efforts and how they can contribute. That’s before the actual direct education that can take place through signs, talks and the like that can directly communicate information about the animals they are seeing and their place in the world.

Conservation – reservoir and return. It’s not an exaggeration that colossal numbers of species are going extinct across the world, and many more are threatened. Moreover, some of these collapses have been sudden, dramatic and unexpected or were simply discovered very late in the day. Zoos protect against a species going extinct. A species protected in captivity provides a reservoir population against a crash or extinction. Here they are relatively safe and can be bred up to provide foundation populations. A good number of species only exist in captivity and still more only exist in the wild because they have been reintroduced from zoos, or the wild populations have been boosted by captive bred animals. Quite simply without these efforts there would be fewer species alive today and ecosystems and the world as a whole would be poorer for it.

Research. If we are to save many wild species and restore and repair ecosystems we need to know about how key species live, act and react. Being able to study animals in zoos where there is less risk and less variables means real changes can be effected on wild populations with far fewer problems. Knowing say the oestreus cycle of an animal or their breeding rate, or that they don’t seem to like a crop that’s about to be planted can make a real difference to conservation efforts and to reduce human-animal conflicts.

All in all with the ongoing global threats to the environment it’s hard for me to see zoos as anything other than being essential to the long-term survival of numerous species. Not just in terms of protecting them and breeding them for reintroduction, but to learn about them to aid those still in the wild, as well as to educate and inform the public about these animals and to pique their interest so that they can assist or at least accept the need to be more environmentally conscious. Sure there is always scope for improvement, but these benefits are critical to many species and potentially at least, the world as a whole, and the animals so well kept and content, that I think there can be few serious objections to the concept of zoos as a whole and what they can do. Without them, the world would be and would increasingly be, a poorer place.

19 Responses to “Why zoos are good”


  1. 1 Robert A. Sloan 17/04/2012 at 10:24 am

    Thank you for organizing all these important points. Every time I read about reintroduction of species from zoo-bred animals, I feel better about supporting zoos. They are probably the only way I’ll be able to experience most of these animals or paint them in my lifetime – and that raises public awareness of how important they are to our own survival.

  2. 2 Christopher Taylor 17/04/2012 at 11:31 am

    I don’t buy the ‘zoos are a conservation reservoir’ argument. There are simply too many species, and reintroduction to the wild too involved and expensive a process, for zoos to be significant in more than a few cases. Nevertheless, I am on the whole a supporter of zoos, and I do think that they have a part to play in conservation. When a person sees an elephant or a tiger or a yellow-footed rock wallaby or whatever it is they’re seeing at a zoo, they appreciate it as a living animal in a way that I don’t think they ever can from a picture or a piece of film. So even if that individual tiger may never itself directly contribute to the survival of tigers in the wild, it may still play an indirect role in inspiring visitors to believe tigers are worth saving.

    • 3 David Hone 17/04/2012 at 11:42 am

      “There are simply too many species, and reintroduction to the wild too involved and expensive a process, for zoos to be significant in more than a few cases.”

      Well I’d agree it’s not like it’s the majority of zoo-based species are that threatened, but at the same time, the list of those saved directly (only in zoos) or indirectly (bolstered by zoo populations) or at severe risk (the zoo population might soon be the only one left) is hardly insignificant – Arabian and scimitar horned oryx, all manner of Malagassay and Mauritius critters (Round Island boa, Mauritius pink pigeon and kestrel, several lemurs), tuatara, golden lion tamarin, Prezwalski’s horse, black footed ferrets, St Lucia parrots, teporingoes, pretty much every Partula species etc. And we have seen various things we’d thought safe suffer sudden huge population crashes like the hippo slaughter from civil wars or the sudden amphibian crisis. I think it adds up to a pretty significant chunk of what is in captivity in better collections, and places like Jersey show just what can be done.

      It may not be the primary role of many zoos, but I do think it’s a major factor and a major benefit. Certainly if it didn’t happen at all we’d likely have a lot less of these things. (Yes there are independent breeding programs of things like California condors, but zoos still play a major role and if nothing else, you don’t want all your stock kept in one place).

      Plus of course as I say, there is room for improvement. More funding or more pressure on zoos to do more of this kind of work would make things still better. But the fact they they are doing some (I’d even go so far as to say quite a lot in cases) is no argument against them, merely that it can be better.

  3. 4 himmapaan 17/04/2012 at 2:25 pm

    I couldn’t agree more, simply.

  4. 5 Maija Karala 18/04/2012 at 9:11 am

    A good article with some very good points. Zoos in general, I think, have transformed into admirable conservation facilities. Of course, they are mostly for saving large, charismatic vertebrates, but it’s still very important.

    There’s more room for improvement in reintroducing the animals back to wild once zoo-bred. There are plenty of problems: losing important adaptations, genetic diversity and culturally transmitted behaviour, not being able to teach the animals everything they need to survive and just plain stupidity such as reintroducing the animals to a wrong habitat or next to a highway. In many reviews, only little more than 10 % of reintroductions can be considered successful, which is a terrible waste of both resources and animals. The success rate is particularly low in amphibians, in which hundreds of species are now completely dependent of zoo breeding.

    For example:

    Wolf, C., Garland, T. & Griffith, B. 1998. Predictors of avian and mammalian translocation success: reanalysis with phylogenetically independent contrasts. Biological Conservation 86(2): 243-255

    Fischer, J. & Lindenmayer, D. 2000. An assessment of the published results of animal relocations. Biological Conservation 96(1): 1-11

    Beck, B., Rapaport, L., Price, M. & Wilson, A. 1994. Reintroduction of captive-born animals. In the book: Olney, P., Mace, G. & Feistner, A. (edit.): Creative conservation: interactive management of wild and captive animals. Chapman & Hall London. S. 265-286

    • 6 David Hone 18/04/2012 at 9:46 am

      The success rate is low, but it will only get better if we continue to invest and try. I agree that these could be better and that traits are lost in zoos etc. but for me, if the alternative is extinction, it’s a better option.

      • 7 Maija Karala 18/04/2012 at 10:24 am

        True. And in many cases, the alternative *is* extinction. Even with a low success rate, zoo breeding is needed.

        I’m in the impression that the success rate of reintroductions would be much better even with present knowledge if the projects were planned better and things learned from earlier attempts was taken into account.

      • 8 David Hone 18/04/2012 at 10:43 am

        “I’m in the impression that the success rate of reintroductions would be much better even with present knowledge if the projects were planned better and things learned from earlier attempts was taken into account.”

        Quite probably, I don’t know enough about the details. But even if the learning is independent (i.e. each group is finding the solutions to the problems themselves) then things will still get better over time.

      • 9 bryana 13/02/2014 at 2:59 pm

        nice you are doing a good thing

  5. 10 Dave C 18/04/2012 at 12:42 pm

    Hi Dave,

    On the whole I agree with your argument, but having worked at a rescue centre it is worth highlighting that a lot of the problem with zoos arises when they go into administration. I experienced this with Penscynor Zoo in South Wales, and worked at a centre which tried to recover animals from other bankrupt operations. At this point the administrators move in and essentially hold the animals hostage as they represent potential recovery of capital if they can be sold. Simultaneously all the staff are laid off and no new food is purchased. The result is a zoo full of starving animals which the administrators will not allow rescue centres to move in and collect or relocate. Often the animals are simply shot when they cannot be kept any longer, even when there are facilities ready and willing to take them into care.

    I do not think that this should stop the important work which zoos do, but it needs to be more carefully regulated, as the cruelty involved is unnecessary and on a large scale.

    Dave

    • 11 David Hone 18/04/2012 at 4:26 pm

      Well I’ve been lucky enough to have only worked in and visited relatively good places. As I said though, I’m not pretending there aren’t bad practices and collections though from what I’ve seen over the years even the worst are improving or shutting down. For sure we need better regulation and care and ideally, cold, hard, cash.

      I don’t like the ideas of animals suffering, but at least zoos are at least generally regulated and investigated and have reason to stay on the right side of the public and the law. Compared to the average private ownership of pets and the oversight that gets, it is many times better in the average zoo.

  6. 13 danille mcnees 18/04/2013 at 5:39 pm

    wow peopl are weird an zoos are good but sometimes very bad for the animals and many of them die soooo……………….

  7. 14 gail 07/11/2013 at 6:26 pm

    i love zoos the sites are beatiful

  8. 15 securewildlife 02/02/2014 at 7:45 pm

    Good Post!

  9. 16 Tracey 04/02/2014 at 5:52 am

    I am so glad to read this. I have always supported zoos, and just like you said I do know about bad zoos and feel we need some regulation of them, and just like you feel that other animals are in greater need of regulation in the food industry (and possibly even pets). Thanks to activists who don’t know much or are over-emotional about dolphin and whales being kept in captivity and performing, zoos have been brought into the picture, as it would be inevitably so. However, I have always felt that zoos and “sea-world like parks” are completely different and reading this has reminded me why I want to work at a zoo once I finish my animal science major. For any of you out there who feel zoos and seaworld like parks are the same, there is 2 main differences. Even though the wild space that animals live in when wild is much larger then that at a zoo, you cannot fathom the environment that whales and dolphins inhabit, since it is not merely one level but has depth as well as length and width, and we don’t even know how big it is yet. Also, animals in zoos are not forced to perform for an audience. The only time animals have performed at all would be fore educational reason, and not to “get the audience wet”. Well, those are my two cents, anyways.

  10. 17 Audrey 01/04/2014 at 9:12 am

    This was a very impressive argument, and though i was already on the side of Zoos, this has reinforced my belief in the good they are doing to animals. I am writing a persuasive piece for english on whether or not we agree with zoos, and this article has many points that i am thinking of adressing. Thankyou!


  1. 1 Born Free | Reasonant Connections Trackback on 05/04/2013 at 10:51 am
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