Oh, brother can this be a touchy subject.
For a lot of people, a trip to the zoo is deeply tied-in to happy memories of childhood field trips and family outings. So much so, it’s often one of the first things parents want to do with their own children when they’re old enough. That certainly helps to explain why people tend to dismiss or strongly object to arguments about the ethical implications of caging wild animals for entertainment or “educational” purposes, but it doesn’t change the fact that zoos are unnatural and often-miserable experiences for animals.
Aside from too-small and typically ill-suited enclosures and wild differences in natural climate – both of which wreak havoc on the mental and physical health of captive animals and are undeniable downsides at even the best facilities – zoos also regularly buy, sell and trade animals without any regard for established relationships. Sure, this isn’t as big of a factor for some animals as much as others, but for many species (pack animals in particular), separation from a family member or long-time companion is a devastating blow with very real consequences.
These practices, in combination with the basic restriction of natural behaviors like flying, swimming, running, hunting, digging, etc. cause a great number of zoo animals to lose their minds – literally. Think about how often you’ve seen an animal in an exhibit rocking, swaying or pacing. These behaviors are very common symptoms of psychosis in captive animal populations. Less cute than you thought, right?
The first argument zoos like to make for themselves is that they work to protect species from extinction. Interestingly enough however, you’ll find very few animals on the endangered species list in zoos – that’s because those who draw the largest crowds aren’t necessarily those who need protection (when’s the last time you saw a Weta or a Dugong at a zoo?). If there isn’t money to be made, their concern wanes considerably.
Consequently, while you can argue that confining animals in zoos technically keeps them alive (granted, the lifespan of captive animals is much shorter than their native counterparts, on average), captivity does absolutely nothing to protect wild populations and habitats. Furthermore, an animal born and raised in captivity can almost never be released into the wild for lack of survival skills and the risk of transmitting non-native diseases.
At the end of the day, zoos are businesses. Serving up popular, cute and charismatic animals for a curious public is what they do (in addition to making sure there are plenty of overpriced souvenirs and junk food on hand for you to buy up). If the breeding programs they run to guarantee that there is always an endless supply of adorable baby animals around contributes to conservation, great, but it is not their primary objective. I won’t even get into what happens when room needs to be made for all those crowd-pleasing babies, but you can bet it isn’t pretty.
Of course, the story is essentially the same for aquariums and the like – circuses are another subject entirely (for which there are no redeeming qualities, whatsoever).
So, that’s why I don’t do zoos. Sure, it can be hard to refuse a family event and I’m certain that it will only get more difficult when I have children of my own, but I am confident in my position. Not only does my absence in zoos mean that my money does not directly support what I believe to be an unethical institution, but now that I’ve given some thought to what life is like on the other side of the glass, visiting a zoo would truly be a depressing experience. Give me an amusement park or a fantastic museum any day!