Animals in zoos

White Bengal Tiger at Cougar Mountain Zoo.

In a sense this post serves as a follow up to one of the links in a previous post of mine. I linked to a piece that argued that animal captivity was not inherently wrong and which detailed a number of ways in which captivity might actually be better for the animal. I would agree that there are occasions when captivity is ethical and/or necessary but I got the feeling that I would find much fewer occasions than the author would. I want to now draw people’s attention to an article published last month in Slate which looks at how zoos are bad for animals.

It starts off with a description of the psychological hardship and compulsive behaviours that afflict zoo animals. A possible cause are small enclosures, when compared to their natural environment. It points out that a polar bear who compulsively swam in figure 8’s for up to 12 hours a day had an enclosure less than 0,00009 % of what its territory would have been in the wild. Interestingly, the size of enclosures is one of the points addressed in the article I linked to before. This quote from Life of Pi was used as a defence against the size of enclosures:

That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with our houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out.

It’s then further argued that size isn’t everything and one might prefer the comforts of an enclosure as opposed to the hardships of the wild. This is not an unreasonable assumption but it seems as though zoo animals do suffer in their enclosure, for multiple reasons, and size could be a factor. We could also note that even in humans, a living area that meets all our necessities but prevents us from getting out can lead to cabin fever and crew members in a 520 day experiment to simulate a trip to Mars suffered from sleep problems. Is there a reason to suspect this would not be the case with other animals?

Zoo keepers have been forced to resort to drugs to try placate stressed animals.

“At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a psychopharmaceutical had been tried,” Braitman told me. She explained that pharmaceuticals are attractive to zoos because “they are a hell of a lot less expensive than re-doing your $2 million exhibit or getting rid of that problem creature.”

Part of the problem is the very way a zoo is set out is stressful for the animals. Zoos are designed to let people see the animals, yet watching them causes them stress. It’s easy to think about how we might suffer from stage fright ourselves or how awkward it feels to have strangers staring at you. For most of us that seldom occurs for more than short periods (CCTV surveillance notwithstanding) but for zoo animals that is what they experience for hours every day. Even if parts of the enclosure are secluded to avoid the stress of being watched, we will have effectively reduced the size of their enclosure even further.

Zoos do have other purposes, of course, such as research, conservation and educational programmes. SeaWorld has justified keeping killer whales in captivity for purposes of research but Slate also reports that SeaWorld has inflated its research record.

According to Visser, of the 52 articles on SeaWorld’s list, three are duplicates, the exact same paper listed twice. Another of the papers on the list is a review by a SeaWorld employee of a book written by someone who claimed to be able to communicate with orcas. Others involved SeaWorld staff, but the research was performed entirely on wild populations. A few could not be tracked down with the citation information provided; SeaWorld’s director of research didn’t have access to them when Visser inquired. Several are not peer reviewed, and at least one had the title changed to imply that captive orcas played a more important role in the research (which was a statistical model) than they actually did.

There are of course always going to be questions about how applicable research conducted on captive animals is to animals in the wild but even disregarding that very little research was produced. I’m not sure whether most zoos conduct research or not or how they compare to SeaWorld in terms of productivity. When it comes to public education it looks as if people do not learn much at zoos.

Zoos argue that they are promoting appreciation of wildlife that will translate into environmental conservationism. The AZA released a study in 2007 on the educational impact of zoos, arguing just this point. However, an examination of the study by researchers at Emory University found the results exaggerated, noting that “there is no compelling or even particularly suggestive evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, and interest in conservation in their visitors.” Animals and Society highlights research that found that the average visitor spends 30 seconds to two minutes at an enclosure, and that most visitors do not read the labels at exhibits.

I can quite believe this from personal experience. I’ve been spending some time on my weekends volunteering at a local science centre and I’ve noticed that visitors do not read the signs that accompany the displays. Most of the visitors are young children but it applies to the adults as well. I’ve had two adults, probably parents, ask me to help them solve a puzzle that they weren’t able to do even though the sign clearly said only six of the seven were possible. They had already solved six. That was in the section explaining what to do at the exhibit, not even in the later paragraphs on how the puzzles history and significance.

The Slate article finishes by asking what we might do to replace zoos. I’m not entirely against zoos but perhaps some changes are necessary to treat animals more ethically. The one purpose I would say zoos absolutely need to keep is that of conservation; breeding animals in danger of extinction and to top up wild populations under pressure. At the same time, we also need to work on protecting those environments in the first place. Nature reserves could also be used to substitute zoos. You can see animals as they really live with minimal impact. Perhaps the downside there is that sightings are not guaranteed and that might not work for impatient visitors who want to see animals on their schedule. It’s just that is not a realistic expectation. Lastly, there is the possibility to use sanctuaries as a replacement for zoos. For example, I visited a wolf sanctuary in the Eastern Cape. It’s not a zoo but you can go there and see the wolves, most of which used to pets. They aren’t native to South Africa and can’t be released into the wild even if they were. That is an opportunity where protecting and caring for the animals can be combined with our desire to see and interact with them.


2 thoughts on “Animals in zoos

  1. Pingback: E&R is three years old! | Evidence & Reason

  2. Pingback: Schönbrunn Tiergarten | Evidence & Reason

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