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Almost every kid grows up with memories of visiting the zoo with their grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or their school. I mean, where else would we be able to see these amazing animals?

In a forest they would be too reclusive, and the beautiful Masai Mara or the Amazon rainforests are simply too expensive for some of us, and this where zoos step in. Zoos apparently date back to as far as 3500 BC as excavations at Hierakonopolis in Egypt have revealed. Remains of animals including elephants, baboons, wildcats and hartebeest were found.

The zoos of today have quite fancy names – zoological park, zoological garden, wildlife park, etc. They help with conservation, breeding, and aim to educate the public, encouraging them to respect and protect animals, right?

Well, not quite.

In light of the retaliations we have seen lately against SeaWorld and Taiji for their treatment of marine animals, perhaps it’s time we took a more careful look at zoos, the most familiar and common of facilities that keep animals in captivity.

1. Zoos claim to exist for “conservation purposes.”

More than half the animals zoos exhibit are not endangered at all. The animals that are endangered are often bred in captive breeding programs. This seems okay, right? Again, not quite.

Most breeding programs are unsuccessful due to the unnatural settings as well as the stress that the animals are forced to reproduce in. Zoos are legally not allowed to capture wild animals and display them to the public. The animals existing in zoos now, are the lineage of once-wild animals that were captured and then thrown into an enclosed space.

As these animals were bred generation after generation, none have been exposed to their natural habitats. Everything they have seen or done is inadvertently illegitimate. Their natural instincts to search for a mate, reproduce, defend territory, search for food and water (in case of predatory animals, the ability to hunt), and travel great distances all diminish, and having been repressed, make these animals unfit for return to the wild. They simply wouldn’t have the ability and skills meant to survive.

What’s more, zoos have had little to no success with captive breeding programs. Specialized centers that are not open to the public, on the other hand have, with species such as the Partula Snail, British Field Cricket, and Przewalski Horse.

Additionally, zoos rarely reintroduce animals back into the wild. According to Benjamin Beck, former associate director of biological programs at the National Zoo in Washington D.C, via National Geographic in the last century “only 16 of 145 reintroduction programs worldwide ever actually restored any animal populations to the wild. Of those most were carried out by government agencies, not zoos.”

So how exactly are zoos conserving wildlife if (1) their breeding programs are unsuccessful at raising fit-for-the-wild animals, (2) their breeding programs actually fail at effectively sustaining healthy and varied species populations, and (3) if they rarely reintroduce animals back into the wild, their real home?

2. Zoos claim to be effective educational tools.

Zoos too often assert that they educate the public on the plight of wild animals and their natural behaviors in the wild. But the truth is, other than lazing around or showing signs of psychosis, these animals just do not exhibit natural behaviors in an enclosure.

According to Dr. Lori Marino, the lead author of “Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors?”, “There is no compelling evidence to date that zoos and aquariums promote attitude changes, education or interest in conservation in their visitors, despite claims to the contrary,” as published in this IDA article which even criticizes the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

In most zoos, educational boards are placed near the front of the enclosures so that the public can read little facts about them. But how educational and true to their wild counter-parts is this information really? Facts about their diet, environment in the wild, size and life expectancy are a given. But how much can they write about natural behaviors, or rather do these animals even exhibit truly natural behavior?

How safe are we or even the handlers themselves when they promise to give us a show of how great the animals they work with really are? At Steve Irwin’s famous Australia Zoo, a senior trainer with nine years of experience was hospitalized after being bitten on the neck and shoulder by one of the tigers he had raised since it was a cub.

Those who saw “Blackfish” or followed the news after Feb. 24, 2010 know of Dawn Brancheau’s death which was caused by Tilikum the orca. The Huffington Post ran an article titled “Attacks, other incidents involving captive animals” on the very same day in light of the incident.

One of the attacks mentioned, occurred in the San Francisco Zoo and was the first by Tatiana the tiger. Her second attack resulted in her being shot to death after she escaped her enclosure and fatally mauled a zoo visitor, contrary to reports that she was provoked by two friends of the victim. Just last year, another break out happened at the  San Diego Zoo when two hyenas escaped from their enclosures and the whole zoo had to be locked down untill the animals were darted.

3. Zoos claim to provide the utmost care for their animals.

Most of us think of how pampered zoo animals are, and how their lives are so laid back and relaxed. I mean they don’t even have to hunt or search for their food! It is sad to know that ensuring an animal’s care is not always in the hands of the people caring for them, but most times, it is.

UK zoos have always been highlighted as some of the best in the world. But an undercover investigation film by Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) titled “No Place Like Home,” which was filmed over a period of two years, has proved otherwise. Some of the exposed conditions in the documentary were horrible living conditions, untreated as well as dead animals at the Tweddle Farm Zoo, lions in small locked enclosures at Woburn Safari Park, and white lion cubs being provided to a circus animal trainer from Midland Safari Park.

The National Zoo in Washington, DC has also shown severe lapses in animal care according to a report from December 2013, in which zoo insiders told CBS that “that problems began last year when the zoo decided to double the population of the cheetah exhibit, adding a half dozen new species but no extra space.” These problems included a zebra attack on a veteran zookeeper, two animals breaking their necks after running into barriers, and multiple animal injuries, escapes and deaths.

On Feb. 9, 2014 at the Copenhagen Zoo in a shocking event, Marius the giraffe was put to sleep in spite of offers from numerous other zoos to take him in, in front of visitors which included young children. They also watched while he was skinned and fed to a pride of lions. You can check out the story here. Marius’s story is not the only one that involves the culling of animals that otherwise would have living in the wild. On the same day, Britain’s most popular safari park – Longleat Safari Park came under fire for destroying six of its lions due to an increase in pregnancies. Last we checked, culling animals is not sound animal care.

4. Zoos claim to provide the best environments for their animals.

It just seems that no matter how much zoos design their enclosures to mimic a natural habitat, animals just can’t deal with living in confinement. They start to exhibit neurotic behavior, called “Psychosis”, or in case of zoo animals, “Zoochosis”. Here is a list of such behaviors which includes the most commonly seen ones – pacing, bar biting, swaying, and circling.

A New Scientist report titled “No Way Out” about this stereotypical behavior says that, “An estimated 80 million captive animals worldwide perform bizarre, repetitive rituals, known as stereotypies. Animal behaviour experts trying to work out why note that the movements often seem prompted by frustration-carnivores pace their boundaries as if to escape, voles jump against their cage roofs and pigs root fruitlessly at concrete floors.”

Some larger species are prone to suffer more than others, according to a New York Times article, which lists polar bears, lions, tigers, and cheetahs as animals that zoos should “stop keeping them altogether”.

An example of this suffering in larger herbivorous animals is Billy the elephant, who stood alone in his small enclosure and bobbed his head repeatedly up and down shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

A lawsuit was filed against the Los Angeles Zoo even after two female elephants were introduced into his enclosure. There was even a “Help Billy” site which was started to halt construction of a new elephant exhibit and, according to the petition, an LA judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. It was signed by numerous celebrities, conservationists, 10.5 million members of the Humane Society, as well as members of the SPCA LA, Born Free USA and UK, the list of which is available on the site page.

5. Zoos claim to use the majority of their income for animal welfare and conservation.

It looks like zoos are spending most of their gains on new ways to generate more income with increased ticket prices by  adding attractions that have nothing to do with animals, setting up expensive exhibits to encourage animals to be active and not sleep all the live long day, and paying for the older animal’s health costs while not being able to afford housing new ones.

With the facilities provided in most zoos, it seems that they either spend too much making sure their visitors are comfortable or they spend very little at all on things like sanitation facilities, finishing up construction work, and on the real welfare of their animals.

The National Zoo is under investigation for its lack of adequate animal care due to the problems associated with it mentioned in the third point of this article from Examiner.com, while the zoo says the incidents were due to a lack of funds and resources.

What’s more, a number of zoos have very highly paid employees despite the fact that they’re supposedly most interested in conserving animal species.

According to Philly Magazine, The Philadelphia Zoo paid its retiring head a fat sum of $340,000 when he left his job. The article states that “the Zoo’s fund-raising grew during Hoskins’s 13-year tenure, but not nearly at the rate of his salary, which almost tripled from $124,000 in 1997 … In 2004, a year in which the Zoo was laying off staff and facing a $4 million shortfall in a $25 million operating budget, its chief operating officer left with a salary and exit package totaling $473,770.” Now that certainly doesn’t sound like conservation, does it?

Image source: MIKI Yoshiihito / Flickr

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18 comments on “Top 5 Misleading Claims Zoos Make”

Click to add comment
karin nelson
4 Years Ago

In short, what right do us as humans have, to keep animals captive for our own entertainment? For breeding purposes I can understand sanctuaries IF the animals are reintroduced to the wild and they can be kept on the sanctuary is they are not suitable to be reintroduced to their natural habitat.

Linda Wark
4 Years Ago

I think Zoos and Aquariums need to decide if they are rehab facilities or an entertainment venues and then be HONEST about what they are and why the are in "business". Also, if they are going to claim that their animals are all "rescues", I would like to know what deems a rescued animal “non-releasable” by governments as I think it varies country to country. This is important information so that animals are not caught under the guise of “rehab/rescue” only to end up in a life sentence performing acts or to be stared at by uninformed humans. Studying animals in captivity would be like visiting a concentration camp to study human behaviour. It's just not normal and that should be common sense however I have heard that common sense is not that common

Heidi Lahtinen
4 Years Ago

Zoos are nothing but prisons for wild animals.

Antonia Tona
4 Years Ago

all zoos are the same , shit holes and prisons for animals

Heather Grace
4 Years Ago

All zoos are a sham.

Mary Anne Gardner
4 Years Ago

These poor animals are at their mercy and the zoo knows that!! Some thing has to watch these zoos that makes money off these animals!

Ania Kozikowska Bilchuk
4 Years Ago

BULL SHIT, zoos are awful!

Angela Reid
4 Years Ago

This article is pretty biased. 1) Zoos do a lot more for conservation than just breeding animals in captivity. They also work for genetic diversity of populations. There's no sourcing for the assertions of "little or no success" and being "unsuccessful." You only have to go to the zoo to know this isn't true (depending on what you think "success" means). As for re-releasing animals, are you telling me no zoos have ever worked with government agencies to release animals into the wild? Please. 2). Not sure what animal attacks have to do with zoos being effective educational institutions. But how do people make a connection with animals, anyway? By seeing them in person. Not everyone can afford to take an African safari. Sorry, but Animal Planet can only do so much. 3) Examples include 3 zoos, out of how many? You take any group of anything, and I'll bet I can find a few that are substandard. Not saying zoos are perfect, but we are all on the same side here - trying to help animals. As for the Copenhagen thing - that's disingenuous to include that here, as though the zoo community around the world approved of that particular action. I think you'll find that just isn't true. 4) I have never heard a zoo claim the "best" environment for animals, and I do know that zoo people are always working to find better ways of caring for them. Think of what zoos were like 50 years ago. As for those big animals, what's the alternative? If you say an elephant sanctuary, I will point out that those usually don't have veterinarians on staff, and they do other things (like herd elephants with ATVs) that aren't exactly better for elephants than the zoo. 5) Those numbers aren't that high, compared with corporate America. I would point out that most zoos are non-profits, and even the ones that do operate for-profit participate in many conservation programs. Yes, zoos have overhead. They need money. They are chronically under-funded. I can list you tons of examples of situations in which zoos would be much better places for animals if only they had enough money to improve enclosures so that the animals would have a better quality of life. Are you telling me that zoos shouldn't try to attract CEOs that care about animals and conservation? And let me point out, a CEO who only cared about money would make a lot more at a place other than a zoo. Zoos are a necessary evil. And if you're going to change my mind about that, you're going to have to provide some non-biased sources and some non-selective facts.

Amy Sand
15 Nov 2017

Thanks for your comment Angela. I was starting to wonder if anyone who used logic to formulate opinions before posting online read articles on this site. I agree with you completely. When I\'m at zoos, I see zookeepers who love their animals working hard to make them happy. And it is so true that seeing the animals in person creates stronger connections than anything else, and those connections can lead to tomorrow\'s animal rights activists, fighting the real issues out there - poaching, encroaching on habitats, and yes - realigning the mission of the few truly badly run zoos out there.

Amy Gotliffe
4 Years Ago

Please don't generalize zoos. Each is different, with a different mission and ethic. Take a tiny bit of time to look into the animal care provided, the conservation efforts, etc. I am the Conservation Director at the zoo in Oakland and work endlessly to help animals in the wild. Many of our animals are rescued. It is a very moral and individual-animal- based institution. This is like judging all teachers, governments, websites and journalists as exactly the same.Thank you...

Sylvanah Eagle
4 Years Ago

I agree it's just a prison


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