Animal lovers have many reasons to be wary of visiting zoos, aquariums, or other facilities that display animals for entertainment purposes. Captive elephants frequently experience foot problems, obesity, and psychological issues related to their lack of adequate space and stimulation in zoos. These elephants often engage in repetitive stereotypic behaviors such as head-bobbing, wobbling from side to side, or restless pacing: behaviors that are frequently witnessed in captive animals of all kinds. Self-mutilation and outbursts of aggression have been recorded in captive orcas, lions, and tigers, to name a few.

Depression is rife among zoo animals – and zookeepers’ widespread use of mood-enhancing drugs such as Prozac is an open secret among insiders within the animal captivity industry. The recent death of Arturo – a severely depressed polar bear who spent most of his life languishing in a tiny, swelteringly hot tank in Mendoza, Argentina – demonstrated exactly how tragic it can be when we humans prioritize our desire for profit or entertainment above the health and wellbeing of the animals with whom we share this planet.

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The Conservation Questions

The question of whether animals should be kept in zoos at all – and if so, whether this should be done for conservation or entertainment purposes – can be extremely divisive and controversial. Many institutions that claim to be holding animals in captivity under the guise of “conservation” have, in fact, been revealed to be exploiting the animals to make a profit. In addition to this, the question of zoos’ supposed “importance” in the fight to save endangered animal species has been hotly disputed.

Zoos rarely release animals back into the wild, as their attempts at captive breeding usually fail because of poor conditions and the stress of captivity. In 2013, a report from the Aspinall Foundation – carried out by leading conservation geneticist Dr. Paul O’Donoghue – described UK zoo animals as “genetic disasters” because of high rates of in-breeding and hybridization, caused by the low supply of captive animals available to the zoos. Most successful wild reintroduction programs are carried out by government agencies and non-profit organizations. In addition, animals who have been raised in captivity are often poorly equipped to adapt to a life in the wild, as they have never had the opportunity to learn the relevant survival skills. Wild animals have demonstrated a worrying lack of interest in mating with captive-born members of the same species.

In comparison to the more effective wild habitat conservation efforts, zoos’ reintroduction programs are also prohibitively expensive and complicated to carry out. According to a Zoo Inquiry by wildlife conservation group Born Free, the annual maintenance cost of keeping a black rhino in captivity is $16,800, while the annual cost of protecting enough natural habitat to support one wild black rhino if just $1,000. The Inquiry estimated that it can be 100 times more expensive to maintain a group of elephants in captivity for one year than it is to conserve a similar group of wild elephants, together with their entire ecosystem, over the same time period.

What would it mean for an animal species to go extinct in the wild, but still exist in a zoo?

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According to Azzedine Downes, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the “live storage facilities” that zoos usually end up becoming are “a discouraging acquiescence to a world without animals roaming in the wild.” His comment illustrates the sad reality of how it would feel to live a world in which animals are erased from their natural environment, to be held only as exhibits for our curiosity. Ultimately, when we visit a zoo, we are seeing a watered-down, confined, apathetic version of the free-spirited beings that captive animals would be in the wild.

Over the past forty years, the planet has lost 52 percent of its wildlife, with most of this loss driven by human activities. Therefore, a sad, apathetic world without wild animals could soon be a reality, unless we all play our part in ending the scourge of species extinction today.

For more information on why relying on zoos to save endangered animals may not be such a great idea, and how you can take action in your everyday life to protect our planet’s wildlife, check out the resources below.

Lead Image Source: /Shutterstock

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