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Zoos continue to exist despite it becoming increasingly obvious to a growing proportion of people that keeping wild animals captive is cruel and dangerous. This is because they disseminate false information about their alleged usefulness, misleading people into thinking zoos are fun and educational places to visit.

Zoos may claim to redirect the majority of their income into Conservation, but they are as guilty of cutting corners to increase revenue more than any other money-greedy business. In this case, caged animals pay the price, while high-level executives are paid thousands of dollars. For instance, Philly Magazine reported that the head of The Philadelphia Zoo was paid a salary and exit package totaling $473,770 when he left.

Rather than believing that zoos have the animals’ best interests at heart, more people must realize that these facilities are simply exploiting and mistreating animals for money. Not only does visiting a zoo contribute to this abuse, it does not provide any valid knowledge about animals in the wild. Following are a number of lessons zoos do teach us about captive animals.

1. Keeping Animals Captive Does Nothing to Conserve Their Species


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Clearly, zoos devote much of their earnings to overpaying their CEOs, with the rest used to increase those earnings as much as possible. There isn’t much left over to help species in the wild. For instance, the Columbus Zoo in Ohio keeps polar bears and even admits on its website that this species’ population is on the decline, with just 20,000 polar bears left in the wild. Yet the zoo continues to display these endangered animals for money, doing nothing to help their wild counterparts.

Worse yet, most of these “live storage facilities” are “a discouraging acquiescence to a world without animals roaming in the wild,” according to Azzedine Downes, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). No effort is made to help wild animals stay wild, instead, individual animals are captured and caged for entertainment and ticket entries, not Conservation. Zoos don’t ever release animals back into the wild — instead, most reintroduction programs are carried out by government agencies and non-profits.

When zoos do attempt to dabble in Conservation work, through breeding programs, for instance, this is often unsuccessful because of poor conditions and the stress of captivity. One example of this is the “Last Chance to Survive” breeding program to save the Northern White Rhino, of which there are only two females and one male left in the world. The program failed, and the species will soon be extinct as a result.

2. Holding Animals Captive Harms Their Mental Wellbeing

Captive zoo animals have been widely documented exhibiting signs of neurological distress. These stereotypical behaviors — ie: repetitive, obsessive movements or acts — include pacing, head bobbing, rocking back and forth, pacing, and even self-mutilation, as well as excessive grooming and coprophagia (consuming excrements). These traits develop in animals living in unnatural conditions, as both a symptom of captivity and a coping mechanism to deal with the stress, confusion, and frustration of confinement. This disturbing behavior is so common that it has been labeled zoochosis. The term was coined as far back as 1992, yet captive animals continue to be subjected to such poor conditions and suffer from mental trauma so severe that they exhibit these signs of distress.

Moreover, sociable animals are kept in solitary confinement. Elephants especially are very gregarious animals, yet there are countless cases around the world of these majestic creatures being housed alone, never to experience the pleasure of another elephant’s company. One of these is Asha, who has spent her 32 years of life kept alone at the Natural Bridge Zoo, considered to be one of the worst zoos in the United States. Another lonely elephant is Lucky, imprisoned at the San Antonio Zoo, which also has a poor reputation for animal welfare. On top of being housed alone, Lucky is so stressed by the hundreds of visitors who come to gawk at her daily that she reportedly stands with her head against the wall and her back to the public until visitors leave.

3. Animals Cannot Thrive in a Climate Not Suited to Their Species


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Activists in India recently protested the Mumbai zoo’s decision to acquire eight Humboldt penguins. These animals come from the coast along South America, where cold currents flow in from Antarctica, but despite virulent public opposition, these animals have been flown to the Byculla Zoo in the heart of hot and polluted Mumbai. Because of the complete contrast between Humboldt penguins’ natural environment and the Indian city’s sweltering climate, the animals will have to live their entire lives inside a temperature-controlled enclosure. Not only is this lifestyle certain to make them miserable and depressed, being confined to an air-conditioned space is also likely to threaten their health and survival.

Captive elephants across the world also face this health risk. Coming from Africa and Asia, elephants are naturally adapted to warm environments and because they are unable to regulate their own body temperature, zoos in colder climates keep their elephants indoors throughout winter, an added source of suffering and frustration for the animals. One such elephant is 38-year old Lucy, suffering from numerous ailments due to the cold Canadian climate at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. Because of this Lucy’s health is at risk — she suffers from respiratory problems among other issues — and concerned activists even raised money to buy her a fitted insulated garment to keep her warm. Unfortunately, the zoo — proving once again not to have animals’ interests at heart — turned down the gift, letting Lucy suffer from the cold instead.

4. Captivity Kills

Aside from inadequate climatic conditions, the unsuitable settings captive wild animals are kept in, as well as the stress of confinement, result in early deaths. Young elephants, in particular, suffer a high mortality rate in captivity. Last year, two male Asian elephants, Rama and Tusko, died at ages 31 and 45 respectively at the Oregon Zoo — particularly known for its animals’ early deaths — despite Asian elephants in the wild normally living up to 70 years old.

Sometimes these fatalities occur on purpose when zoos decide they no longer need “surplus” animals. In 2014, the Copenhagen Zoo shot and killed a young giraffe named Marius in front of visitors and their children, in spite of numerous offers from other facilities and individuals to take the animal in. Just a month later, the same zoo killed four lions to make space for a new lion.

5. Zoos Destroy Family Bonds

Not only do zoos kill healthy animals “to make space,” tear young animals from their mothers, rip families apart, and keep individuals in solitary confinement, they also produce animals so damaged by captivity that they are unable to display natural behaviors and properly care for their young. Nora the baby polar bear was recently born at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. Sadder than the fact that she will live out her days in captivity for human entertainment, Nora’s mother Aurora was so distressed by confinement that she rejected her baby shortly after birth. It’s very rare in nature for animals to abandon their young — this is only done if a young poses a threat to the mother or the group’s survival — but unfortunately this is a common occurrence in zoos.

This is because captivity distorts wild animals’ behavior, and without having had the chance to learn from family members, individually housed animals have no idea how to care for their offspring. The stressful and frustrating conditions they are kept in even result in mothers harming their young. Two examples of this include a mother polar bear eating her two young cubs in 2008 and an elephant trampling her newborn calf in 2013. Experts believe that the anxiety caused by confinement destroyed the mothers’ natural instincts to care for and protect their young.

Craig Redmond, of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS), explains that “deaths and rejection of young happen at zoos worldwide every day,” because the “learning behavior that is so crucial for survival in the wild is stripped away by captivity.” He adds that “what zoos teach us is that captivity is an unnatural place for any animal,” and that if we do not want to see captive animals killing or rejecting their young “we must phase out zoos and protect natural habitats for the benefit of all species.”

6. Exhibiting Captive Wild Animals is Also Dangerous to Humans


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Recently, a four-year-old boy fell into a gorilla enclose at the Cincinnati Zoo. A week earlier, a reportedly mentally ill man entered a lion enclosure in a zoo in Chile. In these two cases, the animals paid the price. Two lions were shot dead to protect the man and Harambe the gorilla was also shot and killed by zoo employees. Just last month, a woman was fatally mauled by a tiger at a “drive-through” tiger enclosure at the Badaling Wildlife Park in Beijing, China. This was the third human fatality at the park recently, with a young boy and a park employee also killed by a tiger and an elephant respectively in recent years. Clearly, keeping dangerous wild animals confined and frustrated so that humans can see them up close is not only cruel to the animals, it can also cause injuries and death to visitors.

7. Zoos Teach Us No Lessons Worth Learning

Seeing caged animals teaches us nothing about their natural behaviors and threats they face in the wild, nor does it help conserve species in any way. As the executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy (KCAA), Lori Marino explains, “there is no current evidence, from well-controlled studies in the peer-reviewed literature, supporting the argument that captive animal displays are educational or promote Conservation in any meaningful sense.”

Moreover, a study found that 86 percent of visitors go to the zoo for “social or recreational purposes,” while only six percent visit to learn more about animals. Liz Tyson, director of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS) states that “Zoos present an entirely false view of both the animals themselves, and of the real and very urgent issues facing many species in their natural homes.” Instead of educating visitors about wild animals, the only lesson zoos teach us is that animals should not be kept captive.

What You Can Do

We must keep speaking out against the cruelty of zoos. Please never visit a zoo or any facility that keeps animals captive for profit. This includes circuses, aquariums, marine parks, and places posing as “wildlife parks.” Instead, be sure to only Support accredited sanctuaries where animals are properly cared for, are not bred, and not exploited for profit.

Check out these resources to find other ways to learn about wild animals and help protect their best interests:

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