A fraught debate around the ethical question of keeping animals in zoos and marine parks has been raging for decades. The earliest commercial zoos were established for the express purpose of providing humans with amusement. These zoos largely considered the health and well-being of their animals to be a secondary concern … if they considered it to be a matter of any concern at all. Earlier this year, photographs taken in Australia’s earliest captive animal facilities at the beginning of the twentieth century were released by the State Library of Victoria. These pictures attest to the blatantly cruel and neglectful treatment of animals that was a hallmark of the world’s first commercial zoos. They reveal that monkeys were paraded around zoo premises in chains, forced to walk on stilts, and made to wear outlandish costumes for the benefit of human spectators. Meanwhile, jaguars, hippos, and bears were confined to enclosures so small that they could barely turn around.

The history of the world’s earliest marine parks follows a similar trajectory. The astoundingly brutal capture methods that were used to acquire SeaWorld’s original orcas during the 1960s and 1970s have been well-documented. The capture of Lolita, Miami Seaquarium’s longest-resident orca, was equally shocking. In August 1970, she was torn from her pod off the coast of Puget Sound in Washington state, in a violent struggle that involved the use of powerful nets, ropes, and explosives. Local residents reported hearing “terrible, human-like screams” emanating from the area throughout the fight. One adult and four baby orcas from Lolita’s pod were killed that day. Since then, Lolita has been confined to the smallest orca tank in North America.


These days, however, captive animal facilities claim that they have left this unsavory past behind them. They would argue that their purpose has now changed: that they now focus on education, outreach and conservation goals, and that they have a vital part to play in saving our planet’s endangered animal species. One of the most common arguments that zoos use in favor of holding lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys and other animal species in captivity is that children enjoy seeing them, and are moved to care about protecting their wild counterparts as a result of having done so.

It is true that most kids tend to display a deep fascination with animals, and are naturally inclined to enjoy direct, hands-on experiences with them. When I was a child, I regarded every visit to the zoo as a magical experience. I will always remember the thrill of being permitted to feed the elephants in Dublin Zoo on the day of my eighth birthday party: holding out handfuls of freshly chopped carrots and watching them eagerly scoop up the offerings with their trunks. On one memorable visit to a petting zoo in rural France, my bag of popcorn was stolen by a capuchin monkey – much to my annoyance! My anger was further increased a few moments later, when the monkey cheekily ran back over to me, hoping to seize my peanuts as well.

There is no doubt that these experiences left an indelible impression on me, but even at that age, I noticed that the animals I saw in zoos were, more often than not, unhappy and listless. The last time I ever visited a zoo was in the summer of 2008. On that day, I witnessed so many animals behaving in an apathetic, depressed or frustrated way that I knew I could never again set foot in any facility that holds them captive for the sake of profit or entertainment.

The behavior of one elderly mountain gorilla, in particular, was truly heartbreaking. I will never forget the way he curled himself up into a ball and started rocking back and forth as soon as a crowd of people drew near him. There was an enormous crack in one of the glass walls that surrounded him: obviously indicating a spot where he had punched it in frustration. Nor will I forget the sounds of a nearby crowd of children who jeered at him, or asked their parents why he “wasn’t doing anything funny.” These children fully believed that this gorilla’s job was to entertain them: an expectation that is fostered by the inherent sense of entitlement over animals’ behavior that zoos perpetuate.


On that day, I knew that I could never be fully comfortable with visiting a zoo again. However, it wasn’t until several years later that I learned more about the horrendous truth behind how zoos, marine parks, and other commercial captive animal facilities operate. While there are undoubtedly plenty of individual zookeepers who care about the wellbeing of captive animals, a number of chilling lessons I have learned about the industry as a whole will ensure that I never give my money to a zoo, marine park, or other such venue again.

1. Captive animals’ psychological health often suffers to such an extent that the phenomenon has acquired a name: “zoochosis.”

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The disturbing behavior that I witnessed in the old mountain gorilla in 2008 is far from uncommon among captive animals. Self-mutilation, abnormal repetitive movements, restless pacing, depressive behaviors and sudden outbursts of aggression have been recorded in captive lions, tigers, elephants, whales, and dolphins, to name a few. This pattern of psychologically disturbed activity among zoo animals has been termed “zoochosis.”

Widespread use of mood-altering drugs such as Prozac is an open secret in the animal captivity industry. SeaWorld has admitted to administering antipsychotic medication to its captive orcas: a fact that serves to undermine the company’s oft-repeated statement that their animals are “thriving.”


The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” examined the death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010, at the hands of Tilikum. Before Brancheau’s death, he already had a history of unstable behavior, having been linked to two other human deaths. Sadly, he is not the only captive orca to have killed or seriously injured a trainer. There have been numerous cases of fatal violence between orcas with incompatible personalities who have been forced to live together in marine parks. However, to date, there has never been a single documented case of an orca harming a human being in the wild.

2. Captive animals’ physical health does not fare much better.

When animals are confined to an environment that cannot meet their developmental needs, their physical health suffers just as much as their psychological health. Captive elephants, for example, are often plagued by arthritis, foot infections, low fertility, and early mortality. In the wild, elephants can travel up to 30 miles per day and are one of the widest-ranging land mammals on the planet. However, 40 percent of zoo elephants suffer from obesity as a direct result of their sedentary lifestyle.


A report that was carried out by a team of captive research specialists from Germany, Israel, the U.S., and the UK, and published in the PLOSone science journal in 2014, suggested that captivity may even be leaving newborn lions with brain damage. Head researcher Joseph Saragusty observed that “high rates of stillbirths as well as morbidity and mortality of neonate and young lions are reported. Many of these cases are associated with bone malformations, including foramen magnum (FM) stenosis and thickened tentorium cerebelli.” Symptoms of these malformations include tremors, loss of balance, and unusual head tilts.

Captive orcas, meanwhile, are prone to unusual bacterial infections and viruses that are seldom – if ever – witnessed in their wild counterparts. Dorsal fin collapse is an almost universal phenomenon among captive male orcas, but again, is hardly ever observed in wild male orcas. Researchers believe that this is because the atmospheric pressure of the sea water – combined with the enormous distance covered by these animals (up to 100 miles per day) – serves to keep their fins upright. In a small, shallow tank that comprises only 0.001 percent of the total territory available to wild orcas, these factors are not present.

3. Zoos’ and marine parks’ assertion that they have a positive educational impact on children is a tenuous claim, at best.

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Anyone who has witnessed a group of children hassling a captive animal or demanding that the animal “entertain” them will know that – far from educating kids on how to respect animals – zoos often serve to perpetuate the idea that they exist solely for our amusement. Lori Marino, executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, has said, “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. How do I know? I’ve reviewed the literature and published our findings on this issue.”


In 2014, a research paper published in the Conservation Biology journal cast doubt on zoos’ educational claims. The paper outlined the results of a study in which over 2,800 children were interviewed before and after they had visited London Zoo. Following their visit, 62 percent of the children showed no indication of having learned new information about animal or environmental conservation. The study found that many of them “did not feel empowered to believe that they can take ‘effective ameliorative action’ on matters relating to conservation after their zoo experience,” and that zoo education programs can, in fact, produce a “negative learning outcome.”

In 2010, a UK government-commissioned report also expressed concerns that, “despite zoos promoting education programs, there was little evidence of educational impact by the industry.”

4. The question of whether zoos truly contribute to endangered animal conservation efforts is highly debatable.

Contrary to zoos’ claims that their conservation and breeding programs hold vital importance for the future of endangered animal species, the reality is that such programs rarely release animals back into the wild. Captive breeding initiatives often fail due to poor conditions and the stresses associated with life in 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” due to high rates of in-breeding and hybridization, which has been caused by the low supply of captive animals available to the zoos.

The most successful wild reintroduction programs have tended to be carried out by government agencies and nonprofit organizations. One defining characteristic of these programs is that the animals are not generally available for public view, which means that more of the staff’s time can be spent on teaching them important survival skills.

In addition to this, wild members of an endangered species have tended to demonstrate a worrying lack of interest in mating with their captive-bred counterparts. According to a study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters in 2014, captive-bred animals also prefer to mate with other captive-bred animals: a finding that could have a profound impact on the future of captive breeding efforts. It implies that captive-bred animals who are introduced to the wild will fail to mate with their wild counterparts, instead, forming a future “sub-population” of wild animals who will be at an evolutionary disadvantage, having failed to assimilate into the broader wild population or inherit important survival techniques.

5. It is far more cost-effective to concentrate on preserving endangered animals’ natural habitat.

In addition to the many practical problems associated with zoos’ wild reintroduction programs, the cost of such programs is another cause for concern. According to a Zoo Inquiry carried out by wildlife conservation group Born Free, the annual maintenance cost of keeping one black rhino in captivity is $16,800. However, the yearly cost of protecting enough natural habitat to support one black rhino in the wild is just $1,000. The Inquiry also found that it can be up to 100 times more expensive to maintain a small herd of elephants in captivity for one year than it is to protect a similar amount of elephants – along with their entire ecosystem – during the same time period.

African elephants are currently losing their lives to ivory poachers at the rate of 100 animals per day. The Javan rhinoceros was declared extinct in 2011, while the Western Black rhinoceros suffered the same fate in 2013. The Sumatran and Black Rhino subspecies are currently classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Following the death of Nola – one of only four remaining Northern White Rhinos on the planet – last year, the outlook for this subspecies is also looking extremely bleak. An average of three rhinos are killed for their horns every single day. Given the critically endangered status of African elephants and most subspecies of rhino, it is vital that conservation efforts for these animals should focus on the most successful and cost-effective measures … and it is clear that zoos’ wild reintroduction programs do not fit the bill.

6. When all is said and done … we simply have no right to hold these animals in captivity for no better reason than because it amuses us.

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If there is one stand-out lesson I learned on the day I saw that obviously heartbroken gorilla curl himself up into a ball, it would be this: when we visit a zoo, we are not getting an accurate picture of who these animals truly are. According to Azzedine Downes, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), zoos could be described as “live storage facilities” that represent “a discouraging acquiescence to a world without animals roaming in the wild.”

Earth has lost an estimated 52 percent of its wildlife in the past forty years. This has primarily been driven by habitat loss caused by humans’ industrial expansion. Downes’ comments illustrate the sad future that could lie in store for non-human animals: one in which they are utterly erased from their natural environment and displayed only as exhibits for our curiosity. The sight of that listless gorilla in 2008 taught me that when we visit a zoo, we are merely seeing a subdued, harassed, apathetic version of who an animal could be if they were allowed to remain wild.

To learn more about the truth behind zoos and marine parks, and how you can interact with wild animals in a more humane way, check out the articles below.

Image Source: Chris Phutully/Flickr