Is there a case for keeping animals in zoos?

            The concept of zoos has very much evolved with time – in the past, zoos were places for the royal family to house animals, where animals were used for human entertainment. Under Nero, a Roman Emperor, four hundred tigers fought with bulls and elephants while humans watched for their pleasure, and at the Colosseum of Rome, five thousand animals perished in a single day after being forced to fight each other. Today, the purpose of zoos and the way they operate is vastly different – in some zoos, the keepers are even required have a master’s degree. Despite these changes, it is indisputable that zoos today cannot sufficiently provide for animals. Going forward, although conditions will indeed improve for these animals, many will still suffer if they are housed in zoos.

Optimists would argue that animals enjoy better quality zoos because of the stricter requirements imposed for zoo employees. Some zoos even hire specific nutritionists and stud-book managers to cater to each of the animals’ specific needs. Despite this claim, even if the zoos of today have the ability to understand the needs of the animal, they are largely unable to provide for it. Animals have each of their own specific needs, from the basics of keeping instincts sharp by escaping from animals and finding prey, to more complicated needs, such as the way they locate mates for mating. Zoos often cannot provide for it, because each animal can only meet these needs in their own habitats, something that zoos cannot replicate. With the obvious lack of space in zoos – animals are inevitably deprived of sufficient space to meet its needs when placed in a zoo. For instance, the space an elephant is supposed to have is almost twenty times larger than what it is actually given, which means that it lacks sufficient space to exercise, which is necessary for it to keep healthy. From this alone, we can tell that the physical incapability of zoos show that zoos can never be sufficient at replicating the ideal habitat for animals. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the zoos of today are meant to showcase a whole range of animals that live in different conditions, from aquatic animals like seals to the king of the forest, the lion – zoos have to spread its already limited resources thin for all the animals its houses.  Furthermore, in spite of this problem, little is being done to improve the conditions the animals are in. On the contrary, it gives the veneer that the animals are comfortable and happy with their condition, generating little interest or will to continue improving their habitats. This is despite the fact that behavioural studies show the exact opposite.  The better alternative would be to place more resources into preserving the current natural habitats of the animals, for example the grassy savanna terrain. Preservation goes a longer way because it is something that is more permanent, and is not subject to various factors such as the lack of visitors, which can cause a zoo to close down completely.

Advocates of zoos assert that zoos are essential to repopulate animals into their natural habitats by breeding them in man-made enclosures that provide them with daily necessities and protection from natural predators. This allows animals to grow in numbers, and from there, communities of animals can be reintroduced into the wild. Despite this claim, the truth is that in the long run, keeping animals in zoos harms the animals more than it helps them. It may be true that zoos keep animals safe from predators, and provide meals which animals otherwise would not have gotten, but this may not be the best thing for the animals. In the long run, animals become habituated to an environment of comfort, because they are neither filled with fear of predators, nor with the pangs of hunger that push them to continue searching for prey. Content with their safety, the animals lose the sharpness in their instincts. When released back into the wild, these animals cannot cope with the harsh needs that their environments demand. This was etched in the attempt to repopulate orang-utans into the forests of Sumatra – the mammals died off because they could no longer climb trees efficaciously, after being closed in their small, insufficient enclosures. Even in the instance where efforts to repopulate animals work, the benefit of doing so is often misplaced. The key, primary purpose of zoos today is not to help the animals as much as possible, but rather to earn as much profit as possible. This is because the money gained from visitors is necessary for the zoo to pay for rent, food, maintenance costs, and also the salaries of the workers. This means that it is in the best interest of zoos to implement the course of action that earns itself the most profit, even in the instance where it is not in the best interest of animals in the zoo. Thus, zoos are more inclined to breeding animals that are more popular amongst visitors, although it may not be the animal that is in the most dire straits of becoming extinct. The safety bubble provided by zoos eventually harms the animals when they are repopulated – on top of that the nature of zoos being profit-motivated hinders its ability to protect and conserve the animals that needs the help the most.

In addition, the zoo’s supporters propound that animals can be a source of entertainment and education for its visitors. Youngsters who are interested in animals would visit the zoo, and from there, exhibits will be able to educate the public on the different types of animals in the zoo. This aims to raise awareness about the plight of endangered animals, such as the giant panda. However, on a first, level, using animals for our own enjoyment is inherently unjustified. Just because human civilisation is more powerful and has greater capabilities, does not mean that they should be allowed to enslave animals and put them on display. On the contrary, it means that humans should have a greater responsibility to take care of the natural habitats that these animals belong to – as declared in the Spiderman series, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. Just as how humans are given their right to movement and the right to bodily autonomy, animals should be no less deserving of these rights. Humans, after all, are just scientific extensions of other animals. Hence, it is not justified for people to limit the rights of animals just to use them as a means to our own entertainment and enjoyment. Furthermore, aiming to use the zoo as a means to educate the population about animals is largely ineffective. Young children that go to the zoo are not interested in finding out more about the history and numbers of these animals, but contrary to this, look out for exciting shows that animals trained to perform. This means that zoos tend to appeal to the emotional needs of the children, as Andy Baker, senior vice president for animal programs at Philadelphia Zoo, admitted. Not only are zoos disinterested in disseminating information about animals, children themselves are more likely to be interested by that ball trick performed by the seal in the tank as compared to the dry, boring signage describing its geological descent and its plummeting numbers in the sea. Evidently, keeping animals in their small enclosures is not only unjustified, it does not achieve its supposed end of educating the population about the dire situation faced by animals.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions – granted, the intentions of zoos today may be well and good, however it is incapable of providing the needs of the animals that consist it. Zoos today cannot provide the space, nor the environmental condition that most animals are used to, and even if they could, the over-comfort provided by zoos cause animals to lose their instincts in the long term, and they will be unable to adapt back to the harsh environment when repopulated. Rather than trying to protect them in zoos, it would be much more effective to protect the animals by preserving their natural habitats and prevent the poaching of these animals, which are a key reason for their condition


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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.