Why you should forgo zoos – and Zoo Lights

Maddie Smith, Chief Editor

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For centuries, many have found entertainment in exploring zoos. Zoos have always been assumed to be harmless, beneficial even; however, this is unfortunately not the reality. Zoos, past and present, domestic and foreign, misrepresent truths and values to the public and eliminate any conservation effort if profit is threatened or compromised.

We pass exhibit after exhibit, rarely spending more than a few minutes glancing at the animal behind bars. We assume they are happy. After all, they need not worry about finding food or avoiding predators. Our assumptions are devastatingly wrong. The vast majority of zoo animals show symptoms of animal psychosis, such a pacing, biting, and other repetitive behaviors, and as a result are put on antidepressants or tranquilizers. This psychosis and other mental illnesses can be attributed to the lack of space and artificial environments zoo animals live in.

“Zoos keep animals alive, but they can’t maintain all of the behavioral or social aspects of these species in their current enclosures,” captive wildlife specialist and author Rob Laidlaw said.

For example, the standard zoo enclosure for elephants is 1,800 square feet. Considering elephants walk up to 50 miles a day in the wild, the estimated minimum size for a suitable enclosure would need to be at least 100 acres. This life of confinement touches countless species.

“Zoos as institutions are deeply problematic,” science historian and author Laurel Braitman said, “[A polar bear in Central Park Zoo] was forced to live in an enclosure that is 0.00009 percent of the size his range would have been in his natural habitat. It’s impossible to replicate even a slim fraction of the kind of life polar bears have in the wild.”

Many defenders of zoos argue they educate the public on animals they otherwise would never see, however, zoos offer little if any educational benefit. These animals can’t behave as their wild counterparts. Their captive birth and or artificial environments don’t allow genuine interactions or behaviors. It’s much more educational to watch films of these animals living and interacting with their natural environment. This way, the true nature of the animal is not only seen, but education of the geographic place is relayed as well.

The common facade of zoos is carefully presented with emphasis on conservation efforts. They claim they fund conservation efforts and facilitate conservation directly by breeding animals in captivity. Both claims are substantial misrepresentations of the truth.

David Hancocks was a director of several zoos joined with Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for over 30 years. He has estimated less than 3 percent of the budgets of the 212 zoos affiliated with AZA is spent on conservation while billions of dollars go toward extravagant exhibits and marketing to attract visitors. Hancocks asserts most zoos not affiliated with AZA give nothing to conservation efforts.

“Sadly, too many zoos are playing the fiddle while forests are cut and burned. They are putting their creativity into self-congratulatory messages rather than into tackling the big, bad, really ugly problems that exist in the wild,” Hancocks said.

Additionally, and despite what zoos say, captive breeding does not help conservation efforts or endangered species. Animals bred in captivity cannot be successfully released into the wild because they can’t learn or develop the necessary behaviors or instincts needed to survive.

“To fill their exhibits, zoos either breed animals or remove them from the wild. And that leaves a trail of money behind each individual animal as it moves from one enclosure to another along the long chain of captivity, bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to other commodities that are traded under global capitalism including slaves and human trafficking,” said Dr Margi Prideaux,  international wildlife policy writer, negotiator and academic with 25 years of experience in conservation.

Contrary to popular belief, captive animals do not have longer lifespans. In fact, it is quite the opposite: average deaths are higher and lives are shorter among zoos animals compared to their wild counterparts, even though they don’t have to search for food or avoid predation and inclement weather.

In conclusion, skip the zoo! There are alternatives! Watch award winning wildlife documentaries, or if you insist on seeing these animals firsthand, find true animal sanctuaries or rehabilitation centers. As for the popular light shows put on by many zoos, there are plenty of arguably better light festivals put on by other non-zoo institutions. Find below information on local light shows in which you don’t have to support the cruelty of zoos.