Zoos are an important and highly valued cultural institution of the civilized world; the 10,000 zoos found around the world are often claimed to be responsible for many of the conditions by which we learn about wildlife, ecology and a number of other attributes (Paskesen, 2014). To that end, the idea of releasing animals from zoos would change a fundamental aspect of our civilization, particularly regarding the welfare of animals. However, given more recent, modern concerns about the welfare of animals, and the reevaluation about the utility and benefits of zoos as a sanctuary for endangered species, it may be necessary to revisit the issue of keeping animals in zoos.
Given recent evidence that animals do not fare much better in zoo environments than in the wild, along with a number of other factors, it becomes increasingly clear that zoos are, for the most part, not a good place for animals (Paskesen, 2014). The chief concerns about animals being forced to live in zoos involves the welfare of defenseless creatures, who are at the mercy of a far superior and controlling force (i.e. humanity). The act of holding animals in captivity (particularly in zoo contexts) is barbaric, and should be prohibited as a practice.
Firstly, wild animals are intended to be out in the wild, and the conditions of zoos prevent them from realizing that destiny in a substantial and healthy way. There are many notable examples of animals who suffered and died inherently from the experience of being held in captivity. Bears, in particular, are an especially hostile species to place in a zoo; they do not thrive well in artificial environments, and some bears in captivity (like New York's Central Park Zoo's bear Gus) demonstrates "highly ritualized, seemingly neurotic behavior" that showcases his unique dissatisfaction and stress in living in such an environment (Lemonick, 2006). These behaviors are known as ‘stereotyped’ behaviors, and are often thought to be due to poor welfare for these animals, using them as a coping mechanism for their stifling environments. Stereotypical behavior in elephants and other zoo animals comes from the need to expend the excess energy that is given to them as a result of their metabolisms; when this is no longer possible, these particular tics and patterns begin to emerge. These stressors and neuroses are also thought to lead to brain dysfunction and, in some cases, death in these captive animals (Paskesen, 2014).
Elephants are one of the species most hurt by the cramped conditions and limited accommodations afforded to them by zoos; this level of confinement often leaves them with just a few acres of room to move, interacting with fewer companions than they would out in the wild (Lemonick, 2006). There are many medical hazards to this level of confinement, as elephants "are prone to arthritis, foot problems and even premature death" in zoo conditions (Lemonick, 2006). While zoos do attempt to give elephants as much room as they can, the space required to keep an elephant population healthy and active is simply too much for a zoo to realistically accommodate.
The evaluation of zoos for the welfare of their animals is often done erroneously, making it hard to truly measure the effectiveness of these institutions. Because of the overt emphasis on measuring and identifying specifically 'poor' welfare conditions, some zoos are confused for having 'good welfare' because of this absence of transparently 'poor' conditions (Melfi 575). Furthermore, conservation and welfare efforts are hampered by a poor understanding of the ways animals are affected by their conditions, since we can only relate to them in very limited, human ways. There may be other factors that affect animal health and welfare that we do not even see; as we can only measure these animals sense of well-being by a human-based, limited definition, it is impossible for us to create an ideal, healthy environment for these animals (Melfi 576). Because of these knowledge gaps, it becomes even clearer that we do not as yet have the capability to properly care for these animals and look after their welfare.
Conditions in zoos are atrociously inadequate for the health and safety requirements these animals have, thus making it ethically wrong to subject animals to such conditions. In research assessments of conditions in zoos, it has been found that many mammal species are placed in enclosures that do not correspond to the requirements of size, scale and conditions provided by law (Borda, Popescu and El Mahdy 1). This led to substantial behavioral and psychological problems with the animals affected, including a behavioral disorder in a wolf enclosure, typified by a 'stereotyped walk' that came about because of a lack of space (Borda, Popescu and El Mahdy 1). Space is important for animals in a psychological sense, as they need the ability to hide from animals; when they are not given the ability to 'hide' from visitors in captivity, this can cause substantial psychological stress.
In addition to being kept in cramped paddocks with much less space and company than they should have in order to be healthy, there are also issues of infection and disease as well. The Humane Society notes the high risk of E.coli infections in animal attractions, including zoos and petting zoos (Humane Society, 2009). This poses an incredible danger to animals and humans alike, as the risk of contact with wild animals (who may carry a number of diseases) is too great to truly justify. Furthermore, the close proximity of many different kinds of animals can also lead to similar instances of infection. The CDC notes that approximately 73,000 people become sick from E.coli each year, with approximately 60 fatalities - at least seven cases so far have been tracked to petting zoos and other instances of human-animal contact (Humane Society, 2009). Because of the immense risk of infection, it becomes increasingly clear that animals should not be kept in zoos.
There are already considerations by many zoologists to phase out larger animals like elephants and giraffes from zoo populations altogether, citing their conditions as nearly unsustainable (Lemonick, 2006). Another factor to consider is the essential change in climate many zoo animals receive; moving a desert animal to a cold-weather region of the world (like Detroit) can be disastrous and unhealthy for the animal, creating adverse climate conditions that no amount of technology or climate control can truly account for (Lemonick, 2006). While some smaller zoos simply choose not to house those animals that would not fit into that climate, larger zoos (like the St. Louis Zoo) are expected to keep animals and environments for the sake of visitors and notoriety (Lemonick, 2006).
In addition to the dangers of infection, animal welfare and overcrowding, the conservation efforts of zoos are ineffective. Few zoos are able to successfully integrate animals back into the wild, hampering their ability to survive and thrive as a species. It is claimed that "less than 3 percent of the budgets ofaccredited zoos go toward conservation efforts" (Fravel, 2003). Other measures place an average of 5% on the institutions they have measured, stating that even a 10% budget allocation to conservation "may be insufficient for a mission" (Miller et al. 89). Considering the billions of dollars that goes into exhibit design, marketing and advertising, such a small amount of money dedicated to what should be the zoo's sole purpose is somewhat disingenuous and not in keeping with the spirit of conservation (Fravel, 2003).
Furthermore, there are many zoos that operate outside the auspices of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) who spend nothing on conservation (Fravel, 2003). Despite the ostensible goal of many zoos to save species from extinction by keeping them protected in a safe place such as a zoo, this does not sufficiently address the problems of the zoo's conflict of interest with regards to conservation. Since many of these zoos are difficult to regulate, and some must also operate primarily as for-profit institutions, the fiduciary conflict between keeping zoo animals in cramped, economical conditions and treating them well may be too much for some institutions to tolerate. In short, many zoos may favor profit over welfare, intentionally keeping their precious wildlife in poor conditions for the sake of profitability.
The issue of conservation in a collection-based institution such as zoos can be complicated, as the effectiveness of conservation efforts has been to be truly measured given the short-term nature of these initiatives (Miller et al. 88). While the scientists and staff of a zoo are skilled and accurate at cataloging biological diversity, it is difficult to use that in conservation efforts since "the problems of nature have become too immediate" given the continual degradation of environments (Miller et al. 89). Many institutions even forego the act of advocating for conservation altogether, in order to keep themselves as apolitical as possible to keep donations and tax funds coming in (Miller et al. 89). In the end, since the conservation component of so many zoos are so small, the efforts they put in are not nearly enough to truly justify the costs in wildlife welfare and taxpayer money towards keeping these animals captive in zoos.
In addition to the issue of conservation resources, the very act of conservation after raising wildlife in a zoo is shown to have mixed results. In the last 100 years, "only 16 of 145 reintroduction programs worldwide ever actually restored any animal populations to the wild," many of these being attributable not to zoos, but to governments (Fravel, 2003). In many cases, attempts to reintroduce zoo animals back into the wild have been met with disaster, as they have not been properly trained and acclimated to the experience of living in the wild. To that end, a substantial investment in time and money has been wasted, benefiting neither the human investors nor the animals involved. There is also a cultural fallout that occurs with zoos with regards to conservation; rather than increasing public interest, some argue that the presence of zoos make conservation feel like a problem that is already being solved without the help of the public. Since zoos exist, they instill a "false sense of security in the public mind," in which conservation as a global problem is being taken care of, leaving them off the hook to do anything about it (Fravel, 2003).
Naturally, there are many reasons to consider the maintenance of zoos, as they are thought to provide a plethora of benefits to humans and animals alike. The educational value zoos provide is claimed to be substantial, as these facilities serve to teach people about these animals. Zoos are said to be the "third most trusted messenger of wildlife conservation and environmental issues" (Fravel, 2003). The goal of many zoos is not necessarily to keep the animals alive and healthy, but to "inspire visitors to care about wildlife and the habitats that nurture it" (Lemonick, 2006). However, given the life-endangering nature of many of these zoo environments, this appreciation for wildlife seems hypocritical - teaching people to appreciate wildlife while slowly killing the animals they use in their name. There are also studies that show that visitors are "uninspired and uneducated" by zoos, visiting populations feeling disillusioned by the outdated nature of the enclosures, lack of space, and poor living conditions (Fravel, 2003). To that end, even the issue of zoos as a sufficiently entertaining and educational environment for children is a controversial one that merits further consideration.
Zoos are also said to benefit the animals as well, as the controlled situations of a zoo often keep endangered animals safe from extinction when placed in captivity. On the surface, zoos do live up to their promise of conserving and sufficiently raising young members of endangered species for reentry into the wild. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) has noted more then 2,230 conservation and research projects taking place in the more than 200 AZA-accredited zoos in the United States (Fravel, 2003). To this day, zoos continue to be at the forefront of wildlife conservation efforts and work to raise public awareness of further conservation efforts (which can then drive donations and public interest). However, the number of 'good zoos' are thought to be insufficient in number to make up for the wasteful efforts of others (Fravel, 2003). Furthermore, given the ineffective outcomes of reintroducing animals into the wild, the true benefits of conservation efforts of zoos (without, at the very least, a major administrative overhaul and reallocations of budgets) remain to be seen.
While there are some who also lament the poor conditions many of these animals live in, some argue for the possibility of simply giving animals better living conditions. There have been efforts to give animals as many natural conditions as possible, replacing "concrete-and-steel cages that resembled prisons" with more organic-looking environments (Lemonick, 2006). However those are more for the visitors' benefit than anyone else, in order to provide the illusion that they are looking at the wild animals in a microcosm of their natural habitat. They do not really provide a benefit to the animals whatsoever, as the primary issue is that of size, scale a population - these enclosures are simply too small and too sparsely populated for large wild animals to gain the social and physical development that they need to thrive, particularly if they are released from captivity.
Given these arguments, and the evidence that has been provided, animals should not be placed in zoos because it violates a number of ethical principles regarding the treatment of animals. Despite the educational value of zoos, there is no ethical reason to keep animals in captivity unless under the strictest context of preserving them from endangerment or extinction. Zoos merely serve to keep animals in captivity under terrible conditions, which can often lead to sickness, death, and even the extinction of the species at hand, while offering not nearly enough educational value to justify the substantial risks taken. In order to address these issues, a number of initiatives should be introduced, comprising anything from allocating more money from the budget to conservation to simply refusing to house animals that are unsuited for the climate and the living conditions they will be livign in.
In spite of the honorable intentions of zoos and their efforts towards conservation and public perception, their effects are not nearly sufficient to justify the dangers they put their animals in, essentially wasting a great deal of money in order to ineffectively protect species and attempt to entrance a disinterested public. To that end, the best option is to severely limit, if not prohibit, the keeping of wild animals in zoos - conservation efforts could instead be allocated to the world's animal sanctuaries or major zoos that have the space and budget capabilities to effectively care for the animals as they need. While zoos are considered a major cultural institution, the true consequences and effects of these facilities needs to be reevaluated - when the purpose of zoos is to keep animals safe and display them for curious audiences, substantial changes must be made when none of these purpose are sufficiently being honored.
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