Zoos and aquariums bring about a lot of controversy. They’re good for education and research purposes, but bad as they take animals away from their natural habitat and put them in enclosures. (Zoos and aquariums will be referred to collectively as zoos).
Of course, there are ‘good’ zoos and ‘bad’ zoos, but how good are the good ones, and how bad are the bad ones? Do the pros outweigh the cons, or should we be leaving these animals in their natural habitats?
Recently, National Geographic posted an article about 18 elephants that are planned to be moved from Swaziland into 3 US zoos.
The reason why is that they are believed to be crowding out rhino and other animals, and would be shot anyway. The zoos say that the addition of new elephants will “improve the sustainability of elephants in North America” through breeding programmes, along with improving zoo attendance.
Problems arose when a Seattle Times reporter looked into US zoo elephant statistics, finding that 50% of all the US’s zoo elephants die at half the age of wild elephants. These elephants typically die from injuries or diseases related to captivity. African elephants are classified as endangered, and under CITES, import of animals should not be detrimental to their survival or be used primarily for commercial purposes. The decision on whether to import these animals will be made between the US and Swaziland.
This particular example pulls up a couple of problems linked with zoos. Are they detrimental to each individual’s health and wellbeing? It is very clear that the space available to zoo animals is only a fraction of the amount they would have in the wild, affecting their sense of freedom and stimulation. Size also impacts on the amount of individuals that can realistically be kept in an enclosure, which then impacts on individuals’ social bonds. This was something that was brought up by PETA when investigating SeaWorld’s orcas. Problems facing captive orcas have recently been brought up in the documentary film ‘Blackfish,’ which could be suggested to have started the snowball effect looking into the alleged abuse these animals undergo.
However, zoos can have positive impacts. Most notable among these has to be reintroduction programmes. Paignton Zoo in Devon has been working on a reintroduction programme into Cornwall for the Cirl Bunting. This little bird had become increasingly rare in the UK, becoming restricted to Plymouth and Exeter. in 2006 the programme began, with the first breeding pairs being reared in Paignton and released. There are now over 50 breeding pairs in Cornwall and they have spread into parts of Devon.
Some zoos are the last place of refuge for some animals. Species that have been pushed to extinction in the wild can be kept alive in captivity. The Scimitar-Horned Oryx has been extinct in the wild since 1999, primarily due to hunting for its horns, but are still breeding successfully in Chester Zoo (UK), Werribee Open Range Zoo (Australia), Attica Zoo (Greece) and another 214 institutions around the world. In 2008, there were 1703 registered individuals. Reintroduction programmes have been planned and put in place, but their success is yet to be seen.
Zoos are also a place of education. They inspire children to have an interest in wildlife, educate the public on current conservation issues and provide a learning experience for schools and universities. In recent years, zoos have been making their conservation efforts very clear, with species’ conservation statuses being visible on signs, emphasis on breeding programmes and possibilities to ‘adopt’ an animal so that the public can contribute.
It would seem that for some animals, zoos are not good. Some species are simply not suited to be kept in zoo environments, and may thrive better from in situ conservation. But for other species, they provide safety from extinction, and even chances of reintroduction. They are places that can educate people so that more species can be saved. The question ‘are zoos good’ is not a simple on to answer.