I love animals so the rare chance of going to the zoo was always so much fun when I was growing up. Like so many others, it was my only chance to really see many of the animals in the flesh rather than on a screen or in a book. But on my last trip to the zoo a few years ago, I remember looking at a caged bald eagle and just feeling sad. Here are these amazing animals – caged in part for the entertainment and profit for people.
There are plenty of benefits for zoos and they can provide people a chance for a different way to learn about animals but research has shown that most people don’t spend long enough at each enclosure to really learn about the animals. Knowing that makes me wonder about zoos, especially in comparison that there are so many problems with them, including cases of animals not doing well in zoos and other forms of captivity:
- Gus, a polar bear from Central Park Zoo
- Kijito and other gorillas at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska (the linked article does have several gifs highlighting the repeated behavior of the gorillas)
- Ocras fighting each other at SeaWorld
And there are so many other examples of this issue but with that in mind, are zoos worth any of the benefits at the expense of the animals’ sanity and welfare? What kind of impact are we having on the individual animals in captivity and the environment they came from? Are we doing more harm than good with zoos? There are arguments in favor of zoos for various reasons and there are so many people working to provide the best care for animals in zoos. But for me, I’d argue that we are doing significantly more harm with them and more rehabilitative sanctuaries with larger living areas for animals should exist as a counter to the current zoos.
With all of this, I haven’t even touched SeaWorld and their treatment of orcas and other animals. The film Blackfish stirred up a lot of controversy when it came out – it tells the story of Tilikum, a performing orca that killed several people while in captivity. While there are many who celebrate the company’s decision to stop breeding orcas (one that was driven by profit and money rather than concern for the animals), there are others (particularly scientists) that lament the upcoming lack of scientific opportunity that comes with close up care. But there should be much better ways to study orcas that don’t involve ridiculously small living quarters and regular performances (again, going back to sanctuaries).
Plus there are issues of private ownership of exotic animals – people have been buying and selling various animals for generations but that doesn’t make it right or even okay. The exotic pet trade, like voluntourism, is a capitalistic goldmine and a billion dollar underground economy that’s barely regulated in many places. Turtles, African gray parrots, chimps, all sorts of animals are being bought and sold in truly horrible conditions, and in some cases this is after being stolen from the wild and their natural habitats. Pet trades have endangered the overwhelmingly adorable slow loris and while these primates are amazingly cute, it’s important not to participate in the trade because it’s incredibly harmful to an individual loris and the species as a whole.
This business puts animals in danger of disease, inadequate living conditions, and so much more. Even if the right people can intervene to stop a sale, there’s no promise that the animals will live. National Geographic has a piece about the exotic animal trade and highlights that fact – one raid of a US Global Exotics warehouse unfortunately and sadly included having to put down many of the animals found because they were in such poor health and condition.
We as a whole are doing a pretty terrible job at caring for the animals we share the world with in so many different ways. Amidst the benefits, places like zoos and SeaWorld have the potential to be harmful to animals kept in captivity. But the exotic pet trade is definitely incredibly dangerous to all kinds of animals around the world.