Are Zoos Necessary?

By Thornton W. Blease

Have you ever wondered if we should accept everything from the past without a challenge?  Should we accept the good, bad and indifferent all twirled together like a fruit smoothie medley that accumulates in layers, and smothers each succeeding century?  Cultural practices clutter our world, existing because, "We have always done things this way."  Cultural and technological advancements, as well as the maintenance of status quo are made because, as humans, we have the ability to pass conclusive information to the next generation.  This was the case with zoological parks, or zoos, as they are commonly known, up until the last decade or two.  We've kept animals locked in cages since early civilizations.  They were kept for the amusement of man, without consideration to the welfare of the animals.  They were fed and housed improperly, and were gawked at like we gawk at TV today, that is, we were indifferent to their needs, both physical and psychological.   According to the Worldwide Zoo Net website, the first zoo can be traced back as far as the 1500 B.C. in Egypt, which was built under the leadership of Queen Hatshepsut, and in 1000 B.C, the Chinese founded The Garden of Intelligence under the emperor Wen Wang (Worldwide Zoo Net).  As other civilizations developed, they began to keep exotic collections for the curiosity of royalty.   The Greeks established zoos to study animal behavior, in fact according to the Australia Western Plains Zoo website one of the most notable Greek zoo teachers was Aristotle.  Then, also according to the Australia Western Plains Zoo website, in the 18th century zoos proliferated in Europe and became more public-like menageries existing for the display of animals to visitors for amusement (Australia Western Plains Zoo Website).

However, zoos have changed dramatically over the past few decades since the enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Fine Travel Website). The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS acknowledges, "That zoos serve a demonstratable purpose in the long term benefit of animals." (HSUS)  Zoos now assume multiple responsibilities from education programs that increase the public's awareness on the need for conservation and preservation of habitat, captive breeding and reintroduction of endangered animals, to providing research on preservation of animals in the wild.  Thus, in light of this evolution from places to entertain, to scientific institutions dedicated to education, conservation, and research, particularly critical areas of research that focuses on genetic diversity, zoos are now necessary.  They are necessary not only for the future survival of the animal species, but to provide a connection, a human-animal bond with all animal species.

Many zoo opponents believe that zoos are not needed in today's society citing that it is depressing to see animals confined to cages.  These opponents, including animal rights groups such as PETA, Born Free Foundation, and Animal Liberation League, believe that pictures are an adequate substitute to viewing live animals.  They believe that zoos ought not to exist because they are fundamentally wrong, and thus, according to Zoologist Byran Beltram, they say that "Fine modern films and television programs make zoos unnecessary."  I agree that confining animals to cages is depressing.  In fact, since visiting the Amazon rainforest in Peru, I shudder when I see parakeets in cages as I can visualize a flock of parakeets, free flying ornaments soaring like vivid flowers in the brilliant blue sky overhead.  Yet, I realize that the same birds can provide love, companionship and education to many.  Confinement of animals in zoo exposures, like paying taxes, is a necessary evil; at this time, they serve a greater purpose in the preservation of the animal species by "maintaining viable captive stocks of animals as a safety net against extinction in the wild," (Beltram) a feat that neither pictures, nor film can accomplish.

Complaints, such as too small or unnatural exposures in today's modern zoos, demonstrate that we cannot accept, we cannot believe, we cannot take at face value everything zoo opponents argue because zoos have changed.  Natural habitats with larger living conditions are now the norm, particularly with AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) accredited zoos.  Visitors of AZA accredited zoos today are more likely to find exploring trails, mini habitats teeming with life that lead through densely planted jungles and exhibits with surprisingly realistic habitats for the natural-sized groupings.  This new design ethic is called landscape immersion, a philosophy in which animals are given living conditions that replicate as close as possible their natural habitats. In fact, Virginia Smith reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer reported May 19, 2006 that "flora to fit the fauna" was evident with the new Big Cat Falls that recently opened at the Philadelphia Zoo.  The animals were given an environment to remind them of home with more than 300 species of plants (Smith).  My experience with the Big Cat Falls, a green castle with the sun illuminating the plants, clarified landscape immersion in my mind.  With the new approach utilizing landscape immersion, complaints of improper feeding and inadequate animal exposures causing undue stress on the animals are being addressed and eliminated.  Since proper feeding and diets are being developed through research, and proper veterinary care is provided, animals are living much longer than in the wild. (Clarke)  Exposures are becoming more appropriate for the animals, often at the expense of the zoo visitors because the animals now have more room and foliage for camouflage. This reduces the stress of the animals in captivity.  With landscape immersion and education programs, zoos demonstrate the complex interdependence between plants and animals that have evolved over millions of years, which are now increasingly vulnerable because of pesticide use, habitat loss and decreased biodiversity.

The complex interdependence is not as evident, nor as understandable in picture form.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but being able to see, hear and smell the real live animals and a simulation of their natural habitat will lead people to understand that we need to help preserve what limited natural environment that is left in this world.  As we increasingly browse the World Wide Web rather than observe a spider spinning a web, are exposed more to rap than a bird song, and spend more time in shopping malls than meadows, we need zoos more than ever to rekindle the love and respect for wildlife. That is, interest that goes beyond TV documentaries or IMAX movies, especially since zoos are being managed in a way that critical aspects of the animals mirror their wild counterparts.  For example, the replication of the African Savannah at a zoo provides us with knowledge of the complex interdependence of animals and their ecosystem.

While the exposure changes are obvious, what may not be obvious are the changes made to address the arguments that zoo critics make regarding the fact that zoos may consider diet and habitat, but fail to view the animals holistically, considering the psychological aspects of their well-being.  Critics believe that no attention is considered to acoustic comforts, soft lighting, behavioral and psychological needs.  Since these needs are not met in an obvious way, many critics do not see the work that zoos provide in these areas.  For instance, upon visiting the Philadelphia Zoo, I learned from the zookeepers that they researched, and found that naked mole rats preferred rock music and the giraffes preferred jazz, and thus provide them with their acoustical pleasures.  The lighting is softened, and many behavioral techniques are employed to engage their minds.  Zookeepers are providing enriching habitats by mimicking aspects of their life in the wild.  One technique utilized to challenge the minds of animals in captivity is to hide food. This daily enrichment, having to search for their food, instead of delivery to them like room service at the hotel, stimulates the work that they do naturally in the wild to forage and find their food.  Zoos are giving animals the opportunities to express their species typical range of behaviors.  Every animal has its own repertoire of behaviors, and zoos help provide habitats to perform those behaviors.  Gorillas, chimpanzees and baboons take part in more challenging activities such as feeding tubes-either bamboo or paper towel tubes, filled with popcorn, raisins, cereal and peanut butter hidden inside.  They have their food hidden inside cardboard boxes, which when empty provide entertainment.  At the Philadelphia Zoo, primates can be seen paging through the telephone book that was laced with honey on select pages.  Slowly, their rough fingers caressing the flimsy paper, they turn page by page as if they were reading a suspenseful Stephen King novel, until a honey page is found, and then they tear out and consume the page, as if they were characters in the same novel.  In some zoos, other animals such as horses or llamas occupy the Tiger's exposures at night.  "Roar!"  During the day when the tigers are returned to their exposure, they are interested in searching for the smorgasbord of scents left by the nighttime guests.  The list of behavioral techniques grows and will continue to grow exponentially as research provides more clues.

With conservation of animals and their habitats, zoos are crucial in preventing extinction.  In fact, one can refer to zoos as the new Noah's Ark, with their breeding programs.  Animals are bred for other zoos as well as to place back into the wild, since the Washington National Zoo joined scientists in Brazil two decades ago in a revolutionary captive breeding and reintroduction program of the Golden Lion Tamarins.  The Golden Lion Tamarins are monkeys whose native habitat, the Atlantic coastal rainforests of Brazil has been largely depleted. In fact, according to the Singapore Zoo Gardens website, by 1990 140 captive bred golden lion tamarins have been reintroduced and have produced 95 offspring."(Singapore Zoo Gardens)   Michael Klesius in June 2006 National Geographic reports that since 1992 a coalition of zoos and takhi conservation groups put back 200 takhi, or Prezwalski horses into Mongolia.  The takhi are Asian equids that were previously extinct in the wild since 1969.  They are the only remaining wild horse specie left in the world.  Other "wild" horses are merely feral, once domesticated species (Klesius). Can you imagine the sight of this horse galloping across the Gobi Desert and the Mongolian Steppe, its natural habitat?  Smithsonian writer, Laura Tangley, in the June 2006 edition of its magazine, reported the success of the zoo Panda breeding programs.  It has been a long, difficult road with its surviving captive bred panda, a culmination of ten years of research between American and Chinese zoos.  Pandas are difficult to breed and when born, weigh about a quarter pound, the weight of a stick of butter, thus have a low survival rate.  Thus, Tangley concludes, "the most important reason for keeping pandas in captivity beyond public education and research is to prevent extinction in the wild." (Tangley)  The research conducted at zoos helps us understand how we can best preserve the animals in their natural habitat.

Along with the breeding programs, zoos are crucial in selectively strengthening the gene pool.  Cheetahs, for example risk becoming extinct, because not only their habitat is dwindling, but also cheetahs are inbreeding and becoming weak as a specie.  Other species are also beginning to suffer genetically as man is eroding their habitat away, because not only the quantity of land is diminished, but also the ability to migrate into other "genetic" pools is being diminished as man builds its civilization between two wild places.  Zoo research is selectively selecting the gene pool.  This led to the founding of the species survival plan (SSP) of the AZA (American Zoological and Aquarium Association) in 1981.  Its purpose was to ensure cooperative breeding programs for selected rare species in zoos of North America, and a list of species with a detailed SSP can be found on the AZA website (American Zoo and Aquarium Association). The main opposition to captive zoo breeding according to Animal Liberation Website, one that I have to agree with, is that unless habitats are preserved, the endangered animals being bred in zoos will not have anywhere to go (Animal Liberation).   Therefore, it is important to note that in addition to selective breeding, responsible zookeepers try hard to prevent unwanted births.  For example, the Trexler-Lehigh County Game Preserve utilized birth control when herds of Bison increased.

Zoos educate the public, particularly children about animals and their habitats.  With the general understanding of nature decreasing precipitously as people become increasingly separated from the natural world, and more reliant on technological and domestic environments, as children speed along the information highway barricaded into an urban lifestyle instead of really walking along country lanes, zoos are becoming the link to nature.  One is not interested in the sacrifice it takes to protect what he does not know, therefore, the emotional ties created while observing live animals at the zoo can become a voice of protection as zoos educate about the animal's vanishing habitat. Or, perhaps the education at the zoo will encourage children to choose one of the numerous animal careers, as zoos open doors to the love of animals.  Besides careers at the zoo, one can engage in one of the many diverse professions related to animals, such as animal training, veterinary medicine, zoology, genetics, or as naturalists to protect our natural wildlife.

Discussions, initiated at the zoo are opening dialogue regarding the conservation of wild animals: How much?  Where?  When?  At what cost?  For the specific benefit of which species or ecosystem?  These discussions are not done by dissecting its parts, but as demonstrated in the AZA zoos, interrelatedness of environment, different species and the interrelatedness of the environment and different species within nature. Zoos educate by demonstrating the wisdom of John Muir, a famous conservationist, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe," (Muir 110) and William Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." (Shakespeare iii3)

Zoos also teach what exotic animals are and what it takes to raise them. This education is important so people stop buying exotic animals as pets.  So often, what happens is that these animals are quickly discarded when the people realize all the work involved.  Our animal foundation, Common Sense for Animals, has received sugar gliders, native to Australia, an African spur tortoise, and savannah monitor lizards from well meaning, but uneducated individuals who did not realize the amount if work entailed to raise these animals.

In the process of saving a local county run zoo, the Trexler-Lehigh County Game Preserve that was to be closed down because the county commissioners were "tired of running a zoo," I discovered other valuable reasons to support the necessities of zoos.  Zoos not only are a wonderful location for family outings and family bonding, but they are a way a community bonds.  Zoos provide the opportunity for local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to complete community projects at the zoo. Community pride is elevated and economic rewards are brought to the area.  Economic rewards are not limited to jobs, but also business to local merchants such as restaurants, hotels, ice cream stands, and gas stations as zoo visitors travel through the area.  In the case of the Trexler-Lehigh County Game preserve, the community rallied to support the zoo, because the zoo was part of the local resident's family memories.  We flooded the county commissioners email mailboxes and filled up the community room when meetings were held.  The zoo was part of past family memories, and we fought to continue the tradition with our own families as well.

So while there are some that believe that the animals are better off extinct than confined to cages, I do not.  Although the ideal place for all animals is in the wild, zoos are becoming a less stressful place for animals to reside.  Places where respect and dignity are key, animals are living longer in captivity than in the wild, which is important as habitats are diminished and extinction is a threat.   Animal rights groups such as PETA and Born Free Foundation, leading and misguiding the public with slogans like, "Better dead than captive bred," (Hutchins) unlike the logic based Animal welfare groups, can express their views that animals are better extinct than confined, but agreeing with the United States Humane Society, I will continue to support ethical and respected AZA accredited zoos because extinction is forever. Zoos are necessary; if animals are left alone to defend themselves in the wild, they will become extinct.  Until we change our lifestyles and values, and slow the massive levels of predadation, we are currently inflicting on the natural world, as more and more humans move into areas, snaking their way with their insidious suburban sprawl, decimating wild animals and plants at proportions that defy belief, zoos provide a safe haven for the species.  With 9000 species of birds driven into extinction since 1600 (Bryant), and presently 1,212 of the 9,775 birds species , one out of every eight are threatened with extinction (Larsen); almost all big mammal species are in serious trouble, such as the black rhino with 96% of its members eradicated in the past 20 years, in fact the population went from 65,000 to 2,400 from 1970 to 1990 (African Wildlife Federation),  and 1/3 of the world's 226 turtle species threaten with imminent extinction (Jackson), zoos are the answer to maintain the animal species that we have, reaching an urban audience that needs to become more aware of the real need for wildlife conservation. In other words, zoos are necessary because they unite and educate the community, providing understanding of the interdependence of animals and their habitat, as well as conduct conservation programs of animals in the wild, including breeding programs to reintroduce extinct and endangered species back into their natural environment.

Works Cited

African Wildlife Federation Headlines and Highlights. June 28, 2004.

 American Wildlife Federation. 7/31/06.

American Zoo and Aquarium Association.  2006. American Zoo and Aquarium Association. 7/31/06.

Animal Liberation Organization. Zoos. 8/12/06.

Australia Western Plains Zoo. Judith Henke. 1998. Melbourne Zoo. 7/31/06.

Bertram, Byran. "Misconceptions about Zoos" Biologist. 2004 51 (4). 8/12/06.

Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book. Peter J. Byrant. 2005. University of California Irvine. 7/31/06.

Emptyskies: World's Birds at Risk. Janet Larsen. December 2005. Earth Policy Institute. 7/31/2006.

Good Zoo Guide Online. Jon Clarke. 2005. Good 8/1/06.

Help for Endangered Animals at Super Zoos and Aquariums. Louis Bignami.2005.Fine Travel.8/1/06.

Hutchins, Michael. "Better Off Dead than Captive Bred?" American Zoo and Aquarium Association. June 2004. 8/12/06.

Jackson, Jeremy B.C. "What was Natural in the Coastal Oceans?" (NAS Colloquium)  Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences. 2002.

National Academy of Sciences. 7/31/06.

Klesius, Michael. "Mongolian Horses Run Free." National Geographic. June 2006:26.

Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Virginia A. Smith, Inquirer Staff Writer. 5/19/06. Philadelphia Inquirer.75/31/06.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Comedies (Literary Classics). New York: Gramercy Books (Division of Random House Publishing), September 10, 2002.

 Singapore Zoo Gardens. 2004. Singapore Zoo Gardens Docents. 7/31/06.

Tangley, Laura. "Learning from Tai Sham." Smithsonian. June 2006:77-82.

World Wide Zoo Net. 8/1/06.

Zoos.2006.The Humane Society of the United States.7/31/06.







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