By Katie Marsico
Like so many other zoo patrons, my family adores the dolphin show. After all, each performance is testimony to the animals’ intelligence and grace. On the other hand, I’ve had the uniquely rewarding experience of watching the same aquatic mammals rocket through the Gulf of Mexico unrestricted. Visiting the zoo undeniably allows me a more up-close-and-personal encounter, yet I can’t help but wonder if ocean waves afford these brilliant creatures distinct advantages, such as freedom and a more natural environment. In truth, my contemplation is simply a mirror of the age-old debate surrounding zoos. What do proponents and opponents have to say about the advantages, disadvantages, and realities of zoo life, and which side is right?
One of the leading arguments zoo critics often voice is that these institutions confine animals to inadequately sized cages that can’t compare to the healthier, more natural atmosphere of their wild habitats. Lindy Greene serves as a press officer for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, based out of Woodland Hills, California. Greene adamantly asserts that zoo residents do not live in optimal circumstances.
“While I know that many zoos have come to replace formerly small cages with larger enclosures that simulate natural habitats, the latter can never truly be duplicated,” she insists. “Climatic phenomena, migration patterns, foraging conditions, herd dynamics, mate selection, mother-infant interactions, predator-prey relations, and food-web hierarchies are impossible to faithfully reproduce.”
Jeff Williamson, president of the Arizona Zoological Society of the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix acknowledges that there are obvious distinctions between captive and natural environments. But he also insists that zoos frequently house and care for animals that would not independently thrive in nature.
“The vast majority of animals in zoos have been born in captivity and exchanged between cooperating institutions to assure genetic viability,” he explains. “Some animals come from rehabilitation organizations or agencies that have confiscated them. These creatures are therefore unfit to be returned to the wild. In addition, most zoos have full-time vets and receive a tremendous amount of specialized support from the private veterinary community.” For zoo residents treated with the high standard of care that Williamson describes, their natural surroundings seem riddled with unavoidable threats in comparison to confinement. But do the dangers of poachers, hunters, and dwindling natural resources outweigh the benefits of freedom?
Karen Dawn is the founder of DawnWatch, a website that provides electronic news alerts related to animal welfare. She is also the author of Everything You Wanted to Know about Animal Rights but Were Afraid to Get into a Fight About. While Dawn offers insight into both sides of the great zoo debate, she also attests to the potential conservational benefits of these institutions.
“As humans destroy natural habitats, just leaving animals to live in what is left and die when it is gone is not in their best interest,” she says. “It is our responsibility to provide large alternative habitats, whether they are called zoos or sanctuaries. These environments must be clearly designed to take into account all of the animals’ needs in relation to their physical and emotional well-being, as opposed to merely enabling their survival.” Williamson adds that some species have flourished as a result of their placement in zoo programs.
“The Arabian Oryx exists in the wild because of zoo-sponsored captive breeding. The same holds true for the Black-Footed Ferret, the California Condor, and the Mexican Wolf. Zoos work incredibly hard to protect and recover challenged species.”
Lisa Wathne, however, does not share this perspective. Wathne acts as a captive exotic animal specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Virginia, and concludes that there are more effective ways to promote conservation.
“While zoos spend time and resources acquiring cute and charismatic animals to attract patrons, entire populations that may be endangered or threatened are often ignored. The large sums of money wasted on captive breeding would be more responsibly directed toward legitimate conservation groups working to reduce the main factors contributing to the decline of species in the wild. These include habitat loss, poaching, and capture for circuses, the pet trade, and—of course—zoos.”
For those zoo supporters who disagree with Wathne regarding the link between captivity and conservation, there is also the issue of education. Williamson emphasizes that there is often much more to zoos than recreational spectacle. Docents and interactive exhibits help patrons of all ages obtain information about animals that might not otherwise be readily accessible. As Williamson and his fellow zoo proponents argue, this in turn furthers awareness and regard for other living things.
“Zoos host experiences and increasingly create opportunities for the public to participate in care giving and conservation,” Williamson says. “There are many different types of media available that broadcast information about animals, and there are undeniably countless wonderful schools that teach biology and the sciences. Zoos are distinctive, however, as informal experiential learning centers with a focus on our relationship with the rest of life.” But Wathne claims that zoos inherently spread a dangerous message to visitors.
“Zoos claim to educate people,” she says, “but they are teaching the wrong lesson. Namely, they’re saying that it’s acceptable to tear animals away from their families and homes and put them on display for our amusement. Most patrons usually spend only a few minutes or seconds at each exhibit, and they’re generally seeking entertainment rather than enlightenment.”
The controversy surrounding zoos’ educational value, as well as their role in conservation and quality of environment, will undoubtedly continue for years to come. It’s a similarly safe assumption that everyone from average members of the public to the most learned experts will remain torn in their opinions. Frustrating as it may be to admit, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer as to whether zoos are good or bad, helpful or hurtful. As Dawn pragmatically assesses, “Some zoos provide for creatures’ basic requirements, and others do not. When dealing with animals, we should always try to imagine what we would want if we were in their place, remembering our needs are not exactly the same but bear several powerful similarities.”