One of the big dilemmas that many vegans face (myself included) is the issue regarding zoos: We want to see wild animals that we may never get to see, but we also don’t know how we feel about these animals being taken from their natural habitat and put on display for us to stare at. Now there are laws in place that state how big animal enclosures must be, how these animals are to be treated and how these animals are to be transported and cared for during the move between zoos. However, just because something is protected by law that doesn’t mean that it is inherently moral to do so.
Animal rights and zoos will always be a minefield because there are so many conflicting points to debate. So much so that you could write a 10,000 word essay on animals within captivity and the influence this has on their rights…which is exactly what I did for my undergraduate law degree! But for ease, I shall try and summarise the main points as best I can, as well as provide you with further information where you can read up on the matter and come to your own conclusion.
One of the big reasons to keep zoos part of modern society is that they could be argued to be a huge source of conservation for endangered animals. London Zoo, for example, carry out conservation efforts in nature reserves around the world, using part of the money they earn through donations and zoo tickets to fund these efforts abroad. But with all conservation, the real reason why conservation is needed is because the wild animals are being hunted to such an extent that they are now at the risk of becoming extinct. One could argue that the main issue regarding animal welfare is that the trade and hunting of animals needs to be (ideally) completely stopped and properly policed, which would then allow the animals in turn to rebuild their numbers naturally without the need for human interference. However as this is unlikely to ever happen (at least not in the next 20 years) conservation efforts allow zoos to help these efforts abroad while collectively looking for a better solution. You can read more on the London Zoo conservation programmes here.
This is very closely linked the conservation work, as most zoos run education programmes. These programmes help to educate their visitors and schools about the real life issues that are facing their favourite animals: deforestation, hunting, wildlife trade, pollution, human interference etc. All of these issues impact on animals in a variety of different ways, and for many people they would not know about this impact had they not learnt about it at the zoo. Now during university I actually worked part time at London Zoo (as a retail worker, not actually with the animals…unless you count the guests…) and it always surprised me how little people knew about the animals they were looking at. For many of the guests I spoke to, the zoo was their first real introduction to these animals as real life, living beings that needed our help. It is one thing to hear about the threat to tigers due to poaching in the news, but to actually see these beautiful creatures up close brings the reality to your doorstep. These animals do not want to be in captivity, but for many of them these animals have not known any different: They have been bred in captivity to keep their numbers up because their wild counterparts are being hunted to the point of extinction. By educating people to this nasty reality, zoos can help people take real action by donating to conservation efforts, volunteering abroad or by spreading awareness themselves of the issues that are affecting animals world wide.
Now of course this raises the other issue of breeding animals within captivity, only to keep them in captivity, but again these issues are so complex and have so many different aspects that require further research and debate, that one blog post would never be able to do it any justice! One big reason against animal breeding programmes in captivity is that zoos physically do not have the space to ensure that the animal gene pool is varied enough in order to help those animals survive in the wild. You can read more about these issues here.
Lack of natural behaviour
Another thing that really struck me while doing my research is how different animals react to life in captivity. It may seem quite obvious: prey animals thrive while predatory animals tend to suffer more. For prey animals, in the wild they are – naturally – hunted for food by the bigger animals and thus do not tend to live very long lives. Therefore in captivity, with this threat of being eaten removed, they can surpass their usual life expectancy. Plus with all of this extra free time they’ve now gained (since they no longer have to fear for their lives every day) they are free to play, explore and mate as much as they wish, meaning that when you see them in the zoo they are most likely displaying their very natural behaviours that you are less likely to see in the wild.
The predators on the other hand do not display this behaviour. When I worked at the zoo, I sometimes got to work near the lions, and people were always upset that these lions were not running around and roaring 24/7. To which we would always reply ‘why would they?’. (PSA: Lions do not roar unless in a fight, but they do make strange howling noises at dawn. If you are ever near Regents Park at about 6/7am, listen closesly and you may actually be able to hear the lions morning alarm!) In the wild these predatory animals would usually have to walk vast distances every single day in the hunt for food, but in captivity this food is delivered to them, every day at the same time, and so they have no need to hunt. And also, let us not forget that lions are called big cats for a reason, and when was the last time you saw any cat do something that it didn’t absolutely have to do? If my cat is lying close enough to her food, she sometimes won’t even stand up to eat. This is why you do not see many big predators in captivity: The longest a Great White Shark has ever been kept in captivity was 198 days, and this was only because it had to be released for eating the other sharks in the exhibit with it. While I am all for education, I somehow don’t think a child needs to see another creature ripped to shreds by a shark.
Another big issue that keeping predatory animals in captivity raises is how to feed them. Many large predators eat whole other animals in a day or two, and this puts a massive strain not only on the zoo to be able to afford to supply such food, but also on the animals that are being killed needlessly to feed an animal that does not need to be in captivity in the first place. As we saw with our friendly shark above, most sharks feed off of seals, turtles and other large fish, which would not only be hugely costly to have imported into the zoo on a weekly basis, but also counterproductive: why pay money to help turtle conservation efforts while simultaneously paying for turtles to be captured and killed to be turned into food for your zoo animals? While this example is a bit extreme, it does raise the question of the needs of the few or the needs to the many: Is it better to let one animal die out in the wild, or let hundreds of less endangered animals die to support it in captivity? This is not an easy question to answer, and it is essentially an issue that needs to be debated in an entirely separate blog post, but it is still important to think about this issue and to research if there ever could be a happy medium.
For those who do not go to zoos for moral reasons, nature reserves could be the happy alternative that combines the best of both worlds. The animals are kept in relative freedom (i.e, they are not confined by cages but their territories are limited to the space of the reserve) and yet people are still able to visit and to see these animals in a more natural setting. Nature reserves also bring with it their own levels of protection, in that hunting in national reserves are (for the most part anyway) illegal. There can be some work arounds, but for the most part the animals within nature reserves are protected from any poachers and are a big source of tourism: People will travel far and wide to see an animal in their natural habitat, and this in turn provides money, jobs and continued support for the countries with nature reserves and the communities around them. Nature reserves still help to educate people, and help with conservation efforts, while allowing the animals within them to live almost entirely free of any human interaction or interference. But it does also allow for humans to step in when needed, to patrol the boundaries for any poachers, to provide veterinary care whenever an endangered animal becomes sick. Nature reserves therefore help to provide a healthy balance between humans helping animals to survive while still allowing them to live free and natural lives.