What’s Wrong With Zoos?

If we believe that the oppression of people and other sentient beings, is wrong, can we justify having zoos?

What’s wrong with zoos?  Do we have good reasons for taking animals out of their natural habitats, transporting them great distances and keeping them in captivity? Or should zoos be abolished?

Early zoos were set up primarily to entertain, and this remains an important function of zoos today. As a child I rode on an elephant at a zoo and enjoyed watching animals perform circus-style tricks. I remember staring in fascination at caged animals, especially enjoying seeing the cute or funny ones. I didn’t question the morality of this then. Likewise, in Victorian times, people saw nothing wrong in paying to gawp at the inmates of mental institutions.

Attitudes change. Although amusement is still an important function of zoos to keep them financially viable, few people would argue now that entertaining the public is in itself a good reason for having zoos. Many zoo directors and administrators agree. They cite education, research and conservation as more laudable aims.

But do zoos educate people about animals?  Surely any educational benefits in visiting zoos could be obtained by other means which don’t involve the confinement and exploitation of animals, such as films, talks, debates, and so on?

What about the benefits of research? Zoos do useful behavioural research, some might say. An obvious problem here is that environment affects behaviour. There is no evidence that behavioural research done in zoos provides more useful data than research carried out in natural habitats by organisations such as the Born Free Foundation.

Studies on anatomy and pathology are the most common form of zoo research, often with the aim of gaining knowledge about human ailments. Several problems exist with this. Many animals are difficult to work with or breed, so numbers of animals for study are limited. The strict rules about what experiments may be carried out on animals in zoos probably means more could be allowed and learnt from humans undergoing clinical trials. In any case, animal reactions to tests are often not applicable to humans.

Many zoos do little or no research. There is no evidence that benefits obtained from zoo research can justify the existence of the vast majority of zoos.

Conservation is often given as a reason to justify having zoos. Zoos, it is said, save endangered species from extinction. Research by Born Free in 2000-2001 indicated that 95 % of all species or sub-species in zoos were not categorised as endangered. Furthermore, breeding programmes, even in the best of zoos, are beset with high mortality rates and other problems. The lack of genetic diversity means that the surviving captive animals of endangered species have different traits from wild animals. What, then, is actually being preserved?

If, because of our exploitation of the environment, some endangered species can now survive only in zoos, perhaps it’s worth considering whether it might be better to allow such species to become extinct.  Importantly, shouldn’t we be giving urgent attention to how we human animals can stop damaging the environment in ways that threaten species survival and animal welfare?

Are zoos really committed to conservation if they continue to remove more animals from the wild than they return? As Daniel Turner, a chartered biologist with a background in conservation, says: ‘Can the reintroduction into the wild of a handful of captive-bred species justify the lifelong incarceration of millions of wild animals in thousands of zoos?’

It would be easier, though missing the point, to argue a case for closing only those zoos where animals are confined in cages and kept in appalling conditions, leading to distressing behaviours seen only among captive animals. The Zoo Check Programme of the Born Free Foundation regularly receives hundreds of photos of animals suffering in zoos here in England and around the world. How can anyone doubt that this is wrong?

But we need to go further than that and question the notion that animals are here for the benefit of humans. Is it okay to take animals from the wild, providing we give them adequate enclosures and enough food? Is it okay to keep slaves, providing we keep them well-fed, warm and comfortable? The whole concept of keeping wild animals in zoos is flawed.

Of course it would be impractical to abolish zoos all at once, but they could be gradually phased out by a policy of non-breeding and non-replacement.

As Dale Jamieson says:

Zoos teach us a false sense of our place in the natural order. The means of confinement mark a difference between humans and animals. They are there at our pleasure, to be used for our purposes. Morality and perhaps our very survival require that we learn to live as one species among many rather than as one species over many. To do this, we must forget what we learn at zoos. Because what zoos teach us is false and dangerous, both humans and animals will be better off when they are abolished.

So, to return to my opening question. What’s wrong with zoos? Can we really, in all honesty, say there are good reasons for keeping wild animals in captivity? Absolutely not.


‘Against Zoos’ by Dale Jamieson. In Peter Singer (ed) ‘In  Defence of Animals’)

The Born Free Foundation

6 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Zoos?

  1. Well I think it’s a convincing case – potected zones where animals can roam free, and people can respectfully go see them, is obviously a better way. But I think your piece poses another question. Are we right to keep pets? Inevitably we either restrict them to cages or we train them to behave more like us. Do we have the right to do that? Or use them as for instance as guides for blind people? You can argue they are well treated, but they don’t get to choose. By answering one question, for me you opened several others. Terry

    • Are we right to keep pets? That’s a good question, Terry. Most pets are the result of many years of inbreeding, causing them to have become dependent on humans, with no natural habitat where they can return. In an ideal world, perhaps nobody would have pets as the situation wouldn’t have arisen in the first place. But it has and I think we need to be realistic and compassionate. There are plenty of homeless and abandoned animals and I would certainly prefer that they be taken in and looked after properly as pets than left to suffer.

      ‘Working’ animals, including guide dogs for the blind, are, again (as are pets) an example of the (questionable) notion that it’s okay to utilize animals to meet human needs. Although guide dogs have no choice, it does seem to be a mutually beneficial relationship between dog and owner. The unique bond of friendship and trust that can come about through owning a pet or a guide dog may foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of other species.

      I think there are valid arguments on both sides about pets and ‘working’ animals. I suppose I’m sitting on the fence here. Sorting out a consistent set of moral values is so damn complicated! Nothing is black or white!

  2. “you pose so many questions that the truth is hard to find”
    Thought provoking article….what about pesky urban fox?
    I agree over time zoos should be phased out but can not imagine pets or working animals losing their ‘roles’.
    What are your thoughts about the seemingly aggressive and predatory nature of many wild and domesticated animals?

  3. Animals behave instinctively in ways that are natural for them and necessary for their survival. This doesn’t mean that humans with a developed sense of morality and reasoning should do the same as non-human animals.

    As for the pesky urban fox – well, the one that spoils my back garden annoys me, as you know! I won’t harm it, but I just don’t want it using my garden as a toilet. We’ve made the fencing higher using mesh. I know foxes can climb and jump but we figured if we made it more difficult to get in, it might not bother.

  4. the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog?!!

    Sadly history shows humans don’t appear to have well developed morals or reasoning, nor do I think that the ‘natural’ instincts of some animals justifies humans utilising them at their whim, for food, experimenting, working or as pets, however I know it’s an area where I compromise.

    Hey, we could always blame that snake in the garden for the dilemma!!

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