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Are Zoos Bad for Animals?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 21, 2024
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Zoos have existed since ancient times, and were features of the great courts of Egypt and China. The display of exotic animals was long a show of wealth and power, and a testament to the far reaching arms of empires. Today, zoos focus on the conservation of animal species and the education of the public. Yet critics suggest that animals should not be kept in confinement, that some organizations participate in unethical work, and that the idea of a zoo is detrimental to the cause of conservation.

Some animals are distinctly unsuited for life in a zoo, however noble the aims of the organization. Keeping elephants in captivity has long sparked controversy among animal rights activists. Elephants in the wild roam constantly, covering a wide swath of territory on a daily basis. In captivity, having no choice but to stand still for long periods of time puts severe strain on the legs and feet of these giants, leading to chronic injury in some captive animals.

Yet elephants are a threatened species in their native environments, heavily poached for ivory, leather, and meat. In order to protect the species from extinction, some experts feel that captive breeding programs may be the best strategy for future survival. Many elephants in captivity were rescued from circuses, saved from natural disasters, or removed from the wild due to injury or abandonment. Zoo proponents rightly ask, should these animals been left to die or euthanized, rather than placed in captivity?

One problem in assessing whether zoos are good or bad for animals is uncertainty over proper animal treatment. While in a perfect world, all zookeepers would be ethical experts with advanced knowledge in their field and a passion for their work, in truth, animal cruelty in zoos may happen accidentally or intentionally. The ethics of zookeeping is a tricky subject, which is why many zoological societies use a third-party observation method to keep zoo standards high. Still, because the minds and needs of many animals remain such a mystery, it is difficult to tell whether the captive creatures are happy or not.

Studies have clearly shown that captive animals will live longer and be more active in an environment close to their native surroundings. Chances are, if a zoo has nothing but cement and metal exhibits, the animals will not do as well. Many prominent zoos now actively construct exhibits that allow animals freedom of movement, a variety of habitats and toys, and native foliage. Some zoos have even begun housing species together that normally interact in the wild, such as certain types of monkeys.

Ensuring that animals are not isolated is thought to be another major point of quality in assessing a zoo. Few animals are truly solitary for their entire lives, and many, like penguins, survive in part by the family dynamic in the wild. Research has shown that some animals will pine for a lost family member or mate, and can slip into ill health due to what appears to be loneliness. Keeping animals in groups that resemble packs or pods in the wild seems to improve the quality of life for captive animals; to do otherwise is to fight billions of years of instinct.

Zoos are not a perfect solution for conservation; they can be improved endlessly as we better understand how to treat animals. They are undeniably helpful in repopulating dwindling animal species and encouraging a conservationist outlook, but they are unquestionably primitive in their treatment of some animals. Hopefully, animal activists and zoo proponents will continue to work together, finding ways to create the best environment for captive animals in breeding and repopulation efforts, rather than squabbling over whether zoos should exist in the first place.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do animals in zoos suffer from psychological issues?

Yes, animals in zoos can suffer from psychological issues such as zoochosis, a condition characterized by repetitive and abnormal behaviors. These behaviors, often stemming from stress or boredom, include pacing, bar-biting, and self-mutilation. According to studies, such as those by the Animal Welfare Institute, these issues are more prevalent in animals kept in environments that lack enrichment and space.

Are there any benefits for animals living in zoos?

Zoos can provide benefits for animals, especially for endangered species. They offer breeding programs that help increase population numbers and genetic diversity. Zoos also provide medical care and nutrition tailored to each species' needs. Educational programs in zoos raise awareness and can inspire conservation efforts, as noted by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

How do zoos contribute to conservation efforts?

Zoos contribute to conservation through breeding programs for endangered species, reintroduction initiatives, and habitat preservation efforts. They also fund and support field research. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums reports that accredited zoos and aquariums spend over $160 million annually on conservation projects worldwide, aiding in the survival of many species.

What is the impact of captivity on animal lifespans?

The impact of captivity on animal lifespans varies by species. Some animals, like certain reptiles and birds, may live longer in zoos due to regular feeding, absence of predators, and veterinary care. However, larger mammals, such as elephants and orcas, often have shorter lifespans in captivity compared to their wild counterparts, as documented by scientific research.

How do modern zoos address the physical needs of animals?

Modern zoos aim to address the physical needs of animals by creating habitats that mimic natural environments, providing enrichment activities to stimulate mental and physical health, and ensuring proper nutrition and veterinary care. The best practices, as outlined by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, include ample space for exercise and social interaction tailored to each species.

Can zoo animals be successfully reintroduced into the wild?

Reintroduction of zoo animals into the wild can be successful, but it is complex and depends on various factors, including the animal's health, survival skills, and the state of the wild habitat. Success stories exist, such as the reintroduction of the Arabian Oryx, which was once extinct in the wild. However, according to conservation experts, these efforts require careful planning and long-term commitment.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for AllThingsNature. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon338316 — On Jun 12, 2013

I think well-funded, modern zoos are great! I see lots of comments about exhibit space. Good zoos try their best to mimic an animal's natural surroundings. Though an exhibit may seem small to a visitor, they may not realize an animal may also have off-exhibit space and other holdings that are much larger. They are only on exhibit eight hours a day. For that short period of time, they are shifted into an exhibit where visitors can get a chance to learn about these animals and experience their amazingness.

Modern zoos also support conservation locally and globally. Modern zoos that have undergone the rigorous inspections of the AZA ((Association of Zoos and Aquariums) are strongly encouraged to give at least 3 percent of their annual earnings to support conservation.

Zookeepers are also well educated and are constantly learning the best husbandry practices for the animals they are responsible. A zookeeper is a very competitive job and the best applicant is selected for a job, often competing with hundreds of other individuals. Those individuals often have degrees, sometimes masters or a Phd, and a wealth of experience and knowledge they can bring to their new job. Zookeepers are very hard-working and educated.

I also find it important to exhibit endangered animals and those that are not endangered. Captive care of these animals can provide zoos with opportunities for staff and guests to learn about an animal's biology and perhaps find ways to conserve the species before they become a threatened species.

It is a shame we have kept animals in zoos for thousands of years, but the practice of removing animals from the wild for exhibiting no longer exists, unless in special cases such as orphaned animals or other medical reasons where they cannot take care of themselves in the wild. Most zoo animals were born in zoos, as were most of their parents. It is now their job to serve as animal ambassadors for their species and show their majesty to the visiting zoo patrons, in efforts to encourage zoo guests to be inspired to support conservation and sustainability in their own way. And the best way to show your support is to simply visit your local AZA accredited zoo, pay your admission, respect the animals and learn!

By anon326032 — On Mar 19, 2013

I think zoos are great for animals because if they are in the wild, they risk the fact they will die of starvation or thirst or maybe even killed. Zoos give them a place to be where they can have food and water and to be cared for when they are sick or in need of help. Even though they are in captivity, it's a much better place to be than in the wild.

By anon244456 — On Feb 01, 2012

So are they bad or not? Yes they are. They are only good when the animals are endangered.

By anon241690 — On Jan 19, 2012

Zoos are bad but animal sanctuaries are good.

By anon161878 — On Mar 21, 2011

@bbpuff when animals breed, it is to help their species.

By bbpuff — On Sep 21, 2010

@abiane - I am really on neither side for this debate. I think the article is really discussing whether or not zoos are bad for animals. Zoo hours are often long and can effect animals in many different ways. Imagine living in a home that is much to small for you and being forced to breed. What would you do all day?

By abiane — On Sep 21, 2010

@Pimiento - This is a very debatable subject simply because it's kind of controversial. While many zoos don't require a degree, you should remember that even having a degree doesn't mean you know everything and I believe that a lot of knowledge comes from on the job experiences and training. Just because more prestigious zoos like the SanDiego Zoo or the London Zoo want you to have a degree, that doesn't mean you know all the intricacies of properly caring for animals.

By Pimiento — On Sep 21, 2010

Many people who get zoo jobs aren't qualified to be there or to care properly for animals. While many larger zoos, like the London Zoo require that you have a degree in Zoology some of the smaller places do not and this is a big problem.

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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