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.