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What is Zoochosis?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Zoochosis is a term used to refer to a range of psychological problems associated with animals kept in prolonged captivity. This term is most widely used by animal rights activists, who argue for better living conditions in zoos, if not abolishing these facilities entirely. Among zookeepers and conservation professionals, there is a growing awareness of captivity-related psychological problems among animals, and most reputable zoos and conservation parks today have extensive programs in place to enrich the environment of their animals in the hopes of avoiding the onset of such problems.

The word is a portmanteau of “zoo” and “psychosis,” reflecting the fact that some captive animals do indeed become psychotic. More commonly, zoo animals exhibit signs of extreme depression and related psychological conditions as they struggle with the confines of their captivity. Zoochosis can occur in both captive-bred and wild-caught animals, and it appears to be fundamentally rooted in boredom and frustration. The condition is made much worse in zoos with poor living conditions or abusive keepers.

A number of symptoms can suggest that an animal is suffering from a psychological problem. As a general rule, multiple abnormal behaviors in any animal are used as indicators to suggest that the animal is experiencing difficulties, and these behaviors vary, depending on the species. Rocking, swaying, self mutilation, excessive licking, bar biting, pacing, circling, chewing, and neck twisting are all linked with zoochosis, as are abnormal eating habits, such as anorexia.

There are a variety of ways in which this problem can be addressed. Some animal rights advocates feel that animals should not be kept in captivity, using psychological problems as an argument to encourage zoos and conservation parks to release their animals. This is not always an option, however, as many zoos and conservation parks work with endangered species, and releasing the animals could condemn them to death, either because their native habitat is to damaged or because the animals are not capable of surviving on their own.

Building better habitats is one way to help prevent zoochosis, putting an emphasis on natural environments for zoo animals. Most zoos also enrich their enclosures with toys, puzzles, and learning games to keep their animals active and interested, and some have started creating more natural exhibits with a range of species, allowing animals to interact more naturally. Zookeepers may also engage with their animals directly, playing games with them to stimulate their minds and bodies.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon993986 — On Jan 04, 2016

Society is like a zoo. We are all captives here. We live this nine to five existence and are medicated to cope. Zoo animals are less discriminating in their commentaries. I don't think puzzles can help. The last things I want after a day of work is a stupid puzzle. My life is already like a puzzle. I'm sure the animals feel the same way. It also sounds like the symptoms of zoochosis are similar to some human disorders. A bit of forcing humans square pegs into round holes may be somehow related.

By anon980177 — On Dec 02, 2014

Has anyone considered that animals are a part of the evolutionary process and that if they are going to go extinct (regardless of how much that fault rests on the shoulders of humans) they they should be allowed to just go extinct?

What is the point of keeping a few of the most weak versions of an animal interbreeding in confinement, suffering from mental disorders just so that humans can look at them and say, "oh, well we didn't kill them all"? I think zoos are just as sick as all the people who have destroyed the natural habitats, but animals who are not capable of surviving with a plague like the human being in existence should be allowed to be extinct. Perhaps they are better off. There are plenty of humans who would rather be dead than go insane in confinement.

What right do humans have to decide what is in the best interest of any animal? Zoos are just another way humans justify their separation from the animal kingdom by ruling over it all -- and destroying it.

By anon971937 — On Sep 30, 2014

How ethical is it to destroy the natural habitats of animals and keeping them in captivity for the so-called prevention of extinction?

Shouldn't we focus more on preserving them in their natural habitats, rather than confining their freedom? If animals in zoos are becoming psychotic, why should we promote it? They should be phased out.

By anon951827 — On May 18, 2014

After reading all the posts, I feel that people have made up their minds without considering the consequences. I agree with the last two posts that point out several very important facts.

We as "intelligent" humans have the power to destroy or preserve a species either by over hunting or destroying their habitat. Sometimes the conditions are such that a zoo is the only answer until a more permanent solution can be obtained. I live in a rural community and I sadly watch as big money changes density limits to favor their pocketbooks, and destroy natural environments in the process.

By anon306395 — On Nov 29, 2012

Did anyone stop to think the writer could be biased? There are many, many zoos with the correct environments for each species and as said above without them and their breeding programmes, many of these animals would be dead in the wild or extinct. Maybe we should focus more of our negativity on people destroying the natural habitats!

By anon253975 — On Mar 11, 2012

Please research type of work that zoos do for conservation and preservation of animals, especially those that are endangered before you condemn them! They may need some work to better the experiences for animals but without zoos, many animals would be much closer to extinction!

By anon251126 — On Feb 28, 2012

My school is doing a "bundle" for reading and writing. I am in fifth grade and studying zoochosis. I feel bad for the poor animals and I think zoos should be put to an end. This article helped a lot.

By anon238929 — On Jan 05, 2012

This article has helped me a lot! My class is studying zoochosis and we have a debate on if we keep zoos or not but now I read this and I'm definitely voting for no.

By anon162514 — On Mar 23, 2011

This really helped me with my speech on zoos. Thank you! Great article!

By anon139448 — On Jan 04, 2011

Thank you, this has helped me with my debate on why zoos do more harm than good. I needed to know what zoochosis was, and you described it perfectly.

By anon80788 — On Apr 28, 2010

A great article, really helped me with my A level studies into zoochosis, thanks.

By anon70871 — On Mar 16, 2010

yes they are right. zoos should not be around and zoochosis is a form of insanity for animals. Now, rock on, animals. No to zoos.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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