(Updated August 19, 2019). Most of us have visited a zoo at some point in our lives. For animal lovers, a family day out at the zoo at first seems like an easy and enjoyable way to get up close with some of our favorite creatures. But should a tiger, elephant, or monkey really be kept in an enclosure for human entertainment?
According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), they shouldn’t. Keeping a tiger or a lion in a cramped cage is detrimental to their physical or mental health, and it’s not always safe for humans either.
In the wild, a tiger may roam for hundreds of miles, in a zoo environment, this is simply not possible. This forced confinement can lead to boredom and a mental condition called “zoochosis.”
If you have seen an animal exhibiting stereotypic behavior such as rocking, swaying, or endlessly pacing in an enclosure in a zoo, it’s likely they are suffering from this condition. According to PETA, some animals even chew on their own limbs and pull out their fur leading some zoologists to administer antidepressants to the animals.
Gus, a polar bear at the Central Park Zoo who was euthanized in August 2013 due to an inoperable tumor, was the first zoo animal to be prescribed Prozac. He would infamously swim in figure eights around his pool — sometimes for up to 12 hours a day, according to Slate — or stalk children via his underwater window. His abnormal behavior earned him the nickname “the biopolar bear.”
Depression isn’t exclusive to land animals. Marine mammals like orcas, dolphins, and porpoises kept in marine parks like SeaWorld are also vulnerable to experiencing severe mental health problems. As vegan journalist and activist Jane Velez-Mitchell ponders in a clip for the 2016 exposé “Blackfish,” “if you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?”
Tilikum — the late male orca subject of the documentary — allegedly killed three people in his life in captivity, two of whom were his own trainers. In the wild, an orca has never attacked a human. Many believe the constant frustration during the orcas life in captivity drove him to carry out the attacks.
While big cats have attacked people in the wild, in a zoo environment, there is perhaps more room for accidents to happen. In March 2019, for example, a woman was attacked by a jaguar after climbing a barrier at Arizona Zoo aiming to take a selfie with the animal.
The zoo has refused to put the jaguar down, maintaining that the fault lies with the woman for climbing the barrier. As the zoo itself acknowledged after the attack, the jaguar is a wild animal, behaving how a wild animal instinctively behaves.
Are Animal Sanctuaries More Ethical Than Zoos?
Unlike a zoo, a bonafide animal sanctuary does not buy or breed animals. Its sole purpose is to rescue, care, rehabilitate, and protect animals that can no longer live in the wild. For example, Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand rescues and looks after animals that have been abused by the elephant tourism industry in the country.
Its elephants come from a variety of backgrounds, including street begging, rides, and circuses. The animals can no longer be released back into the wild, so they are cared for peacefully by the volunteers at Elephant Nature Park, where no bullhooks — a sharp metal hook attached to a long pole — are used to control them.
How to Tell the Difference Between a Zoo and an Ethical Sanctuary
Some zoos — particularly roadside zoos — use the word “sanctuary” in the title in a bid to mislead consumers to believe the establishment is more ethical than the reality.
Roadside zoos are particularly popular in the U.S., where animals are often kept in cramped concrete cages. They are also dangerous for customers, according to the Guardian, in 2016, at least 75 roadside zoos were selling hands-on interactions with tigers, lions, primates, and bears.
“The number of roadside zoos that have tacked on the word ‘sanctuary’ or ‘rescue’ to their names has skyrocketed in recent years,” says PETA. “Kind people are naturally drawn to places that claim to rescue animals and offer them sanctuary, but many of these outfits are nothing more than breeders, dealers, and exhibitors exploiting the public’s goodwill and generosity.”
“The fundamental purpose of any legitimate animal sanctuary is to provide animals with safe, comfortable living conditions that give them as natural an existence as captivity allows,” the animal rights organization continues. “No legitimate animal sanctuary breeds or sells animals. No reputable exotic-animal sanctuary allows any kind of ‘hands-on’ interaction, and that includes taking photos with animals or taking them out on the road for public display.”
If you’re not sure whether the establishment you’re planning to visit is a genuine sanctuary or a zoo, do your research.
Try to find out how the animals are housed, whether it offers animal encounters, and how big it is. You should also look into whether it has a breeding programme, but the best thing you can do, according to PETA, is to trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel or seem ethical, it probably isn’t.
ThoughtCo notes, “the important factor to consider is whether we are exploiting the animals or rescuing them. Shelters and sanctuaries rescue animals, while pet shops and zoos exploit them. It’s really very simple.”
Is the Future Zoo-Free?
Are we heading towards a zoo-free future? Perhaps.
A recent report found hundreds of zoos accredited through the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums regularly mistreating animals — including making big cats perform, elephants “play” basketball, and chimpanzees wear diapers while riding scooters.
The animal entertainment industry has taken huge strides in recent years; a number of countries have banned circuses that use wild animals, and a number of major travel companies have ceased promoting elephant rides, fake tiger sanctuaries, and SeaWorld due to animal rights concerns.
Whilst many zoos are currently standing strong, as more consumers become concerned about the welfare of animals, others are bowing under pressure. Last August, New York’s controversial Buffalo Zoo shut down its elephant exhibit. According to international animal protection organization In Defense of Animals (IDA), the zoo made the list of “10 Worst Zoos for Elephants” multiple times.
Last February, Japanese aquarium Inubasaka Marine Park was forced to close as its ticket sales fell dramatically. In its prime, the aquarium received 300,000 visitors a year, but as more people became aware of the mistreatment of its animals, this dropped to 40,000.
According to Time, scientists and consumers alike are now more aware than ever of the lives of animals, and how they can feel and suffer. It notes, “many experts think that zoos need a major overhaul if they’re going to last.”
The magazine continues, “study after study has shown that many animal species are far smarter and more feeling than previously understood, giving new insights into how they may suffer from anxiety and depression when they are removed from nature.”
“That has forced a difficult existential question,” it adds. “If we acknowledge that creatures suffer when they’re confined, should they be held in captivity?”
Some researchers believe that virtual reality may eventually replace the zoo industry. People could enjoy getting up close and personal with wild animals, without having to actually leave their home to go to a zoo.
Justin Franci, the CEO of Responsible Travel — the first company in the UK to drop zoos from its itinerary — has written to Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, asking him to consider developing the idea of an iZoo, aka a virtual reality zoological experience.
“Not only will iZoo be a lot more interesting and engaging than animals miserably sitting in cages, it also a more humane way to raise money for wildlife conservation,” he said. “It will create a business model that can exist for the next 100 years, attracting today and tomorrow’s children who will visit with good conscience.”