Should zoos exist?

With the number of species that are declining or disappearing altogether, many believe we are in our 6th mass extinction. There are a number of conservation efforts being put in place to try and alleviate the effects of climate change and anthropogenic activities. Zoos have become increasingly involved in conservation work. That said, the debates surrounding whether zoos should be used as a viable technique of conservation are also increasing. This article looks at some of the pros and cons presented by zoos as a conservation method splitting them into 3 headings; effectiveness to achieve its goals, efficiency and the moral reasoning.
Effectiveness of achieving goals
While in the past zoos primary function was to entertain, satisfying human’s curiosity for the exotic, today most zoos have four main objectives – entertainment, education, scientific research and conservation.

Entertainment – involves people paying to visit the zoo to see animals that they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to. This brings in the money which the zoos use to achieve the other three objectives. Many zoos are now registered charities meaning that any profits are put back into the conservation and scientific efforts.

Education – is becoming more and more important in zoos. In an aim to educate the wider population about different animals, where they come from and their status, zoos have a huge range of educational material available ranging from information plaques on the animals’ enclosures, special exhibits for select species, to collaborating with schools and universities and providing educational courses. Education doesn’t stop there however, often zoos have schemes to educate the communities found near the animal’s wild habitat leading to in-country conservation. That said however, there are issues with education. Zoos have be criticised for focusing too heavily on the education of children and non-decision makers, and not enough on educating policy and law makers. Furthermore, while we know zoos provide a range of extensive education services there has been little research on just how much of the knowledge is absorbed. If zoos continue to be seen as purely places of entertainment they may be underutilised.

Scientific research – having the animals under controlled conditions provides opportunity for much needed species observation. A number of studies have taken place in zoos such as looking at the relationships between climate change and animal health.

Conservation – zoos will often have captive breeding schemes to encourage the survival of species’ populations. These are extremely thought out and therefore fairly complex with the collaborative effort between zoos to ensure as much genetic diversity as possible. As zoos are unable to sustain entire populations, this leads to ‘meta-populations’ with the movement of animals between countries. While this is vital, it can be hindered by various exotic animal import and export policies. As well as off-site/ex-situ conservation efforts, today’s zoos often have on-site/in-situ conservation as well. This entails conserving species in their natural habitat. While there is less control when working in the natural environment, there are a number of positives such as conserving entire ecosystems and therefore other species. New and innovative conservation methods are always appearing, such as the new EDGE species programme ran by ZSL which focuses on species that are of evolutionary importance but have had very little conservation attention in the past.
Efficiency in running
Cost – Zoos are very expensive in comparison to other prominent conservation methods. For instance, maintaining an African elephant or rhino is roughly 50 times more expensive than conserving them in national parks. It would be more financially beneficial to develop captive breeding for small bodied species. However the larger flagship species, which may not be in the ones in most need of conservation, are the most popular to the viewing public.

Staff– In the past zoos have been criticised for having staff that do not have enough knowledge of the broader issues the animals are facing. Experts in veterinary science or biology may have little knowledge of the wider ecological issues which are key for conservation. More integrated understanding of the surrounding issues may increase the efficiency in the running of zoos. Furthermore, studies have shown that there has been a lack of communication within zoos between different ranking staff such as between the rangers, scientists and administrative staff causing differences in values, ideology and practice.

Waste – zoos use up a lot of resources and produce a lot of waste. Exhibitions have to be lit and heated and the animals given fresh bedding and food regularly. Zoos often also have a number of shops and cafes and produce should be sustainable and ethically sourced. In recent years the push for zoos to become more sustainable has increased. For example some zoos, including Jersey Zoo in the US, are using the waste from animals to fertilise their organic farms to produce food for the animals.
Moral reasoning
• While philosophy is in no means my strong point, I think there are two ruling arguments of moral obligation towards animals. Firstly, zoos have criticised for keeping animals in captivity. Animals are taken from their natural habitat across long distances to alien and restricted environments effecting feeding and social behaviours. Treating animals this way could be argued to be disrespectful and immoral. Questions as to whether the poor treatment of a few individuals is worth the survival of the species have been raised.

• That said however, we also have a duty to do what we can to save failing species. Many of today’s extinctions are due to human activity so it is our responsibility to ensure species’ survival. Furthermore, it could be argued that animals have a better experience in zoos as many exhibits are naturalistic, animals are feed regularly, and they experience longer life spans due to lack of predation or disease.
Personally, I believe that zoos can only be justifiable if involved in conservation and breeding. If species are failing in the wild zoos are needed to provide support, sometimes being the only reason some species have not yet gone extinct. Over the last few decades zoo policies and aims have evolved considerably and will continue to do so in a society were conservation efforts are more and more valued, with zoos continuing to play a key role. However, the debate is continuous and the issue complex – so what do you think, should zoos exist?

(All photographs taken by Abi Gardner at Chester Zoo)

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Abi Gardner

I'm a Ecosystem Services (MSc) student at The University of Edinburgh, with a background in Environmental Geography. I'm passionate about ecology, biogeography, environmental management, sustainability and climate change.

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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Agnes says:

    In my opinion, zoo should still be run. Because, zoo is a place that protects the extinct animals. And also as a turnover if one day the protected animals are completely extinct and can’t be found where they ought to live. Zoos also serves as a means and infrastructure for children to learn and know the animals that are inside their storybook. So, our next generation still can see the extinct animals☺

  2. Avatar Novia Ayu Lestari says:

    In my opinion, we still need zoo , considering it as a place to educate people, to give charities , sciencetific research , and others .
    But we have to remember that zoo is not supposed to be an amusement place . Zoo has to focus on conservation or research activities . And zoo supposed to have good facilities and staffs to realize better conservations

  3. Avatar Isis Merkley says:

    I understand this article and it has helped me with research I am doing now. I am grateful.

  4. Avatar pam siddons says:

    However many David Attenborough films a child watches, TV can never communicate the sound, size, smell and sheer presence of a large animal. It’s something every child should be able to experience.
    If a small number of animals have to be kept, kindly and with as much expertise as possible, in captivity – so be it. One of those children may be inspired to save a whole species.

  5. Avatar Andrew says:

    In my opinion no species on earth should sit behind a cage! I understand that species have to be be captured for scientific purposes and breeding reintroduction programmes but this should be done close to its own own territory or environment. It certainly should never have to endure the confusion and horror of unnecessary transportation to a British zoo just for human pleasure. At the end of the day, zoos are businesses that make money and that is what the government would rather protect. Wildlife, and human compassion for wildlife always comes second to money and business.

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