I have seen a distressing anti-zoo sentiment linger in social media so I wanted to make a few points about why zoos are absolutely necessary in modern society. To be clear, I am arguing against the stance that all zoos are unethical. I am not defending the for-profit freak show type of zoo, especially those with no conservation program. Instead, I am explaining my support for the many zoos I have had the pleasure of visiting: San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, St. Louis Zoo, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, Memphis Zoo, and Parque de las Leyendas in Lima. I focus on the importance of zoos as a way to bring the public and animals together, how this purpose fuels conservation in the wild, and also the idea that life in the wild is inherently better than life in captivity. I then end with ideas for making the best zoos even better in the future in light of recent events.
As an attraction for the public, zoos uniquely bring animals from distant places to visitors who otherwise would have little opportunity to witness in person. While zoos may not impart factual information to the public as well as they should, the experience of being in the presence of animals is profound. As part of my physical anthropology class, I have students watch the San Diego Zoo ape cam to observe unfiltered primate behavior. Some students opt to go to the zoo itself to do the assignment. Either way, though especially in person, I have had many students express how seeing non-human primate behavior live really showed them our common relations as primates and living things. My instructions state a minimum observation time of twenty minutes, but some students spend hours watching primates. I can show my students as many diagrams, photographs, and video clips of primates as I can fit in the semester, but those media pale in comparison to just being present near other primates.
My students’ experience that watching primates live is more impactful than learning about primates that live on another hemisphere is just one example of how people care more about what is close and less about what is far. Zoos cannot simply switch to an all-wild conservation plan because the funding depends on people engaging with and thus caring for the zoo representatives of these distant animal populations. If zoos did not exist, their associated conservation programs would also vaporize as most critically endangered organisms are out-of-sight-out-of-mind. This is why the biggest zoos place millions into renovation plans (besides updating their enclosures for the benefit of the animals): the hope is that the investment will bring in even more money to do the things that visitors cannot see out in the wild. A high profile zoo with ever-expanding exhibits can bring in money through attracting visitors from all around the world.
Regarding the unethical nature of keeping animals in captivity, I present another point of view just as unprovable as the idea that any captivity is mistreatment: being cared for in captivity is the best thing to happen to most animals. Considering the many dangers of living in the wild that are removed by living in a zoo: predation, habitat loss, environmental hazards, poaching, starvation – living in captivity has great benefits to one’s well being. Furthermore, the concept of wild versus captive is a human concept that other animals may not have. While it is impossible to probe the opinions of non-human animals to gauge their philosophical stance on captivity, from my point of view it seems that animals just deal with the situation they’re in without discriminating between free or not. It follows that animals would have no stance that being in the wild is naturally a better state of being than living in captivity, especially if being in captivity alleviates so many of their usual hardships.
Zoos can be improved to make them even more effective at their goals of education and conservation. The zoos that have lagged behind in updating their enclosures to the latest standards of providing comfort and stimulus the captive animals need to put the resources into upgrading. This includes certain parts of otherwise top tier zoos, such as the Center Street of the San Diego Zoo, where bears still live in concrete pits. To limit the harassment of animals by misbehaving visitors, dedicated security guards may be necessary at hot spots. I think of the art museum model of visible professional security who take no crap when they see someone breaking the rules. These and any other solutions need money, and the money comes from either direct or indirect public support of zoos. Being unilaterally anti-zoo will bring about a self-fulfilling prophesy of crippling our zoos and making them worse at caring for the animals in their care and worse at their conservation efforts.