The Morality of Zoos

Rebecca Caulton, Staff Writer

Most people have visited a zoo at least once or twice in their lives. A common trope in children’s television is a school field trip to the zoo, where kids see happy cartoon zebras and giraffes in big pens decorated like a safari. Junior Cassidy Moore says, “Zoos have made me more aware of animal conservation,” and for some, zoos are the gateway towards empathy and activism for the environment as they mature. The controversy around zoos revolves around the discussion between the costs and benefits of animals on display. The unanswered question is, where is the line between animal conservation and animal abuse in zoos across America?

An important distinction to draw is that there are three broad categories of zoos: sanctuaries, entertainment venues, and rehabilitation facilities. While most students approved of rehabilitation-based zoos, sophomore Lola Kagetsu states, “If they were more of a sanctuary, I feel like they wouldn’t be showing their animals…. If they say they are a sanctuary but they are still a zoo I do not really see a difference because they are still showing the animals.” Kagetsu brings up an interesting point about the motives of animal conservation institutions being swayed by the incentive of profit. This point has also been brought up by The New York Times where it was argued that “Both… claimed to be operating for the benefit of the animals and for conservation purposes. This claim was false. Neither one of them participated in any contributions to animal research or conservation. They are profitable institutions whose bottom line is much more important than the condition of the animals.” With many zoos not showing commitment towards animal protection, it is questionable whether zoos should maintain their function as a weekend activity for the family.

While plenty of people are skeptical of zoos, others make compelling arguments to the contrary. One argument for the existence of profitable zoos is that they allow animals with specific expensive needs to be met. Senior Raymond Tsai argued, “I feel there needs to be a safety network for animals that are gathered unlawfully or have more specific exotic needs that rehabilitation zoos can meet.” By providing animals such as penguins with a big exhibit, we can allow those animals to have a life in captivity if release is not an option. Similarly, Earthwise Aware warns against generalizing zoos because “there are many poorly run zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries, but there are also those who fight hard against extinction, reintroduce species on the brink of extinction, work with governments and communities to protect species and house animals during rehabilitation and recovery.” While this rationale does not address the mistreatment of animals at many zoos, it brings up the important role of zoos in animal conservation and fundraising. While some view rehabilitation zoos negatively, freshman Brian Tsai expresses that he “[likes] the rehabilitation zoos because they usually capture the animals to heal them and release them back into the wild.” This perspective highlights the role of rehabilitation, as well as the public’s awareness of how funding these institutions directly benefits animals.

A further argument for zoos is the awareness and education they provide for the public. Of the students interviewed, every student recalled educational school trips to zoos that increased their awareness of environmental issues. With the value of zoos clear, the main question is how to regulate zoos that lack the funding or motivation to provide proper care for animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association proposes that to make these benefits of zoos worth it, zoos must “improve animal welfare, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums must ensure quality care, promote natural behaviors and natural environments, assess and improve their training and education programs, and address the problem of surplus animals.” These improvements are crucial if zoo reform is to be pursued.

Another issue that has appeared in recent years was how the coronavirus affected the care of animals. With the funding of zoos diminished by COVID-19 mandates, animal care has worsened in recent years. Wild Welfare found that “facilities whose staffing levels dropped, either through illness or because the costs of paying all staff became too much, and in both cases… [created] concerns for the removal of those subsequent relationship ties with animals such as elephants, apes and other highly intelligent species that form close bonds.” Alongside these concerns came a nationwide drop in animal care quality and concerns for the future of zoos. Hopefully as the world returns to normal, so does animal care and funding. However, the future is unclear as of this moment.

For those who care about animals, direct donations to conservation groups are the best way to contribute to animal care. Until zoos are held more accountable for the mission of animal care, it is unclear whether financial support is the best choice to promote animal welfare. More government intervention, funding, and safety nets need to be directed towards zoos and animal conservation. While it is unclear when change will happen, the opinion among animal conservationists is clearly decided as they acknowledge the theoretical value of zoos but call for radical change.