One of my favorite activities as a child was going to the zoo and looking at all those animals from faraway places and the wildlands. I especially liked when the enclosures were on the smaller side so there was no way that the sneaky little critter could escape my gaze. After all, I was at the zoo to look at animals, not to play “where’s waldo” with the bears. What I didn’t realize or even think about as a child was the life that those animals had that I so desperately wanted to stare at. While zoos have improved immensely from the beginning of the 20th century, I still question the ethics of holding wild animals in artificial environments that can never truly emulate their natural habitat and be stared at all day by hairless primates.
To be impartial, some zoos have breeding programs, which can be essential to threatened or endangered species. Most zoos also take great lengths to provide daily mental stimulation to their animals to stave off boredom and depression. In an indirect way, zoos can provide a type of sanctuary for animal’s whose native habitat is all but disappeared. Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, zoos introduce people to animals they might otherwise never see and stimulate the compassion and imagination of the public. Kindling interest in wildlife helps to produce funding and research that might otherwise not exist.
My visits to the zoo as a child truly solidified my love of animals, but one could argue that would have happened anyway. Some species, I am sure, do quite fine in captivity, but what about those animals like the elephant which would normally walk for miles a day across a savanna? Or the antelope who is now always on high alert because it is constantly surrounded by people and walls? There are numerous examples of animals showing odd repetitive behaviors or performing self-mutilation as a result of the stress of captivity. So, I guess the real question is – does all the positive benefits of zoos outweigh the ethics of holding animals captive for life, especially the animals which clearly don’t handle it well? To be honest, I am not sure. Zoos demonstrate the duality of human intervention in nature, and while pure preservation may no longer be an option (due to the extent of the effects of human occupation) I think we should question if this is the best way that we can perform our duty of stewardship.