Do zoos cause more harm than good?

Do zoos represent pointless captivity or an opportunity for conservation and education? Linda Kimotho and Oluwaseun S Iyasere have different takes.

Photo Credit: Jen Zoon, Smithsonian's National Zoo

Arguing YES is Linda Kimotho. Linda is a Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist at the Born Free Foundation. A passionate conservationist, she has an MA in Project Management from the University of Nairobi and is studying for an MSc in GIS at the University of Twente. She uses geospatial technology to offer solutions to current social, economic and environmental challenges.

Making the case for NO is Oluwaseun Serah Iyasere. Oluwaseun is a specialist in Animal Behaviour and Welfare and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Animal Physiology, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria. She is the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) link person for her institution. Oluwaseun is the first secretary of the International Society for Applied Ethology, Africa and West Asia region. She is an Editorial Advisory Board member of Applied Animal Behaviour Science Journal.

LINDA: The anticipated thrill of seeing animals at close range is dampened by the sight of a pacing rhino, an uncharacteristically shy hyena trying to hide from the public view, a crane with clipped feathers, a lame cheetah in a fitted enclosure or a lethargic lion oblivious of its strength and might.

Zoos present animals in an artificial constricting environment, reducing them to live exhibits akin to a sample under the microscope, without context. Visiting a zoo can never compare to seeing a pride of hunting lions or herd of migrating elephants led by a mighty matriarch, as one might see on a wild safari.

From an ethical and animal welfare view, the negative effects of animal confinement by far outweigh the perceived benefits. Animals in confinement suffer from zoochosis, a psychological condition which directly translates to the animal’s quality of life. The fact that this condition is never experienced in the wild shows that zoos are incapable of fully providing the right environment that a wild animal needs to thrive.

Zoos undermine the intrinsic value of wildlife, which is optimized by a natural environment with no human interference. Human interaction suppresses animal instincts, crucial for their survival in the wild, condemning them to life confinement.

According to World Animal Protection, 75 per cent of the zoo facilities under the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) do not conform to the animal welfare guidelines and standards set by the organization. These guidelines are meant to protect the animals from risks associated with captivity such as diseases, genetic disorders and premature death.

OLUWASEUN: To me, animal welfare should focus on the animal’s judgement about it’s environment. As humans, we believe that animals are more comfortable in the wild than under captivity because of their ability to perform their natural behaviour. But this is not really the true picture of what exists in the wild.

In reality, most animals in the wild are limited to boundaries which they must not cross. These boundaries are invisible to humans but the animals identify them through auditory (calling) and chemical cues (scent marking).

The presence of hierarchy in the social domain of wild animals limits the options of those in a subordinate position (especially the males) to have access to feed, movement and reproductive choices. Though zoo animals might have limited space, they have full control over the resources in their homes.

Due to human interventions, wild animals are faced with challenges such as loss of space and encroachment into their domain. This further subjects them to being killed by humans inhumanely or for the wildlife trade. During transportation to other countries the animals can experience rough handling and pains from capture.

The scale of the challenge of habitat loss cannot be solved by the even more compressed habitat of captivity, but requires interventions that favour co-existence

During 2019-2020, over 18 million hectares were destroyed by Australian bushfires, killing many millions of animals who lived there. With impending climate change, wild animals are likely to experience challenging conditions which will impair their welfare in the wild, including habitat loss and shortage of food and water sources.

Zoos can enable public access to wild or exotic animals, education (promoting knowledge), conservation and preservation of the ecosystem, and reintroduction programmes for endangered species. The focus of zoos nowadays has been diverted from public entertainment and more towards the conservation of wild animals.

LINDA: I agree that human interventions seem to cause more harm than good to wildlife in their natural habitat, but to imagine that humans who have failed at protecting wildlife in-situ can do better within the confining conditions of zoos is an irony. Manipulating the conditions of the zoos to mimic the natural environment for every species is far more costly and demanding.

Nature left on its own is adept at equitable resource distribution. Selection of boundaries and limitation of home ranges in the wild are natural and intrinsically necessary for resource sharing and distribution.

A study conducted by the Born Free Foundation on members of the Consortium of Charitable Zoos showed that only 26.6 per cent of species and subspecies of wildlife found in the zoos were categorized as threatened with extinction in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list. Most of the animals (over 50 per cent) housed in zoos have enough resources to enable them to survive in the wild with no human intervention.

The scale of the challenge of habitat loss cannot be solved by the even more compressed habitat of captivity, but requires interventions that favour co-existence. Conserving wildlife in protected areas can guarantee an expansive green ecosystem with minimal human interference which will increase our resilience to impacts of climate change.

OLUWASEUN: I disagree that zoos cause more harm to wildlife because zoos remain one of the most important conservation tools for most endangered species. Wild animals are endangered by threats from climate change, predators and human activities (increased poaching and hunting activities). If not for the conservation efforts of zoos many wildlife species, including the Iberian lynx, California condor and pygmy hog, would have gone into extinction.

Many zoos have developed several different conservation programmes which include advocacy and research on wild animals. They ensure that animals are housed in a ‘close to natural’ habitat to encourage their natural behaviour. Most conservation programmes also involve breeding the wild animal in a captive environment and then reintroducing it to the wild. Members of WAZA spend a huge amount (nearly $350 million a year) on conservation projects in the wild, making it the third largest contributor to conservation in the world. The overall goal of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is to ‘save the unique species that live there for future generations’.

LINDA: Various studies have recorded limited success in the reintroduction of captive bred endangered species into the wild. This is because captive animals become habituated to human contact and seldom develop crucial survival skills, such as hunting and self-defence, making them vulnerable to poachers and natural conditions. In addition, they need a secure place to be released into, which makes addressing the root causes of why the animals are threatened in the first place a priority.

Captive breeding has also been associated with a low offspring survival rate over generations. This is because of either non-genetic factors such as nutrition, husbandry, maternal effects, among others, or genetic factors caused by inbreeding.

With the current level of technological advancement people can still have access to the most exotic wildlife species and receive conservation education through virtual safaris, documentaries and other activities which are less invasive and present wildlife in their most natural environment and behaviour.

I feel that zoos should not be considered a substitute for in-situ conservation of endangered species. Instead, more effort and resources should be directed towards securing the already existing natural habitats for wildlife and creating policies that prohibit exploitation of wildlife resources.

If it wasn’t for the conservation efforts of zoos many wildlife species, including the Iberian lynx, California condor and pygmy hog, would have gone into extinction

OLUWASEUN: Most natural phenomena such as hunger, disease and predation are harmful to animals in the wild. Animals kept in zoos enjoy freedom from hunger or diseases, freedom from fear of predators and freedom from discomfort.

As research progresses, most zoos have implemented higher welfare standards by providing enriched environments for the animals, based on their specific needs, so that they are can exhibit their natural behaviours.

In addition to the above, climate change will exacerbate threats to the welfare of wild animals due to the increase in frequency of intense drought, storms, heatwaves and rising sea levels. These environmental conditions will definitely compromise the welfare of wildlife species. There will be less prey to feed on and water to drink. A lot of these species may become endangered or even go into extinction if adequate measures are not put in place to conserve them in zoos. All these points show that welfare of animals in zoos can be better than in the wild.

What do you think?

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We will print a selection of your views in the next issue.

YOUR VIEWS ON: ‘Is criminalization the right response to domestic violence?’

A reader responds to a debate in a previous issue (NI533).

There is a big problem with Leigh Goodmark’s suggestion that having a legal consequence to violent behaviour causes the perpetrator trauma and PTSD. This is a clear and deliberate misrepresentation of the fact that there is often previous childhood trauma in the backgrounds of those who commit violent crime. Childhood abuse, such as exposure to family violence, is seen in the overwhelming majority of prisoners – well before they are jailed for criminal acts. Incarceration does not cause the trauma. It was already there. In Australia there will be about 100,000 acts of family violence before a perpetrator will experience incarceration. We already have a system that does not criminalize family violence – it’s the one we have now. In the same article she argues that criminalization does not reduce family violence but adds: ‘Since 1994, the year that the Violence Against Women Act passed and the criminalization of domestic violence truly began, rates of intimate partner violence in the United States have fallen. So has the overall crime rate. Over the last 30 years, the two have decreased in tandem…’ Yes – legal deterrents do that. You can look at Iran if you really want to see the rates of family violence when there is no criminalization at all.