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A Dilemma: Why Do We Still Have Zoos?

Robert Franklin

Posted on April 8, 2019 10:16

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With springtime upon us, many of our familial activities will be outdoors, including trips to local zoos. But should these institutions still be the recipients of our time and money?

When I was young, I loved learning about animals. Trips to the Fort Worth Zoo fostered that affinity. I fondly remember spending summer days eating Lemon Chills and watching various animals aloof in their various habitats.

It's safe to say that I probably wouldn't care as much as I do about the natural world without the Fort Worth Zoo.

But interestingly, as I've become older, and my views on animal and habitat conservation have become more evolved and nuanced, I've begun the question the merits of institutions like the Fort Worth Zoo.

It feels like the student turning on the teacher. The zoo provided me no shortage of information on animal behavior and physiology, and their conservation efforts are definitely worth noting. But despite that, I'm having a difficult time rationalizing the captivation with the captivity.

It's important to point out that not all zoos function the same way. Even though all zoos must abide by at least the minimum standards laid out in animal welfare laws, some are better about implementation and enforcement than others.

In the past, animals in zoos were kept in squalor, effectively imprisoned and exhibited just for entertainment. Conditions have improved since then, but not enough.

The problem is largely in space and the illusory nature of their habitats. Humans can do a lot to attempt replication of an animals natural habitat, but there are plenty of factors over which humans have no control, such as weather and a city's ambient light and noise. Animals, especially larger ones, need substantial tracts of land to be able to effectively live as they would in the wild. Urban zoos just don't have the space necessary, especially for hunting and mating.

It's no wonder people regularly comment that the animals look sad, defeated, and haggard, and why many animals exhibit zoochosis, a disturbing display of repetitive, obsessive behaviors that serve no real purpose or function, such as pacing, over-grooming, self-mutilation, and coprophagia.

The limits of what humans can do to keep animals in captivity in something resembling their natural elements has even proven to be dangerous for trainers and patrons. Many high-profile accidents and incidents have occurred in zoos and other areas with animals in captivity, such as when Tilikum the Orca turned on, and subsequently killed, trainer Dawn Brancheau and the incident involving Western lowland gorilla Harambe.

Modern zoos have spent significant resources in changing the way zoos operate. Most are conservation-minded, devoting significant efforts to animals who are endangered and on the verge of extinction. There are breeding and rehabilitation programs that do actual good for these animals. Zoos aren't just for the spectacle of it anymore.

But I often wonder if, when pitted against the whole of the downside, these progressive policies and procedures still warrant the existence of these institutions. Are the physical and psychological issues present in animal captivity, and the inherent danger associated, balanced out by all of the good zoos do?

I simply cannot say for sure.

Robert Franklin

Posted on April 8, 2019 10:16

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