Views on Zoos

As an animal lover, I was eager to take my toddler to the zoo for the first time back in the early 1990s. My most pronounced memory from that first trip, however, is not his delighted squeals, but my own discomfort. Certainly he was excited to see the polar bear swim in rapid circles and he was thrilled by the tiger endlessly pacing back and forth. But I saw these frenzied, repetitive motions as signs of the animals’ anxiety. On the other hand, we saw many animals that were clearly enjoying their afternoon siestas because Mother Nature programmed them to be most active and dawn and dusk rather than to put on a show for an endless parade of noisy daytime visitors.

We visited that zoo many more times. In fact, we even supported it as members for a few years. I appreciate the educational mission that zoos undertake. They teach children not only about animals, but about habitats, ecology and our role in protecting the Earth. Zoos do important research, play a key role in species preservation, and they can be fun.

Yet, I’m sad for the animals, despite their relatively cushy lifestyle including excellent access to healthcare and balanced diets. When an animal normally roams a territory of several square miles, I can’t help but wince knowing that its captive territory is reduced to several square feet, or if it’s lucky, an area large enough to be measured in acres.

The End of Zoos?

I'm not alone in my concern about zoos. The Buenos Aires Zoo recently announced its plan to close it doors, citing decaying infrastructure and vendors who are not making profits on their concessions, along with concerns that animal "captivity is degrading."

Zoos of the Past

Admittedly, at today’s world-class institutions, zoo animals enjoy a better quality of life than they did in the past. Zoos began as living souvenir collections of the wealthy and powerful.These aristocrats picked up animals as they traveled to (or conquered) far-off lands. The creatures in these menageries often lived dreary and brief lives behind bars because their new guardians did not know how to care for or how to feed them properly.

Modern zoos have the opposite problem. Animals that live beyond their expected years (though some animals, like elephants, live longer in the wild). Instead of being caged, modern zoos place animals in more natural-looking settings. However, it’s unclear if this is as pleasing to the animals as it is to human visitors.

In the last 20 years, leading zoos began to focus on on the social-emotional lives of their animals. Caretakers created enrichment situations for animals to use their natural abilities and problem-solving skills. For example, instead of serving up a meal to a polar bear, zookeepers might require the bear to claw its way through a block of ice to reach the fishy treats. 

Are zoos worth it?

I have touched a baby chimp’s soft, leathery hand. I’ve rubbed a dolphin’s slick, rubbery skin, and I’ve hand fed crackers to a giraffe. But I recognize that the opportunities for that kind of interaction are limited. And I also now recognize that those interactions, while meaningful on my end, likely caused my animal “friends” a lot of stress.

Do people need to touch animals? And if we cannot touch them, does it matter how distant we are from them while we observe them? If we can’t take our students on an African safari to observe lions in their natural setting, might the students be better served watching a movie about lions or a webcam capturing a livestream of lions than going to a zoo to see them? I’m all for field trips and immersive experiences. But if what we see at a zoo is an anxious pacing animal, what we hear is the sound of people chitchatting, and the smell is that of popcorn from a nearby snack stand, perhaps a virtual field trip would best meet the educational goals. 

Observe Animals in the Wild

As I noted last month, there are a lot of great virtual field trip options available. You and your students can watch animals do their thing in their natural habitat via these sites:

What do your young scientists think? Are zoos worth preserving or are they a dying breed?