A zoological garden, which is sometimes referred to as an animal park or a menagerie, is a facility which houses animals within an enclosure and displays them to the public in a manner that is safe for everyone involved. Most of us referred to these parks as a zoo. The first modern one was opened in 1828 for scientific study in London, and then eventually became open to the public about 30 years later.
Over 180 million people visit zoos in the United States each year. There are thousands of them around the world, with every continent except Antarctica hosting at least one.
Not only can we benefit from the experience of learning about new animals and their habitats by visiting a zoo, but it also gives families an opportunity to spend time together while enjoying the outdoors. This advantage comes at the expense of the animals which are forced to spend their lives in an enclosure. Although there are efforts to replicate a wild habitat, a small display area is hardly the same as being free to roam.
There are additional pros and cons of zoos that are essential to consider as well.
List of the Pros of Zoos
1. Zoos have a significant financial benefit for their communities.
A report out of George Mason University found that zoos associated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums employed almost 40,000 people. For every $1 million spent by zoos on their operational outlays, there were nearly 30 jobs supported. Another 23 jobs were supported for every $1 million that zoos spent on construction projects. That created a total economic output in the United States of more than $17 billion per year, with $2.4 billion in spending and $5.4 billion in personal earnings on top of that figure.
The indirect spending that zoos provide for their communities are significant as well, adding another 62,000 jobs across the United States to support visitors.
2. A zoo can provide a protected environment for rare and endangered species.
Animal products like elephant tusks or shark fins create a financial market where the health and welfare of a species is secondary to the profits which are possible. Some species have been poached to near extinction because of this market. By having these animals in zoos, there is another layer of protection given to these hunted species so that their survival chances are greater.
That hasn’t stopped some poachers from breaking into zoos to harvest what they want, but it is preventing the levels of harm that we have seen in the past. Because poaching activities qualify as criminal conduct, most attempts are thwarted.
3. These facilities can provide an educational resource to their community.
Most zoos got their start because local scientists wanted to get to know wild and exotic species better. Although the initial methods of retrieval were brutal, sometimes killing the parents to take the young one back for study, the overall goal was to extend human knowledge. This emphasis is still present today, with many facilities offering educational programs, behind-the-scenes tours, and various activities which encourage visitors to learn more about the animals which live there.
You will also see the staff members from local zoos making presentations at local schools and businesses to raise awareness for what they do. Specific programs at the zoological grounds encourage visitors to interact with the animals in unique ways. Although not everyone can afford a visit to their local zoo, there are still plenty of ways to learn more about the various animals who share this planet with us.
4. We can protect some of the rarest animals in the world in zoos.
If you visit the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, then you can see a rare white alligator. About 15 out of the 5 million animals currently alive are believed to have this rare condition that changes the color of their skin. When you visit the Memphis Zoo, then you can see an Okapi. The Red Panda can be found in St. Louis, and there are fewer than 10,000 of them in the world today.
Additional rare animals which receive protection in U.S. zoos include the Addax, Amur tiger, Borneo elephant, and the Pacific walrus.
5. Animals receive care from specialized trainers in zoos.
Zoos provide specialized care for the animals that are kept on the grounds. Instead of keeping them in small cages, there is an effort to replicate the natural habitat to accommodate the natural instincts of each animal. Each person in a caretaker role is highly educated, trained to know the mannerisms, health needs, and characteristics of the animal to ensure the highest levels of safety. These efforts have created a significant reduction in the number of attacks and accidents that occur.
The animals are given special activities and nutrition that works with their instincts as well to give them the most natural existence possible. Although these efforts do not entirely replicate migration or hunting, it does reduce the amount of boredom that occurs during their stay in the zoo. These efforts have helped to reduce the risks of premature death in many species as well.
6. Zoos are regularly inspected and accredited for the services they provide.
Zoos receive regular inspections on multiple levels to ensure they are in compliance with care and safety regulations. Careful supervision of policies and procedures allows for trainers, visitors, and the animals to maintain a higher level of safety in every facet of care. If zoos are unable to maintain standards of cleanliness, animal engagement, and habitat structure, then the facility can lose its accreditation and ability to operate.
The animals would then be transferred to zoos where the proper care would be given to them. Because there isn’t a monetary transaction that occurs, there is no way for the non-profit organization providing supports for the zoo to recoup their losses. If they don’t follow the rules, they essentially go out of business.
7. Most zoos use veterinarians and work with professionals from degree programs.
The Smithsonian Zoo is one example of many that works with local institutions to build programs at every post-graduate level to ensure the future safety of animals. There are residency programs, veterinarian internships, and a variety of other educational opportunities which allow for a high level of treatment for the conditions which may development.
You can find animal treatment teams including specialists, pathologies, and trainers to ensure that every care plan is followed to the letter. Quarantine procedures are part of the zoo’s overall structure as well. The overall goal always remains the same; to ensure the best possible care for every animal in care.
List of the Cons of Zoos
1. Zoos are often used to exploit people, animals, and even communities.
Did you know that one of the first zoological gardens in the Western Hemisphere featured humans instead of animals? This first effort displayed people who had different physical traits that were unusual – something similar to the “freak shows” of the traveling circuses in the 19th and early 20th century. Even the Catholic Church got involved with this effort at displaying people in cages, maintaining facilities deep into the 16th century.
Humans as part of zoological exhibitions did not fully stop until the early 20th century. Ota Benga was part of an exhibit in the Bronx and in St. Louis, purchased by a Christian missionary who wanted to put African people into an exhibition. Now some would argue we do the same thing with animals or try to hold communities hostage because of the potential financial gains that a well-run zoo can provide.
2. It changes the lifespan of the animals held in captivity.
Even when you take into consideration the educational benefits that come with a zoo, the fact is that most wild animals do not adapt well to confined circumstances. It places enormous pressure on the mental health of many species, causing them to live much shorter lives than they would in the wild. The difference can be as much as 50% when comparing the lifespan of a wild species compared to one kept in a zoo.
Orcas can live for more than a century on their own, but when you keep them in captivity, the average lifespan for a male is less than 20 years. National Geographic notes that elephants can live for up to 70 years when they live in protected areas of the wild in Africa or Asia, while those kept in zoos is just 17 years for African elephants born into captivity.
3. Zoos are losing their influence on the educational industry.
When the first modern zoo was established in London in the 19th century, the purpose was purely scientific. Even when these facilities began to open to the general public, the purpose was still to provide an educational resource to the community. Although there are some around the world which continue to place their primary emphasis on teaching, research, and saving endangered species, more facilities are focused on the entertainment experience instead.
Visiting the zoo requires people to have respect for the fences, borders, and safety enclosures that separate the animals from their trainers, keepers, and families. When an incident causes an individual to fall into the enclosure of a wild animal, the facility will usually save the person by killing the animal.
4. It changes the behavior of the animal.
The behavior of animals will change when they encounter long periods of captivity. This disadvantage occurs because there is no longer a need to hunt for their survival. Even injured animals can encounter this problem if their recovery time is lengthy. Being stuck in the same enclosure every day also disrupts the natural migratory patterns of the species, which can have a dramatic impact on their mental health.
Elephants become more aggressive when they are unable to travel and explore, which is caused zookeepers to euthanize almost 100 individuals in the past decade because of the danger they caused to others. Predatory animals encounter a similar problem when they are kept in a zoo as well, even if there is no way to safely introduce them back into the wild.
5. Animals can become dependent on the facilities.
Animals which are born in captivity can often adapt to their circumstances if given enough time, but they will still encounter the lifespan issues of their parents. That problem will not go away no matter how many generations remain in captivity. What we see is a process that eventually leads towards domestication, which is why it is a struggle for injured or wild animals to finish out their lives in a zoo.
When dealing with a predator species in particular, any children born in captivity cannot be released into the wild because they have no hunting or survival instincts. That means a cycle of dependency begins that requires ongoing resources to maintain because that animal has no ability to live on its own.
6. Zoos are ultimately a business that needs to make money.
Przewalski’s horse is a success story for zoos because this species was believed to be extinct in the wild. Only a dozen individuals were left in one facility by the 1940s, but their numbers are now in the thousands today because of the conservation programs that were initiated to save them. There are now wild herds in Europe and Mongolia, closely monitored by scientists, which are thriving.
Zoos can do an excellent job at conservation if they make the effort, but far too often profit is the primary motivation. When animals move from zoo to zoo, trading money or other resources in exchange for another display opportunity to the local population, then it is our welfare we are concerned about instead of theirs.
7. The best natural habitat enclosures are a poor substitute for the real thing.
Some animals travel more than 50 miles per day as they wander about their wild habitat. The actual territory of some individuals and packs may be over 300 miles in width. When you keep the animal in a zoo instead, then they might have 1,500 square feet to roam, and sometimes even less. Even the Greater Vancouver Zoo, which seeks to replicate the natural environment for their animals, cannot supply a large enough space to accommodate these natural behaviors.
Some elephant herds in the wild can grow to become 40 members strong. When we look at zoo management, it is not unusual to take calves away from their mothers before they fully mature simply because there is a new marketing opportunity available somewhere else.
8. Some zoos are unable to care for their animals.
If you wanted to visit the San Diego Zoo in 2019, then a one-day pass for an adult will set you back $50. Kids 12 and up qualify for the adult rate. A child’s ticket is going to cost you $46. If you have four kids that you want to take there for the day, then you could be out $300 before you take your first step onto the grounds. Even those prices are not enough to keep the zoo financially solid.
The San Diego Zoo offers an annual Gala fundraiser were tickets begin at $450 each, while preferred seating options are priced at $900. You will find employer matching, tribute gifts, exhibition sponsorship, and financial wildlife adoptions are all part of their financial picture each year as well. Most zoos struggle to survive, which means the animals kept in those facilities are also at risk.
9. Even the best zoos can have animals develop severe health problems.
Animals need to be kept in temperate zones which are similar to their natural habitat if they have any hope of being successful in the zoo. Elephants don’t do well when they are kept in locations that are cold and snowy. Polar bears don’t do well in tropical locations, even when they receive ice as a coping mechanism for the climate. Their health degrades rapidly when conditions are not favorable to them, sometimes even incapacitating the animal under extreme circumstances.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Zoos
There are times when a zoo is absolutely necessary to the survival of the animal. Then there are the circumstances where we try to profit off of their circumstances. We might be talking about animals who may not have the same level of conscious thought as humans, but how we treat other species says more about who we are than it does about the animals we keep.
Zoos can excel when they have the proper funding to meet the needs of their animal population. They must have staff present at all times who understand what it takes to have a safe experience. Even highly trained people miss an open lock or find themselves in dangerous circumstances with predatory animals, so there is always some level of risk involved.
The pros and cons of zoos are often dependent on whether you view an animal as property or an independent individual. There are times when wild animals should stay that way. When that possibility is no longer a choice, then this option might be the next best thing.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.