Are Zoos Necessary?

By Thornton W. Blease
















Are Zoos Necessary?  By Thornton W Blease

Have you ever wondered if we should accept definitions from the past without challenge?  Should we accept the definitions, the good, bad, and indifferent all swirled together like a heteroglossic medley that accumulates in layers, and smothers each succeeding century? Cultural and technological advancements are made as we pass information to one generation to the next, yet often times definition continues to reflect the maintenance of the status quo. This is the case with zoological gardens, or zoos, as they are commonly known. The word “zoo” was first recorded in 1847and is short for the Zoological Gardens of the London Zoological Society, established in 1847 in Regents Park to house the community’s collection of wild animals. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it was derived from a combination of the form of Greek zoion “an animal,” literally, “a living being,” and from PIE base gwei “to live, life”(Online Etymology Dictionary). The word zoo ultimately denotes a place where animals are kept for public display and are defined as such in the Webster’s Third International Dictionary. However, the current connotation of the word zoo is negative because of the past usages and incarnations. Zoological gardens were places where animals were haphazardly kept in overcrowded conditions as is evidenced by the slang development of the word zoo in 1935 “as a place such as a prison, shop, cafeteria in which people are crowded together haphazardly” (Webster).

Traditionally, it is true that man has kept animals locked in cages for his amusement. Earlier civilizations kept animals in cages without considering the welfare of the animals; they were viewed as collections to be put on display not much different than paintings or tapestries. Due to a lack of knowledge, as well as insensitivity, animals were fed and housed improperly, and gawked at like we gawk at the television or computer today. That is, we were indifferent to their needs, both physical and psychological.

However, zoos have changed dramatically over the past few decades since the awareness of the need for conservation, and the enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In the 1970s, experts began to realize that animals and habitats were becoming endangered, and there developed a focus on conservation. Today, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) acknowledges “that zoos serve a demonstratable purpose in the long term benefit of animals” (HSUS).  Zoos now assume multiple responsibilities from education programs that increase the public’s awareness on the need for conservation and preservation of habitat and the captive breeding and reintroduction of endangered animals, to providing research on preservation of animals in the wild.  Thus, in light of this evolution of zoos from places that entertain to scientific institutions dedicated to education, conservation, and research– particularly critical areas of research that focuses on genetic diversity– it is important that zoos now should be redefined as necessary institutions, honorable institutions vital to the survival of biodiversity. Yet, they are necessary not only for the future survival of the animal species but to provide a human-animal connection, a bond with all animal species. Now, more than ever, with our technologically focused society, we need to redefine how we perceive zoos; we need to rekindle love and respect for wildlife and preserve our natural environment.

Many zoo opponents believe that zoos are not needed in today’s society defining zoos as depressing institutions that confine animals to cages.  These opponents, including animal rights groups such as PETA, the Born Free Foundation, and the Animal Liberation League, believe that pictures are an adequate substitute for viewing live animals. They believe that zoos ought not to exist because they derive their definition of zoos from outdated terminology sand still view them as 

overcrowded facilities that haphazardly contain animals without concern for their well-being. Thus, their definition defines zoos as fundamentally wrong. According to Zoologist Byran Beltram, zoo opponents say that “fine modern films and television programs make zoos unnecessary.”  I agree that confining animals to cages is

depressing.  In fact, since visiting the Amazon rainforest in Peru, I shudder when I see parakeets in cages as I can visualize a flock of parakeets, free-flying ornaments soaring like vivid flowers in the brilliant blue sky overhead.  Yet, I realize that the same birds can provide love, companionship, and education to many.  Confinement of animals in zoo exposures, like paying taxes, can currently be defined as a necessary evil; at this time they serve a greater purpose in the preservation of the animal species by “maintaining viable captive stocks of animals as a safety net against extinction in the wild,” a feat that neither pictures, nor film can accomplish” (Beltram).

Complaints elicited from opponents of modern-day zoos, such as defining the physical structure of zoos as too small or containing unnatural exposures, demonstrate that we cannot accept, we cannot believe, we cannot take at face value the current definitions that zoo opponents use to argue their positions because, in fact, zoos have changed.  Natural habitats with larger living conditions are now the norm, particularly with AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) accredited zoos.  Visitors of AZA-accredited zoos today are more likely to define the zoo’s structure as comprising exploring trails, mini habitats teeming with life that lead through densely planted jungles, and exhibits with surprisingly realistic habitats for the natural-sized groupings.  This new design ethic is called landscape immersion and presents a philosophy implicit in the current definition of zoos as places where animals are given living conditions that replicate those as close as possible to their natural habitats. In fact, Virginia Smith reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer reported May 19, 2006, that “flora to fit the fauna” was evident with the new Big Cat Falls that recently opened at the Philadelphia Zoo.  The animals were given an environment to remind them of home with more than 300 species of plants (Smith).  My experience with the Big Cat Falls, a green castle with the sun illuminating the plants, clarified landscape immersion in my mind. Exposures are becoming more appropriate for the animals, though often at the expense of zoo visitors because the animals now have more room and foliage for camouflage. This, however, reduces the stress of the animals in captivity.  With landscape immersion and education programs, zoos demonstrate the complex interdependence between plants and animals that have evolved over millions of years, and which are now increasingly vulnerable because of pesticide use, habitat loss, and decreased biodiversity.

This complex interdependence is not as evident nor as understandable, in picture form.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but being able to see, hear, and smell the real live animals and simulations of their natural habitats will better lead people to understand that we need to help preserve what limited natural environment is left in this world.  As we increasingly browse the World Wide Web rather than observe a spider spinning a web, are exposed more to rap than a bird song, and spend more time in shopping malls than meadows, we need zoos more than ever to rekindle the love and respect for wildlife. That is interest that goes beyond TV documentaries or IMAX movies, especially since zoos are being managed in a way that critical aspects of the captive animals’ lives mirror their wild counterparts.  For example, the replication of the African savannah at a zoo provides us with knowledge of the complex interdependence of animals and their ecosystem.

While exposure changes are obvious changes in the defining factors of zoos, what may not be obvious are the changes made to address the arguments that while zoos may consider diet and habitat, they fail to view the animals holistically and consider

the psychological aspects of their well-being.  Critics believe that no attention is given to acoustic comforts, soft lighting, behavioral and psychological needs.  Since these needs are not met in an obvious way, many critics do not see the work that zoos provide in these areas.  For instance, upon visiting the

Philadelphia Zoo, I learned from the zookeepers that they conducted research, which found that naked mole rats preferred rock music and the giraffes preferred jazz; thus, they are provided with the appropriate acoustical pleasures.  The lighting is softened, and many behavioral techniques are employed to engage their minds.  Zookeepers are providing enriching habitats and activities that mimic by mimicking aspects of their lives in the wild.  Every animal has its own repertoire of behaviors, and zoos help provide habitats to perform those behaviors. One technique utilized to challenge the minds of animals in captivity is to hide food. This daily enrichment, having to search for their food, instead of it being delivered to them like room service at a hotel, simulates the work that they do naturally in the wild to forage and find their food.  Zoos are giving animals the opportunities to express their species-typical range of behaviors.   Gorillas, chimpanzees, and baboons, for example, are often given feeding tubes–either bamboo or paper- towel tubes– with popcorn, raisins, cereal, and peanut butter hidden inside, which, when full, provide a challenge and, when empty, provide entertainment.  At the Philadelphia Zoo, primates can be seen paging through a telephone book laced with honey on select pages.  Slowly, their rough fingers caress the flimsy paper, turning page after page as if reading a suspenseful Stephen King novel, until a honey page is found, and then they tear out and consume the page as if they were characters in the same novel.  In some zoos, other animals such as horses or llamas occupy the tigers’ exposures at night.  During the day, when the tigers are returned to their exposure, they are interested in searching for the smorgasbord of scents left by the nighttime guests. “Roar!” The list of behavioral techniques grows and will continue to grow exponentially as research provides more clues.

Perhaps the most important addition to the new definition of the zoo is the fact that zoos are crucial in preventing extinction because they conserve animals and their habitats.  In fact, with their breeding programs, one can define zoos as the new Noah’s Ark.  Animals are bred in zoos for other zoos as well as placement back into the wild. This began two decades ago with a revolutionary captive breeding and reintroduction program of the golden lion tamarins in a joint effort between the Washington National Zoo in Brazil.  The golden lion tamarins are monkeys whose native habitat, the Atlantic coastal rainforest of Brazil, has been largely depleted. In fact, according to the Singapore Zoo Gardens website, by 1990, 140 captives bred golden lion tamarins have been reintroduced [to the wild] and have produced 95 offspring”(Singapore Zoo Gardens).   Michael Klesius in the June 2006 National Geographic reports that since 1992, a coalition of zoos and takhi conservation groups put back 200 takhi, or Prezwalski horses into Mongolia.  The takhi are Asian equids that were previously extinct in the wild since 1969.  They are the only remaining wild horse species left in the world.  Other “wild” horses are merely feral, once domesticated species (Klesius). Can you imagine the renewed sight of these horses galloping across the Gobi Desert and the Mongolian Steppe, their natural habitat?  Smithsonian writer, Laura Tangley in the June 2006 edition of its magazine, also reported the success of the zoo panda breeding programs.  It has been a long, difficult road with its surviving captive-bred panda, a culmination of ten years of research between American and Chinese zoos.  Pandas are difficult to breed and when born, weigh about a quarter pound, the weight of a stick of butter, and thus have a low survival rate.  But Tangley concludes, “The most important reason for keeping pandas in captivity beyond public education and research is to prevent extinction in the wild” (Tangley).  The research conducted at zoos helps us understand how we can best preserve the animals in their natural habitat.

Along with the breeding programs, zoos are crucial in selectively strengthening the gene pool.  Cheetahs, for example, risk becoming extinct, not only because their habitat is dwindling, but because cheetahs are also inbreeding and becoming weak

as a species.  Other species are also beginning to suffer genetically as man erodes their habitats away; as man builds its civilizations between the wild places, the quantity of land is diminished and so is the ability for certain species to naturally migrate into other genetic pools. Discriminate zoo research, however, is helping to select

the gene pool.  This led to the founding of the species survival plan (SSP) of the AZA in 1981.  Its purpose is to ensure cooperative breeding programs for selected rare species in zoos of North America. The main opposition to captive zoo breeding according to the Animal Liberation Website, one that I have to agree with, is that unless habitats are preserved, the endangered animals being bred in zoos will not have anywhere to go (Animal Liberation).   Therefore, it is important to note that in addition to selective breeding, responsible zookeepers try hard to prevent unwanted births.  For example, the Trexler-Lehigh County Game Preserve utilized birth control when herds of Bison increased.

Also added to the new definition of zoos, is their educational component. Zoos educate the public, particularly children about animals and their habitats.  With the general understanding of nature decreasing precipitously as people become increasingly separated from the natural world and more reliant on technological and domestic environments, as children speed along the information highway barricaded into an urban lifestyle instead of really walking along country lanes, zoos are becoming the link to nature.  One is not interested in the sacrifice it takes to protect what he does not know; therefore, the emotional ties created while observing live animals at the zoo can become a voice of protection as zoos educate about the animal’s vanishing habitat. Or, perhaps the education at the zoo will encourage children to choose one of the numerous animal careers, as zoos open doors to the love of animals.  Besides pursuing a career at the zoo, one can engage in one of the many diverse professions related to animals, such as animal training, veterinary medicine, zoology, genetics, or as naturalists to protect our natural wildlife.

Ultimately, the discussions, initiated at zoos are opening a dialogue regarding the conservation of wild animals: How much?  Where?  When?  At what cost?  For the specific benefit of which species or ecosystem?  These discussions are not done by dissecting its parts, but as demonstrated in the AZA zoos, by highlighting the interrelatedness of the environment and different species within nature. Zoos educate by demonstrating the wisdom of famous conservationist John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (Muir 110). And even William Shakespeare, in “Troilus and Cressida,” writes: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin” (Shakespeare iii3).

So while there are still some individuals that may continue to define zoos through an antiquated lens seeping with negative connotations believing that animals are better off extinct than confined to cages in zoos, I do not.  Although the ideal place for all animals is in the wild, zoos are becoming a less stressful place for animals to reside, places where respect and dignity are key; animals are living longer in captivity than in the wild, which is important as habitats are diminished and extinction is a threat.   Animal rights groups such as PETA and the Born Free Foundation, leading and misguiding the public with slogans like, “Better dead than captive-bred,” can express their views that animals are better extinct than confined. But in keeping with the point of view if the United States Humane Society, I will continue to support ethical and respected AZA-accredited zoos because “extinction is forever” (Hutchins). However, this does not mean that all zoos should have carte blanche support. Roadside attractions, such as Sawgrass Everglades Park near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that confine animals in inappropriately small size cages, should be closed. It pained me to watch a lone wolf try to pace in pen so small that it could barely turn around. Animals should not be kept in such enclosures, nor should they be subject to social loneliness and isolation. These type of establishments do not fit the new definition of zoos, and action should be taken to assure they do not operate.

Zoos, however, must be defined as necessary; if animals are left alone to defend themselves in the wild as man whittles away what little wild they have left, they will become extinct.  Nine thousand species of birds have been driven into extinction

since 1600 CE (Bryant), and currently, 1,212 of the 9,775 birds species (one out of every eight) are threatened with extinction (Larsen). Almost all big mammal species are in serious trouble, such as the black rhino with 96 percent of its members eradicated in the past 20 years– the population went from

65,000 to 2,400 from 1970 to 1990 (African Wildlife Federation). Also, one-third of the world’s 226 turtle species are threatened with imminent extinction (Jackson). Until the definition of human being (or man) changes, until we change our lifestyles and values, and slow the massive levels of predation we are currently inflicting on the natural world, as more and more humans move into previously untouched areas, snaking their way through with their insidious suburban sprawl, decimating wild animals and plants at proportions that defy belief, zoos need to be defined as safe havens for the animal species.

Zoos are necessary because they unite and educate the community, providing an understanding of the interdependence of animals and their habitats, and conduct conservation programs of animals in the wild, including breeding programs to reintroduce extinct and endangered species back into their natural environment. This definition is far removed from the connotative definition that has evolved through the decades and illustrates the need to evaluate, not blindly accept definitions from the past. Unfortunately, the old culturally ingrained definition remains in the minds of many enthusiastic zoo opponents. Zoos, therefore, need to be redefined as necessary institutions that house collections of wild animals, aimed at maintaining the current animal species, through both breeding programs and public education.


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