Zoos are pitiful prisons for animals. In many zoos, animals are denied everything that is natural and important to them, like running, roaming, flying, climbing, foraging, choosing a partner, and being with others of their own kind. Zoos teach people that it’s acceptable to interfere with animals and keep them locked up in captivity, where they’re bored, cramped, lonely, deprived of all control over their lives, and far from their natural homes. Zoos justify their exploitation of animals by claiming to provide educational opportunities, but with informative television programs and Internet sites and the relative ease of international travel, learning about or viewing animals in their natural habitats can be as simple as a flick of a switch or a hike up a mountain. The idea of keeping animals confined behind cage bars in order to learn about them is archaic and unnecessary.
The Mental Price of Confinement
Most zoo exhibits provide animals with few, if any, opportunities to express natural behavior or make choices in their daily lives. Animals are closely confined, lack privacy, and have extremely limited possibilities for mental stimulation or physical exercise. These conditions often result in abnormal and self-destructive behavior, also known as “zoochosis.”
In many cases, wide-ranging animals, such as bears and big cats, pace or turn repeatedly in circles. Primates and birds mutilate themselves, and chimpanzees and gorillas become overly aggressive. Hooved animals lick and chew on fences and make unnatural facial movements. Giraffes twist their necks, bending their heads back and forth repeatedly. Elephants bob their heads and sway from side to side.
The Plight of Unwanted Animals
Baby animals in zoos are crowd-pleasers, but breeding programs—under the guise of species preservation—inevitably result in a surplus of less “cute” adult animals. Zoos are not focused on rehabilitation or on reintroducing rehabilitated animals to their natural environments (or even to wildlife sanctuaries, where the animals would have the opportunity to roam, explore, and live out their lives without being exploited for entertainment). Instead, zoos routinely trade, loan, sell, or barter adult animals they no longer want.
Death and Danger Behind Bars
By their very nature, zoos leave animals vulnerable to a variety of dangers from which they have no defense or opportunity to escape. Animals in zoos from coast to coast have been poisoned, left to starve, deprived of veterinary care, and burned alive in fires. Many have died after eating coins, plastic bags, and other items thrown into their cages. Animals have been beaten, bludgeoned, and stolen by people who were able to gain access to their exhibits.
A bear starved to death at the Toledo Zoo after zoo officials locked her up to hibernate without food or water—not knowing that her species doesn’t hibernate. At the Niabi Zoo in Illinois, a 3-month-old lion cub was euthanized after his spinal cord had been crushed by a falling exhibit door. Despite knowing that two Asiatic bears had fought dozens of times, the Denver Zoo continued to house them together until one finally killed the other. A kangaroo who was struck by a train running through the exhibit at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo was so severely injured that she had to be euthanized. She was at least the fifth animal to be struck by the train. A hyena at the Buffalo Zoo in New York was crushed to death by a boulder in the exhibit. At the Saint Louis Zoo, a polar bear died during exploratory surgery, which revealed that pieces of cloth and a plastic trash bag had obstructed his digestive tract.
5 Things You Didn’t Know About Zoos
- For zoos, profit comes before the well-being of the animals. Millions of people visit zoos annually, but most zoos operate at a loss and must find ways to cut costs or add gimmicks that will attract visitors.1 Funds that should be used to provide the animals imprisoned there with more humane and better conditions are instead used on cosmetic improvements to attract new visitors.
- Zoos claim to provide educational opportunities, when in reality, they promote entertainment, not education. Over the course of five summers, a curator at the National Zoo followed more than 700 zoo visitors and found that “it didn’t matter what was on display … people [were] treating the exhibits like wallpaper.” He determined that “officials should stop kidding themselves about the tremendous educational value of showing an animal behind a glass wall.”2 Most zoo enclosures are very small, and rather than promoting respect for or understanding of animals, signs often provide little more information than an animal’s species, diet, and natural range. Animals’ normal behavior is seldom discussed, much less observed, because their natural needs are rarely met.
- Unwanted animals may be sold to dealers, who then sell the animals to rundown roadside zoos or traveling circuses. New Jersey’s Cape May County Zoo sold two giraffes, Twiggs and Jeffrey, to an animal broker who then sold them to a traveling circus.3
- Zoos are a danger not only to animals but also to the public. A gorilla named Jabari tried to escape from the Dallas Zoo by jumping over walls and moats and evading electrified wires, only to be fatally shot by police. A witness later reported that teenagers were taunting the animal with rocks prior to his escape.4 Tatiana, a Siberian tiger, escaped from her substandard enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo in 2007 and was shot to death after she killed one person and injured two others. She had mauled one of the zookeepers a year earlier.5
What You Can Do
Zoos will be forced to stop breeding and capturing more animals from the wild if their financial support disappears, so the most important way to help animals who are imprisoned in zoos is simply to boycott zoos and urge everyone you know to do the same.
1Michael Satchell, “Cruel and Usual: How Some of America’s Best Zoos Get Rid of Their Old, Infirm, and Unwanted Animals,” U.S. News & World Report 5 Aug. 2002.
2William Booth, “Naked Ape New Zoo Attraction; Surprise Results From People-Watching Study,” The Washington Post 14 Mar. 1991
3Amy S. Rosenberg, “What Kind of Life Do Giraffes Prefer? Irascible at the Cape May Count Zoo, Happy in the Circus,” Philadelphia Inquirer 5 Aug. 2001.
4Mary McKee and Eva-Marie Ayala, “2 Teens Taunted Gorilla, Zoo Says,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram 23 Mar. 2004.
5Patricia Yollin et al., “S.F. Zoo Visitor Saw 2 Victims of Tiger Attack Teasing Lions,” San Francisco Chronicle 1 Jan. 2008.