Here at peta2, we get a lot of questions about animals in zoos. Most people understand that confining a beautiful wild animal to a cage a mere fraction of the size of their natural habitat is wrong. And many were furious after watching the eye-opening documentary Blackfish, which detailed the suffering that marine animals endure in captivity. However, there are many common misconceptions about zoos that make some people question why PETA doesn’t support them. We’re here to answer those questions.
Why does PETA say that animals don’t belong in zoos?
Zoos generally regard the animals they keep as mere commodities. They’re regularly bought, sold, borrowed, and traded with little regard for their established relationships. Think about this: One member of a loving family herd could be shipped off to another zoo! Removing animals from established social groups and forcing them to adjust repeatedly to new routines, different caretakers, and unfamiliar cage-mates is disruptive and traumatic for them.
A major reason that zoos choose to breed animals is because people LOVE seeing babies. A new baby can draw in zoo visitors and boost revenue. However, the animals’ fate is often bleak once they outgrow their “cuteness.” Zoos often become crowded, and older animals may be kept in warehouses behind the scenes or shuffled off to shabby roadside zoos, animal dealers, or auctions.
Even large, well-known, and popular zoos engage in unethical practices, such as dumping unwanted animals or acquiring them from the wild. The San Diego Zoo and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo imported a combined 11 African elephants from Swaziland. And accredited zoos in Denver; Houston; Litchfield Park, Arizona; San Antonio; San Diego; and Tampa, Florida, imported a combined 33 monkeys who had been illegally trafficked by poachers in Africa!
Aren’t there laws to protect animals in zoos?
Some countries have no laws whatsoever to protect captive animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issues licenses to animal exhibitors in the U.S. The agency is supposed to enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), but licenses are issued to nearly ANYONE who fills out an application and sends in a fee.
In addition, the AWA only addresses basic issues. It states that animals must be fed, given water, and provided with shelter. However, cages are allowed to have concrete floors, and there’s NO specific requirement for grass, greenery, or other natural vegetation. Cage space regulations are liberally interpreted and require only that the animals be provided with enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around, and move around a bit. Basically, this means that if YOU were only protected by the AWA, you could legally be locked inside a concrete closet.
Some animals, including reptiles, fish, and other cold-blooded animals, are specifically EXCLUDED from the AWA. Shockingly, even though Congress amended the act in 2002 to include birds used for exhibition as regulated (protected) animals, the USDA has yet to cite ANYONE for neglecting them—even though many birds are obviously suffering and some have died as a result of apparent AWA violations.
While local authorities do typically have the legal power to enforce state and local cruelty laws for animals suffering in zoos, the vast majority simply refuse to take action, often passing the buck to the USDA. Even though the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) PROHIBITS harming or harassing protected species held in captivity, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (the agency tasked with enforcing the ESA) ALSO typically defers to the USDA’s inadequate enforcement of the AWA.
Aren’t zoos critical to conservation efforts?
The first thing people need to know is that most animals kept in zoos are NOT endangered. Those who are endangered may have their plight made worse by zoos’ focus on crowd appeal.
The second thing you need to know is that animals kept in zoos are almost NEVER being prepared for release back into their natural habitats. It’s nearly impossible to release captive-bred animals into the wild safely. Think about this: How are we going to help save animals from extinction if we’re displaying them in tiny cages and never releasing them to replenish the species? Animals who are reared in zoos live in unnatural environments and can’t learn survival skills—and often, they have little or no natural habitat left to return to because of human encroachment.
Many zoos are holding endangered species primarily as spectacles for tourists. Basically, most endangered animals in captivity are being exploited for the profit of zoos.
Won’t children be deprived if they can’t see animals in zoos?
Sociologists in the U.K. gathered data from children between the ages of 7 and 15, both before and after they visited the London Zoo. The researchers found that 59 percent of children who took an educator-guided tour of the zoo had no positive educational outcomes. That number jumps to 66 percent when the children went on an unguided visit. In many cases, the trip to the zoo even had a negative impact on children’s understanding of animals and their habitats.
Taking kids to the zoo may actually HURT conservation efforts, too! In fact, numerous studies have shown that exhibiting animals in unnatural settings may undermine conservation by causing visitors to believe that the species must not be in jeopardy. This is especially the case for displays in which humans are allowed direct contact with animals.
What CAN we do to save endangered animals?
Ultimately, we’ll only be able to save endangered species if we save their habitats and stop animals from being hunted and killed—not by breeding them in captivity. Zoos regularly squander millions of dollars erecting statues and amusement rides and building gift shops and concession stands. This money would do far more to help animals if it were spent on habitat-preservation projects.
Instead of supporting zoos, we should support groups such as the International Primate Protection League, the Born Free Foundation, and other organizations that work to preserve habitats, not habits. Warehousing animals for life is not the way to save them from extinction. Their salvation lies in protecting their homes, not in creating animal prisons. Instead of visiting zoos, you can help animals by supporting organizations that work to protect them from exploitation and preserve habitats.
We should also help nonprofit sanctuaries, such as The Elephant Sanctuary and the Performing Animal Welfare Society, that rescue and care for exotic animals who cannot be released back into the wild and don’t sell or breed them.
If you love animals, it’s only natural that you want to be close to them, but animals shouldn’t have to live in misery because of our curiosity! They don’t belong to us and they’re NOT OURS to confine in zoos. Pledge never to support zoos, and urge your friends and family to stay away, too.