The zoo. A wonderland for children where they can let their curiosity thrive, a place where one can appreciate the true wonder of nature in this ever industrialising world. Indubitably, the zoo will bring memories very dear to hearts of all ages – a cacophony of noises and stunning beauty. However, many people have questioned whether there is something more sinister behind this seeming perfection. Given the recent fire at Chester Zoo that sadly resulted in the death of some of the animals, it is time to ask again – are zoos moral?

Do zoos protect animals?

One very strong argument that zoos are moral is that they provide protection to animals – especially endangered or weak animals. Some zoos have done outstanding work at protecting endangered animals as they remove the threat of hunters, predators, competitors and other factors that cause animals to be endangered. One of the best examples of this is the outstanding work zoos have done to save Amur Leopards from the brink of extinction. Due to a successful breeding program that was established in 1961, there is now a stable population of 173 Amur Leopards in captivity (as of December 2011).

However, it is very important to note that in some cases, zoos sell/obtain their animals to/from very immoral entities such as poachers and circuses. It is very common for illegally trafficked animals to be acquired by zoos, and the people supplying these animals who have mistreated these animals so badly have an incentive to carry on as they get money from zoos.

This is clearly unacceptable, but with the right regulation and an ever more aware society, we can hope to slowly see an end to this. So while zoos are not perfect, the protection they can provide is clearly a far better and moral alternative to allowing hundreds of thousands of animals to be left at the mercy of ruthless poachers. But the keyword here is ‘can’.

Do zoos offer satisfactory conditions?

It is all well and good preventing animals from being poached and dying out, but is there any point if they are then forced to live in sub-par conditions? Zoos inherently restrict an animal’s freedom to roam in their natural habitat as they provide a small enclosure which will only resemble their natural habitat to a degree. This can have a profound effect on some animals for two main reasons. Firstly, they have much less freedom to explore their habitat. There is limited space for animals who roam a lot in their usual habitats – lions, tigers and polar bears are especially affected by this. Secondly, animals will be far more isolated as there are far fewer creatures to interact with (if any). This is extremely problematic to social animals such as apes and hyenas. It has constantly been shown that in an inauthentic habitat, many animals start to have very unusual behaviour (a UK government study revealed that 54% of elephants in UK zoos displayed behavioural problems) and develop mental illness.

This all is made even worse by how they are treated by humans, zoo-keepers and visitors alike. Purely for the purposes of entertainment, animals are taught to do tricks which is not only arguably infringing on their freedom of choice, the methods used can be very immoral. In 2010 at Woburn Safari Park, it was discovered that an elephant (described as “one of the best trained and most manageable bulls [bull elephants] in Europe”) was forced to obey commands by the use of 4500-volt electric shocks. Sadly, similar incidents are anything but rare. Time and again, zoos are exposed for how they have mistreated and neglected animals, yet we are only scratching the surface.

The effect of these poor conditions is evident when we look at how many animals in zoos die prematurely. The Como Park Zoo said that 26% of male gorillas and 20% of female gorillas within one year of captivity, lower than the mortality rate in the wild. Zoos may save some animals from extinction. However, upon closer examination, the treatment of animals in zoos frequently seems to be just as immoral as the poachers they claim to protect these animals from.

Killing animals at zoos

Even worse than negligence or mistreatment, some zoos actively kill animals for very preventable reasons. In a Freedom for Animals study, it was found that between 7,500 and 200,000 animals are in surplus at any given time. As a result, overcrowding in zoos can occur for some species. Sadly, some measures against this can only be described as utterly immoral; this involves killing unwanted animals. In some cases, cubs are also killed if they are discovered to be hybrid. These young animals which could either be released in the wild or transferred elsewhere are simply shot. The fact that this occurs and is sometimes encouraged/defended shows that zoos are very immoral and provide miserable conditions for animals. What’s more, when animals escape zoos (often due to poor conditions), they are often killed mercilessly when discovered roaming in public.

The verdict

Zoos have great potential to provide sanctuary to endangered animals and educate people about the wonders of nature. This utopian image ought to be encouraged. However, the reality of zoos is that they care little about providing welfare for animals and just want to make a profit. While some successful programs have demonstrated the potential for zoos to make a positive impact, too many times has the safety and health of animals been compromised. With so many animals being mistreated and killed at zoos (not to mention the questionable sources and links zoos have), it is clear that at this moment, zoos are not fit for their purpose. They are wonderful places to visit and can inspire change, but the frankly immoral treatment of these animals makes it hard to defend zoos. Personally, I think it is quite clear that zoos compromise the agency of animals and are far more immoral than moral.

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