The Wild Side On Ice

The Ethical Conundrum Of Zoos

zoo ethics

By Andrew Amouzou –

A trip to the zoo is a must-do for lots of folks, especially in the summer. Sure, people may instinctively fear wild lions, tigers and bears. But coming face-to-face with these beasts in the comforting confines of a zoo is pretty cool. Plus, zoos in general are pretty nice places to hang out—if you’re a person, of course. Chances are animals may feel differently because not all zoos are created equal and not all animals adapt well to life in captivity.

The debate over the ethical considerations of zoos is nothing new. Its raged for decades, leading many concerned citizens to avoid them altogether. But there is, apparently, some gray areas.

Wildlife biologist Stephanie Schuttler maintains its possible to decipher between ethical and unethical zoos. Key considerations include how money is being earned and spent, the barriers used to keep the public from animals, is the facility committed to wildlife education and what role does it play in overall animal conservation.

Most people probably don’t spend a lot of time considering how zoos impact animal health. But for those who do, they tend to believe that animal captivity is basically unethical for any animal. Some species, however, suffer more than others and can develop “zoochosis,” a condition that can lead bears, primates, big cats, elephants, giraffes and others to become depressed, anxious, physically ill and engage in meaningless repetitive behavior.

The New York Times cited a recent study that examined the effects of animals pacing in captivity. The study’s researchers found that “the time devoted to pacing by a species in captivity is best predicted by the daily distances traveled in nature by the wild specimens.”

Additionally, the study observed elephants bobbing their heads, chimps pulling out their hair, giraffes endlessly flicking their tongues and bears pacing as clear indications of behavioral problems.

Some zoos make matters worse by trying to release older animals back into the wild after they’ve served their audience-attracting purpose. The results are usually not good. The KQED organization, for example, explained that zoo-kept lions and tigers reintroduced to the wild usually don’t survive because they’ve lost or never developed the skills to fend for themselves.

Simply put, these artificial environments generally don’t offer the same benefits for the animals as their natural habitats. The Bronx Zoo exemplified the problem with captive animals when it was targeted in 2015 for hosting the world’s “Loneliest Elephant”. The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee explained that one of the zoo’s female elephants, Happy, had been living by herself for close to a decade, which was devastating for Happy since elephants in the wild live in closely bonded matriarchal families.

With the needs of captive animals at stake, organizations such as the nonprofit Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA)  work with zoos and aquariums nationally to raise the standard for animal care, while still making these facilities fun and educational. It also claims to support scientific research, conservation and educational programs.

Some zoos have even managed to strike a balance that allows them make a significant difference for endangered species.

Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, for example, set the stage for an amazing success story through its Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery program, which aimed to help secure a healthy future for the once endangered bird.

Hurricanes, predators and habitat loss had, in fact, reduced the once-thriving population to just 13 members by 1975. By working with other animal organizations and services, the ongoing recovery program was able to revitalize healthy parrot populations in two of Puerto Rico’s forest preserves. The continuing effort now intends to re-establish three more wild populations in the near future.

Do problems like these exonerate zoos entirely? Probably not. But it’s an example of how these facilities can strike a better balance between entertainment, education and animal welfare.

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