Of the 5,926 species (mammals, birds, reptiles and others) classified as threatened or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, only around 120 species are involved in international zoo breeding programs, and from these just 16 species have been reintroduced to the wild - often unsuccessfully.
A lot of captive-bred animals lack survival skills, and as a result, some reintroduction projects have had to be suspended indefinitely. Releases of captive animals also pose a significant disease threat to native populations. In some cases, reintroductions have been cancelled after discovering viruses in captive-bred populations that were due to be released in areas where the virus was unknown; in others, native animals have died because of viruses spread by introduced animals.
Zoos only divert funds that could be used to actually help and save animals in the wild. It is estimated to be 50 times more expensive to keep an elephant in a zoo than to protect sufficient natural habitat to sustain that elephant and many other animals. The costs, both financial and to the animals themselves, of captive breeding conservation programmes are astronomically high. Money could be better, and more ethically, spent establishing protected reserves, funding anti-poaching patrols and lobbying for legislation to protect wildlife.
Most animals kept in zoos are there just to draw in the tourists. Lions are popular ‘exhibits’ in zoos, but according to an international zoo journal, the vast majority of the lions “are ‘generic’ animals of hybrid or unknown sub-specific status, and are therefore of little or no value in conservation terms.” Zoos even still take animals from the wild! Throughout the 1990s over 1,000 elephants were taken from the wild and sold to zoos and circuses, and over 70% of elephants in European zoos today were wild-caught.
Zoos do nothing to promote respect or appreciation for animals. In fact, they do quite the opposite. Trips to zoos leave children, and adults, with a distorted view of animals and how they should be treated. A study of zoo-visitor attitudes found that, after people saw animals in zoo enclosures, they had “a significantly greater negative and dominionistic attitude towards animals.”
In the wild, animals react to their surroundings, avoiding predators, seeking food and interacting with others of their species. These animals would also normally roam for tens of miles a day, but instead they are reduced to circling their pens. It is so common for big cats to constantly pace up and down their enclosure that zoos put concrete paths along the fence to stop the ground wearing down.
What might seem to be ‘larger’ or ‘better’ enclosures are, in reality, completely impoverished in terms of the animals’ real needs. Space in zoos do nothing to match the animals’ natural range. A study of zoos worldwide found that lions and other big cats have 18,000 times less space in zoos than in the wild, and that figure rises to one million times less space for captive polar bears. For fifteen hours a day, many animals may be shut away in their night quarters with even less room to move.
Even their diets are unnatural. Zebras in zoos become overweight, as the grass they are given is higher in calories than the grasses of the African savannah. The resulting obesity can make the animal susceptible to nutritional illness.
Frustration and boredom are commonplace amongst animals in zoos and can lead to obsessive behaviours in the form of repetitive movements such as pacing, swaying, and even self-mutilation. This is known as stereotypic behaviour. With nothing to do, animals in zoos go out of their minds. Studies have found that lions in zoos spend 48% of their time pacing and 40% of elephants performed stereotypic behaviours.
Some animals suffer such serious behavioural problems in zoos that they are given anti-depressants, tranquillisers and anti-psychotic drugs to control their behaviours. Even Dublin Zoo was caught giving animals drugs such as prozac and valium.
Zoo enclosures prevent the inmates from enjoying even their most basic behavioural repertoire including exercise and social interaction. Birds are virtually stripped of their most precious gift, flight, often able to do little more than flutter their wings. Consequently, birds in zoos are prone to arthritis and osteoporosis. However, it is not just a matter of space, but also the quality of the environment.
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, their intelligence is universally accepted, but they exchange the infinite possibilities of the forest for little more than playground climbing frames which would not keep a human child occupied for hours, let alone years. Reptiles need complex thermal ranges, variation in humidity, special phases of light and other factors that may seem difficult for us to appreciate as humans.
Zoos rarely have the numbers to match the natural social interaction of herd animals. And when animals do find company, their world may be torn apart when cage mates are sold or become excess to requirements.
Did you know that zoos actually over-breed animals? The sad truth is that in many zoos, animals are bred simply to attract visitors and then pressure on space and resources means that a lot of them will be disposed of or killed at the end of the season.
It is estimated that at least 7,500 individual animals in European zoos are ‘surplus’ at any one time. What do they do with the ‘surplus’ that they don‘t kill? They sell these poor animals to circuses, vivisection laboratories, exotic meat farms and the ‘pet’ trade. An undercover investigation revealed that even Dublin Zoo sold animals to the Chipperfield’s Circus (who are convicted animal abusers).
Zoos only serve to degrade, exploit and abuse animals that should be free. What gives us the right to enslave these animals, just because we find it entertaining to stare at them?
IF YOU LOVE ANIMALS, DON’T GO TO THE ZOO!