Do We Really Need Zoos?

I’ve visited many zoos around the world in my twenty five years on this planet, and I always looked forward to indulging in my love of nature in whatever small, humble way I could, land-locked in the centre of the UK or, more recently, relocated on a tiny Mediterranean island with virtually no native mammal species.

So during my recent trip to Madrid a day out to the city’s zoo was definitely on my to-do list. However, after my visit I found myself feeling unusually hollow and felt as though I had come to a new realisation since my last zoo experience eight years ago.

Zoos have moved on a great deal since 1828 when weird and wonderful animals were transported from across our colonies for our gawking eyes and our amusement. Facilities have improved, cages (or enclosures) have gotten bigger, and education, welfare and conservation have become a much higher priority. Zoos have allowed many people, me included, to learn about species that they would not have otherwise been able to see, and zoos inspire and intrigue us at all ages.

However, I left the city zoo feeling that this showcase of the natural world, as diverse and immersing as it was, was just a falsity. A portfolio of species in a context that simply does not exist in the wild. I struggle to see the benefits of zoos claiming conservation aims when they have managed to successfully breed a family of rare giant pandas, only to keep them confined to a relatively small and featureless enclosure with no possibility of ever introducing them into the wild to diversify its minuscule population.

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I struggle to see the educational purposes of keeping (as far as I could see, at least) a lone wolf in an area not big enough for it to break into a run. This is not a typical or an accurate representation of the wolf in the wild. We all know that the wolf is a highly intelligent, social and transient species that roams vast areas and holds a huge territory with diverse habitat.

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The rather lonely (and also rather scrawny) Arctic wolf 

I struggle to see how children benefit from being held in front of a fence by their parents for a photo, when the child is not even old enough to know that he is a child. Or how older children can learn anything aboutanimals by banging on the glass screaming, or commenting (yet again) that they found Dory.

It’s problematic for me, one who wishes to indulge in nature as much as possible, and who craves contact with the natural world, to feel such apathy for this place. Whilst I am certain at least that the animals that I saw had their basic needs taken care of, behavioural, spacial, social and psychological restrictions are clearly felt. It definitely gave me some serious food for thought.

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I’d love to know your opinions on this matter.

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6 thoughts on “Do We Really Need Zoos?

  1. It’s a difficult one. London Zoos big mammals all live outside London at Whipsnade. Much open space and maybe they live a more safe life? There are examples of species that have been reintroduced and zoos have helped. I think we should welcome good zoos with strong conservation aims. Safari parks I am a bit more suspect about even though there is space.

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  2. Agree, the biggest issue I have is space; some of the larger mammals may be safer in game reserves, but even this intense monitoring is far from ideal. We definitely need more genuine zoos and much fewer Seaworlds.

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  3. It’s a very tricky issue. I hate seeing some animals kept in zoos. However, as an example, our local zoo uses the revenue from the 750,000 people who visit every year to fund real conservancy not only by breeding at the zoo and reintroducing species into their native habitats where they do not exist anymore or where they are disappearing, but also to support conservancy in real life situations around the planet. I first went to the zoo (this zoo, actually) when I was 2 – and it sparked a life-long interest in animals. and once you have an interest, that develops into a regard, and then a desire to make sure they survive. so i think they do work on that level, too. Our local zoo has just opened a safari park for their bigger animals, so they don’t need to be kept within small confines, at least, too small confines, and can interact with other species and live a more normal life. i see this as the future of zoos. They also have schoolchildren in and fund education projects about endangered wildlife for all. The future of zoos lies in big enough enclosures, education, and in the end, hopefully, managing conservation in situ – but of course war interferes with this sort of plan. i HATE to see gorillas and large primates in captivity – but they are so endangered, and so hard to keep safe in their own spaces (gorillas and orangutans in particular) that in some cases this is is the only choice. There are only 1,500 or so wild pandas inChina. They require huge areas of linked bamboo to survive as bamboo flourishes for four years then dies off – before regenerating, the pandas have to find another food source. But building or roads has often got in the path of them migrating to a new source. Pandas kept around the world ensure that too many kept in one place in captivity do not all succumb to a virus or fire or any other number of disasters that can strike a small and diminishing population – it also helps keep genetic strains distinct so they don’t become inbred. it’s not all about people ogling animals at the price of the animals’ welfare any longer. Although we are the reason for all these problems in the first place.

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  4. Hi Liz sorry it to me so long to reply! I agree I think it was partly my interaction with animals at wildlife parks and zoos (and David Attenborough!) that sparked my interest. As you rightly said its another double-edged sword issue – as we are the reason that we need to protect animals by keeping them in zoos. The world needs a drastic re-think!

    Thank you for taking the time to read and leaving your detailed thoughts 🙂

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