Zoos: Entertainment or Conservation?

It has become fashionable in my office for people to write whimsical out-of-offices when they go on leave.

One such out-of-office contained a note about going to the zoo and a justification about why they were going with a clear conscience – apart from the extortionate £25 ticket and the lack of sightings.

A Komodo dragon, London Zoo
A Komodo dragon, London Zoo

Now, before I get into this I want to highlight that I do go to zoos every now and again and I think they serve a very important function, however I do have some strong feelings about their efficiency and perceived effectiveness. First off, it’s worth highlighting the psychological suffering that captivity inflicts on larger mammals – something which most people will pass off as uniquely human suffering. Some reptiles, amphibians, fish and even some smaller mammals and birds may be quite happy in reasonably sized enclosures as they may only occupy a small space in their environment anyway. This is especially true for some snakes and reptiles that essentially only move to find food and will spend the majority of their time either basking in the sun or sitting motionless for weeks or possibly months (seriously!) digesting.

However, animals such as elephants, tigers, polar bears, or orcas (amongst many, many others) suffer appallingly in zoos and other wildlife attractions. I really mean it when I say “suffer”. You can routinely see large mammals pacing up and down their enclosures for hours – if you saw a human doing this you would assume they were sinking into some kind of psychological breakdown, why shouldn’t this be applied to animals?

Is it right to inflict this kind of suffering solely for our entertainment? Let’s not pretend we visit for any other reason.

The common argument in favour is that by exhibiting animals for our pleasure zoos can make money and raise awareness that will in turn help to fund and inform conservation of the species and their wider habitat in the wild.

Although I don’t believe this was the case when wildlife attractions and exhibits were first set up many years ago or that this is universally the case, they do play a part in wild conservation. It is unfortunate that the animals that most inspire this kind of venture are the animals most susceptible to psychological problems that I mentioned above.

How could the more morally-conscious attractions combat this? A much larger enclosure? A more stimulating environment? Increased interaction with members of their own species? Restrict susceptible animals to larger wildlife parks?

Possibly. But that costs money and will reduce the chance of seeing the “glory animals” on your visit.

Maybe we should be paying £50 a ticket and be glad of a glance of a digesting snake.

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