The ethics of zoos is a polarizing and complicated topic, even amongst vegans. Let’s see whether zoos are really the centers of education, amusement, conservation, and research they purport to be.
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What’s not to love about the zoo when you’re a kid? You get to see all kinds of animals from polar bears to giraffes. You can stand eye-to-eye with a chimpanzee, watch exotic birds preen and perform. You can watch penguins waddle on land and fly underwater, and see lions, tiger and bears!
As a parent, there’s a lot to love too. Plenty of fun for the kids, and, more importantly, education. They can learn about the natural habitat and behaviors of animals from all over the world and the value of conservation. But are these really the lessons zoos are conveying? Or is there a stronger message being imparted? tweet this
The ethics of zoos is a polarizing and complicated topic, even amongst vegans. The arguments usually brought forth by those in favor of zoos are fourfold: that they provide amusement, valuable education, vital research, and laudable conservation and rehabilitation.
I’m going to approach this issue from several angles in separate videos. Today we’re going to focus on the education zoos provide for our children.
It’s safe to say that most people have memories of visiting the zoo as a child. Personally, my first conscious memory of a zoo was in Jacksonville, Florida on an oppressively hot and humid Summer’s day. At that time the Jacksonville Zoo consisted of not much more than concrete slabs encased in bars with lethargic, panting animals languishing in the Florida heat. I remember thinking that this was supposed to be fun–that the zoo was supposed to be a good place for the animals. I struggled to reconcile the story I’d been told with the reality before me.
Of course many zoos, including the one in Jacksonville have vastly improved their enclosures. But how much have these surface beautifications impacted the animals’ quality of life? Or the message conveyed to visiting children?
When polled by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the National zoo accreditation organization in the United States, 94% of people believe that zoos teach their children about how to protect animals and the habitats they depend on.1 Dale Jamieson, Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at New York University raises an important nuanced point:
Of course, it is undeniable that some education occurs in some zoos. But this very fact raises other issues. What is it that we want people to learn from visiting zoos? Facts about the physiology and behaviour of various animals? Attitudes towards the survival of endangered species? Compassion for the fate of all animals? To what degree does education require keeping wild animals in captivity?2 tweet this— Dale Jamieson, Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at New York University
And therein lies the issue of zoo-based education. All of these educational goals can easily be met, and far more successfully, without caging living beings for profit. Let’s look at some of the mains educational draws touted by zoos: learning about animals’ natural habitat, their natural behaviors, and the value of conservation and animal stewardship.
Lesson Number One: Natural Habitats
No matter how accurately zoos attempt to recreate habitats, they will never be natural. While some zoos attempt to grant their animals as much space as possible, they can never recreate the natural expanse of territory found in the wild. Zoo animals spend day after day, year after year in the same enclosure. Birds can only flay so far, giraffes can only walk so many paces, elephants can only travel from one wall to another, and monkeys can only climb so high. Many species are used to traveling miles every day in nature.
So what are these clearly unnatural, human-imposed limitations really teaching kids about nature? That it can be recreated at will? That an enclosure that’s a fraction of the size of an animal’s natural territory can suffice as long as it looks real enough to humans? How does that exactly convey the importance of habitat preservation?
Lesson Number Two: Animal Behavior
This is perhaps the greatest failing of zoo education. There is nothing more unnatural than the behavior of wild animals in human-made enclosures. However, as many people have only seen wild animals in zoo environments, they may mistake stress behaviors for natural.
Zoo animals can develop any number of neurotic behaviors from the stress of captivity.3 These are scientifically referred to as “Abnormal Repetitive Behavior,” or ARB. In 1992 by Bill Travers, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation coined the term “Zoochosis” to describe this obsessive, repetitive behaviors, and described zoo animals behaving abnormally as “zoochotic.”4
The following year, the Zoo Check Charitable Trust produced “The Zoochotic Report,”5 taken over three years at over 100 zoos in Europe, though the neurotic behaviors captured in these videos are not confined to animals in European zoos. They include pacing and circling, tongue playing and bar-biting, neck twisting, head bobbing, weaving, and swaying, rocking, over-grooming and self-mutilation, vomiting and regurgitating, and coprophilia and coprophagia, meaning the playing with and eating of excrement in species that do not naturally exhibit this behavior, apathy or non-reaction to stimuli, abnormal mother-infant relationships, which can result in the injury and death of babies, prolonged infantile behavior, wherein animals do not mature properly, and abnormal aggressive behavior. (See the video for examples.)
These are not natural animal behaviors because these animals are not in nature. These are psychologically stressed beings exhibiting neurotic and even psychotic behavior. At their best, zoos misinform children about animal’s natural behaviors by conflating them with neuroses. At their worst, they teach children that keeping animals in conditions which result in such destructive behaviors is an acceptable form of entertainment, and even in the animals’ best interest.
Lesson Number Three: Conservation and Animal Stewardship
One of the strongest defenses of zoos is their contributions to conservation, which I’ll be doing an in-depth video on. In brief, conservation efforts, just like habitat and behavior education, do not have to involve captive animals on display. Conservation efforts are far more effectively handled by specialized wildlife breeding and rehabilitation programs far away from the prying eyes of the public. A 2013 study found that zoos lack the infrastructure and resources to carry out successful conservation efforts and that their approaches are too randomized.6
As far as what children learn from zoo conservation programs?7 Most likely as much as they do, and any adults do, from all of the neglected informational plaques displayed around zoos. (Neglected by most, that is—I read every one.)
If we want to teach our children the value of caring for and preserving the lives of animals, zoos are not the ideal classrooms they purport to be. Especially considering they pull animals from their natural habitat and overbreed them, then deal with the resulting “surplus” in any number of disturbing ways such as selling them for game hunting or killing them to feed to their other animals.8
Perhaps the most neglected flaws of portraying zoos as conveyers of the value of animal life, is the fact that they serve dead animals at every café and refreshment stand. Telling a child the value of protecting and preserving animals in one breath and serving them a carcass on a bun in the next is a bit if a mixed message, wouldn’t you say?
How Zoos Measure Up
As educational destinations, zoos fail miserably on all three counts.
In her book Raising Kids Who Love Animals, Child Psychiatrist Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna states that:
Though I hoped to find evidence to the contrary, I must conclude that zoos continue to be detrimental to animal welfare, and that they do not teach children positive lessons about animals. Kids who watch leopards pacing in mindless patterns get a completely inaccurate picture of what large predators are all about. They also learn that making sentient beings suffer for human amusement is acceptable. We want to teach kids to show kindness towards animals, not stare at their misery while eating popcorn.9— Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, Raising Kids Who Love Animals
This doesn’t mean kids have to miss out on engaging animal education. Children learn far more about an animal’s natural habitat, behavior, and value by watching documentaries of their actual behaviors filmed in their actual habitat. Planet Earth,10 for example, is a stunning documentary series from the BBC comprised of eleven episodes, each of which features a global overview of a different biome or habitat on Earth.
A great way for kids to connect with animals in real life is by visiting animal sanctuaries, where rescued and rehabilitated animals are allowed to live in peaceful settings. I’ve included a links to lists of international sanctuaries below11 along with further resources.
Other zoo alternative activities include visiting local parks, hiking trials, and basically, just going outside. We tend to undervalue the beauty and life in our own backyards. Kids can volunteer at local animal shelters, or even babysit neighbor’s pets to learn the importance of caring for and protecting animals.
All of the lessons zoos are meant to teach our children are far more effectively taught elsewhere, and without the cost to the animals themselves.
I hope this video has been helpful. This is just the first peak into this complex topic, so stay tuned for more zoo-based videos to come. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this aspect of the zoo issue. What do you think zoos are teaching out children? Did you go to zoos as a kid? Have you taken your own children? Let me know in the comments!
— Emily Moran Barwick
mike colarusso says
I don’t disagree with your assessment on zoos, especially for higher forms of predators, larger animals in general and primates. some of the prey species and and smaller animals may do ok at a good zoo, but i don’t really have a hard opinion on this. a couple points, you say enclosures are better in most zoos, but show clips of the old style. i live in jacksonville, fl and agree the enclosures are much better although when i see the apes i feel sad, they look so bored. my last point is i have gone to a few “sanctuaries” and honestly i was more impressed with the jax zoo. some of the sanctuary enclosures are small and they allow the public in and charge $. not sure what the answer is but i do worry about how some of us vegans want so little contact with/ impact on animals. i worry that if it is not done correctly, people could lose interest in animals and not care as much about them over time. just some thoughts, prob
Wow. Another important video. So well done. So well argued. Thank you. Unfortunately and very sadly, I took my boys to a zoo and a circus when they were little. Horrible. I am appalled that I did that. I remember being sad, especially in the circus. We must work to abolish such cruelty. Your video will help a few people to wake up. I have already shared it.
Much love from Frid
Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) says
Thank you so much Frid. And I don’t think you’re alone in that experience! Much love.
sally anne hubbard says
Very good video. Animals belong in their natural habitat.
I hate it when people say how are kids going to learn about animals when they feed kids animals 3 times a day.
As a child, I was fascinated by the animals at the zoos we visited. I began to read Gerald Durrell at an early age and my goal was to become a zookeeper so as to help endangered species survive and be reintroduced to the wild. I had a very idealistic notion of zoos as genetic arks that had wonderful captive breeding and reintroduction programs. I geared my schooling to become a zookeeper. And I did — for 4 years i worked at the Los Angeles Zoo and it was easily the most horrifying and the most magical job of my life. I ended up quitting as I became increasingly disillusioned by the zoo world. It took awhile to leave, as you begin to feel like a friend to those locked up. The LA Zoo wasn’t the worst or the best zoo ever either. But I found I could no longer be a part of that world. While some zoos, like the Durrell Zoo in Jersey, have admirable conservation programs, most are primarily for entertainment and most of the animals suffer, captive-bred or not. Captive breeding programs are tricky and rife with hard decisions but can work — the California Condor, black-footed ferret, Nene Goose and more are fine examples. But those aren’t zoo programs. The Condor program was off exhibit at the LA Zoo. Well, anyhow, I am opposed to zoos. We do not have the right to put sentient beings on display.
Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) says
Thank you so much for sharing this Karen. It was powerful to hear about your journey. I think a lot of animal lovers look for animal-geared areers before realizing how much animals are actually harmed by such fields. I really appreciate you sharing this.
Creatures of any kind do not belong in zoos, circuses, nightclubs, or aquaria, not to mention fishbowls, I believe. When all is said and done, no matter what good zoos actually do, nothing justifies depriving a creature of its Liberty. Any creature.
My question for your personal video, Emily:
How the heck did you get so loving, compassionate, and just plain smart? Did this spring from a glorious childhood amidst intelligent and compassionate adults, or did such revelations come later? That I applaud your kindness goes without saying, but I am also struck by the loving way you view not only the non-human world, but the human one as well. Your tolerance and understanding are particularly needed just now.
Jenny Wall says
I remember being taken to our local zoo as a child and even though it was in some way amazing to see the animals up close, it did upset me seeing the tiny cages and enclosures and watching a bear pace up and down in a concrete enclosure upset me so much. Years later I was taken again and although they had improved the space a little, a bear, probably the same one, was now pacing up and down in a grassy area and had worn a path into the mud. Broke my heart.
I work at a primary school and last year’s field trip was to the same zoo, luckily the school were very understanding when I asked if I could possibly be excused from accompanying the children on this trip.
A friend said recently that a zoo about 50 miles from here is rated as the 6th best in the country, I replied by saying that’s like saying a person is being held in the 6th best prison in the country. They had no response to that.
David Hopkins says
I hope this comment will not get flagged as advertising/spam but I will keep my fingers crossed and post it anyway because I feel it has a lot of parallels to this video. In the novel I self-published “The Sheltered Life of Betsy Parker” which is about a girl who has to live her entire life naked because she has an allergic skin condition to all forms of clothing, her parents (she is 7 years old at this point in the story) are debating whether or not to take her to a nudist resort and her mother says, about nudist resorts including children “This is wrong. Carl, (her husband’s name) this is so wrong” to which Carl promptly responds “Don’t you think it’s wrong that Betsy is kept shut up in the house, homeschooled all the time, never allowed any freedom, like she’s an animal in the zoo?”
Keeping animals (just like children) locked up 24/7 cradle to grave without any freedom is neither humane nor educational.