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Most Animals in Zoos Are Happy: Really?

A short debate on CNN on zoos and conservation is well worth watching

Just what are zoos good for? This question comes up time and time again and people disagree on the answers to this seemingly straightforward question. Indeed, this question is not as simple as it appears, but one answer that pretty much captures what we know is that it really is questionable just how much zoos really do for education and conservation (see also).  Zoos often move animals around as if they're objects, breaking up deep and long-term friendships, and also kill what they call "surplus" animals if they're not part of their long-term breeding plans. The killing of these animals is not euthanasia as zoo administrators call it, but rather zoothanasia, because getting rid of these "unneeded" animals isn't at all a mercy-killing. Many of the animals who are killed are healthy and could otherwise have long lives even if they're kept in cages. 

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A recent and short debate about zoos between Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation and conservation biologist Andrew Marshall of the University of York in the UK brings many of the main issues to light. Dr. Marshall points out that many animals need help and that zoos are good for them. He notes there are millions of zoo visitors a year and claims that youngsters get much needed "out of classroom education" when they go to zoos.

Marshall also maintains that there are data that show that zoos are good for education and conservation but, as Will Travers points out, there are studies that show that they do not. While zoo visitors might learn something when they're at a zoo there are no data that show that this experience actually translates into any long-term commitment to learning more about animals or to conservation. Travers correctly notes that going to a zoo is not necessarily learning. Of course we've all heard stories that going to a zoo really stimulated someone to do more for animals but compared to the millions of people who go to zoos these stories are extremely rare.

There also aren't any data that show that zoos are "bad" for education or conservation although some people worry that they send the wrong message that it's okay to keep animals in cages for our own entertainment. However, there are data that show that the way animals are (mis)represented in media, in this case endangered chimpanzees, can make people think they're doing just fine and really don't need our help. This distortion can hinder conservation efforts and we really also need to learn if zoos play a role in perpertuating this misinformation. 

Travers argues that there really is no justification for keeping millions of animals in the approximately 10,000 zoos worldwide for which the budgets total billions of dollars. He also notes that for the vast majority of these species there is absolutely no prospect that any individuals will ever be returned to the wild or that their presence in a zoo helps wild relatives. Available data show he is correct. But some people are beginning to try to get captive animals back into the wild. For example, to get this "reintroduction" process going, in June 2012 Damian Aspinall, who took over two wildlife parks founded by his father more than 50 years ago in the Kent countryside in England, began making plans to release some animals back into the wild, beginning with 40 individuals of various species, including langurs, gibbons, and black rhinos. I wish him well. I put the word "reintroduction" in quotes because none of these animals ever lived in the wild but they are going to be put back in the historical habitat of other members of their species.

While Travers and Marshall disagree on different points they both agree that much more time, effort, and money must be put into conserving animals in their natural habitats and for protecting their homes. 

"Most Animals in Zoos Are Happy"

I found this debate to be a very useful and concise summary of the important issues surrounding the questions of why should zoos exist and what do they really do. Towards the end of this discussion, in defense of zoos, Dr. Marshall sort of off the cuff claimed "Most animals in zoos are happy". This really caught my ear because while he may believe this we really don't know if this is so. Indeed, there are plenty of data that show that zoos compromise the lives of their inhabitants in terms of promoting unnatural behavior patterrns such as sterotyped pacing, self-mutilation, high levels of stress, obesity, and reductions in longevity. 

As I point out elsewhere, when people say something like "Most animals in zoos are unhappy" because they're not fans of zoos they're accused of being anthropomorphic and wrong. They're told, as Dr. Marshall claimed, that the animals are happy. But, of course, claiming that animals are happy is also being anthropomorpic so the charge of anthropomorphism is vacuous. 

I applaud CNN for holding this debate and I'm sure there will be many more as it appears that for the foreseeable future zoos are here to stay and there are people who like them and people who don't. These sorts of discussions are only useful if in the end the animals themselves benefit from them. We must do all we can to make their compromised lives as good as they can be as we work to phase out zoos. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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