I'm not a fan of zoos, including aquariums, but for now at least they're not going away. Zoos and aquariums don't really do not much if anything for education and conservation, ship animals around as if they're mere objects, reduce the life span of their residents, and places like SeaWorld are notorious for mistreating animals and for the death of their residents and humans (see also and), yet they persist in many shapes and sizes and of varying quality. In fact, zoos really do very little or nothing for the individuals who live there or for other members of their species. Indeed, many people, including experts in the fields of animal behavior and conservation biology, argue that the animals living in zoos and aquariums are "fabricated" or "faux" animals and are not at all representative of their wild relatives. Be that as it may, zoos are here to stay at least for a while.
I just read an interesting interview with zoo expert David Hancocks sent to me by my friend Hannah Jaicks about the need to revolutionize zoos. As long as zoos exist there is so much that can and must be done to vastly improve and enrich the lives of the beings who are forced to languish in concrete or aquatic cages. Despite some of my colleagues claiming that "good" people don't work in zoos, it's clear that many people who really care about animals do indeed choose to work in zoos and the animals are lucky they're there. I've had students delay going to graduate school so that they could continue to work in zoos so that the animals with whom they bonded would be well taken care of and not have to get used to or stressed out by the presence of a new keeper, and other friends who could have gone on to higher-paying jobs choosing to continue to work in zoos because they felt badly for the animals for whom they were responsible.
David Hancocks is one among many others who choose to work in the zoo industry and also tirelessly work for the resident animals. Often it's not an easy job because there are some who claim they really do care for the animals but their behavior belies these claims—they separate and ship animals around and engage in breeding programs that do nothing for the individuals or species involved. For them and others money rules and animal well-being gets mere lip-service.
Some snippets from the interview with David Hancocks include:
If zoos gave serious attention to education we should surely see much greater variety in their collections, to help them better focus on biodiversity; if they were serious about conservation they would give much more attention to local species; and if they truly wanted their visitors to develop better understandings of the natural world they would be showing and interpreting the really small life forms.
In this regard it is disturbing to note studies showing that the present coordinated breeding program for elephants is doomed to failure. Yet zoos persist in making loud and persistent claims that they are centers of elephant conservation, and, as the AZA has risibly declared, are critical to their survival.
What zoos have decided to do instead is to design animal enclosures (they call them "habitats") that look vaguely naturalistic, but in which the animals have no contact with anything natural. None of their senses are stimulated by the typical zoo-built enclosure. Everything they touch except their food and feces is unnatural: trees made of concrete or plastic; floors made to look natural but formed of unyielding concrete (or, occasionally, tan-bark or hard packed dirt, each as useless to the animals as concrete). The animal spaces are very often as barren as the old menagerie cages. Visitor spaces, meanwhile, are typically bewildering and visually chaotic spaces that vaguely resemble a mix of suburban park environments and the Tarzanesque appearance of Hollywood B grade movies. Worryingly, all these modern zoo exhibits are usually designed by specialized professionals.
I recently attended a symposium on The Future of Zoos. The opening statement on its program stated that zoos today are "dominated by multi-species displays that strive to replicate entire eco-systems." Dominated? Entire eco-systems? This is the same sort of nonsensical hubris that the AZA continually parades, making such claims as, "The survival of the world's endangered species pivots on the conservation and education efforts of modern zoos." (My [the interviewer's] emphasis added.) This mindset is the greatest stumbling block to zoo progress.
Zoo animals are lucky to have friends like David Hancocks. I, like, many others, would like to see zoos phased out, but as long as they're around we must do all we can to improve and enrich the lives of their residents. A revolution is sorely needed so that the animals who are held in various sorts of cages can live with more respect and dignity.