Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Zoos and Aquariums Do Not Accomplish What They Claim They Do

Zoos fall short on claims about attitude change and education

Many people visit zoos and aquariums (let's call them all zoos for convenience) for a variety of reasons. While there are "better" and "worse" zoos, animals residing in captivity live highly compromised lives (see also) often being kept in very small cages and unnatural groups without family and friends while suffering losses of freedom of movement and the ability to control their own lives. Some can't get out of the publlc eye and are on constant display during visiting hours during which time they eat, urinate, defecate, rest and sleep, and sometimes mate under constant scrutiny. Many are simply bored and some, like African elephants, die at a significantly younger age than their wild relatives as shown by a study published in the prestigious scientific journal, Science. Elephants in captivity lived an average of 19 years compared to 56 years in the wild. Major zoos also have had serious problems (see also) but have continued to receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Do zoos accomplish what they claim to do? No, according to a detailed study recently published in a peer-reviewed professional journal (the paper is available here). Lori Marino, of Emory University, and her colleagues conducted a research project to assess the claims of a study performed by the AZA on why zoos matter, and they report in their abstract

Modern-day zoos and aquariums market themselves as places of education and conservation. A recent study conducted by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) (Falk et al., 2007) is being widely heralded as the first direct evidence that visits to zoos and aquariums produce long-term positive effects on people's attitudes toward other animals. In this paper, we address whether this conclusion is warranted by analyzing the study's methodological soundness. We conclude that Falk et al. (2007) contains at least six major threats to methodological validity that undermine the authors' conclusions. There remains no compelling evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, or interest in conservation in visitors, although further investigation of this possibility using methodologically sophisticated designs is warranted.

The study by Professor Marino and her colleagues clearly shows that zoos fall short on their claims that seeing animals in these facilities has long-term positive effects on people's attitudes toward other animals. Thus, we need to revisit the very reasons why zoos exist, why animals should be kept in these places and often shipped here and there as if they're objects for purposes of mating or adding to an already existing collection, and why people should visit them rather than watch videos of wild animals, observe the animals with whom they share their homes, or simply take walks in nature and enjoy the fauna and flora they see, hear, and smell.

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today