Should we boycott zoos?

Have you visited a zoo recently? Did you spare a thought about all those animals kept in enclosures smaller, or simply different, than their natural habitats? There are clear signs of boredom that you can see in squirrels, horses, elephants, and many other animals too. And on top of that there are hundreds of zoos in many countries, each with the primary aim of maximizing the number of entrance fees paid. On top of the ‘efficiently’ sized enclosures this also means pulling in many animals that experts deem completely unsuitable for captivity e.g. Polar bears.

Now most zoos shift focus from the Victorian emphasis on entertainment to the modern emphases on species conservation and entertainment. But not everyone agrees that this excuses their loss of liberty. Take wolves for example. There are several breeds that we have deliberately driven to extinction, and keep alive in zoos with no intention of re-introducing them to the wild. What difference exists between this, and an inter-species war with the winning side keeping the opposing survivors alive in cages for their amusement?

What are your views on the ethics of zoos? Do they teach empathy and conservation as claimed by zoos? Or do they abuse the rights of animals, and enforce an unfounded presumption about humanity’s superiority?

Now I’m not opposed to zoos. But just as food for thought we visited a zoo recently in Kent. We passed an enclosure housing the red squirrel, an animal native to the UK. It was pacing back and forth in front of the bars, seemingly in distress. My wife said “I feel sorry for it. He’s obviously bored.” but a child from the group behind us said “look mummy it’s dancing for us.” Both reactions seem natural. But one shows empathy. The other presumes that animals are there solely to entertain. What are zoos for in your opinion? Are they ethical? Can we justify going? Or should we boycott them?


  • I agree that zoos need to be held much more accountable, and to a much higher standard of care than they currently are.

    I visited a zoo in Cologne, Germany this year and had heard it had quite a good reputation for its animal welfare, enclosures, etc,. It had many fantastic reviews on TripAdvisor.

    But I was decidedly underwhelmed and only found a few of the enclosures to be sufficient for the animals.

    Zoo’s do counter that they provide education and breeding programs, but as you say, these breeding programs tend to only be used to provide more animals for zoos. I have not heard of very man zoos at all releasing animals back into the wild. This is of course a fairly self-evident fact given that most of the animals kept and supposedly bred in the zoos aren’t even from the same continent where they currently reside.

    In regards to ‘education’, I don’t think school children, or anybody, has the right to see tigers, elephants, dolphins, etc, kept in captivity purely for their ‘intellectual stimulation’. It is a high form of irony that we imprison animals so that we can teach people how to appreciate animals.

    Secondly, television with all it’s good wildlife documentaries, performs a much better service in educating people about nature. And to me, this is one place where TV actually provides much more stimulation than seeing the animal in the flesh sitting glumly in an enclosure.

    I have seen small petting zoos that seem to be quite a good idea, and these stimulate childrens’ interest well, and do not seem to impinge too much on the natural behaviours of the animals, mainly due to the choice of animals selected, i.e. lambs, guinea pigs, etc,.

    Zoo’s have progressed a little bit, but not much, from their poor reputations of the past.

  • Good response Sean. I agree. It’s ironic that even the name used to describe being compassionate (being ‘humane’) discriminates against other animals. But even if this is the chosen word then zoos need to radically progress if we are to even think of ourselves as being humane.

    To be honest I’m not going to stop taking my son to zoos. I do believe it’s beneficial for him; more so than tv. And plus we’re kind of in a catch-22 situation right now. It’s similar to the argument about whether or not we should eat meat. On the one hand it seems cruel to kill and eat other sentient beings. But on the other hand if we did not farm animals then we would most probably ‘cull’ them, or simply abandon them to starvation. The same is true for zoos. Without them the less common animals would struggle to survive. So what’s the solution? I certainly don’t re-frequent those zoos which obviously mis-treat animals, and most of the time as you say I try and find those petting zoos, where native animals roam free, and visitors can wander around inside their habitat. But there is also a place for the zoos with rarer species, and the popularity of the safari style zoos is growing. Perhaps in time we will see these take over those which house the animals in too small enclosures. But to be honest I really do think this is an area for government action, and pressure groups. Simply boycotting some, or all zoos, will only bring those zoos less money with which to expand and maintain their existing enclosures. And while the bad ones are local, the locals will always go.

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