I’ve been visiting zoos ever since I can remember. The Bowmanville Zoo has always been a ten minute drive from where I grew up and there were many years where we would take school trips to the Toronto Zoo.
It seems so normalized – a great way to spend the day with your kids, teaching them about the animals that bring a smile to their faces. But is this how we should be teaching our kids about animals? That animals should be locked up and under our control? That because we have the intelligence, we should dictate the fate of every living thing?
They probably get enough of this at home, seeing you boss around the family dog, set traps for mice, buy special garbage cans to keep away racoons. All along you’re sending the message that humans are in control, making the decisions. And we are. But if we continue to run the world the way we do, there won’t be many animals left to teach your kids about.
My main reason for writing this, is that I haven’t been able to understand how I feel about zoos. On one hand, I love animals, just seeing them brings me so much joy. However, I also find visiting zoos to be very painful – so many animals display obvious signs of stress and it makes me sad to see wild/exotic animals in a cage, far from home, being gawked at. My goal is to explore the pros and cons of zoos in order to educate myself and hopefully raise awareness of this issue.
For the Love of Learning
Might as well start out on the positive side since I have a feeling this will be the losing end. I think it is important to keep in mind that when considering the positive aspects of zoos, that it is an ideal and not always a reality. The arguments for zoos describe what they are potentially capable of, but is usually not representative. I would also note that although most of these points seem positive, there is another point that counteracts it.
So far the only argument I found that seems of any worth is “Some zoos help rehabilitate wildlife and take in exotic pets that people no longer want or are no longer able to care for.” Every other point fails to stand up to scrutiny or ignores the whole point – the animals. I’m actually disgusted that someone thought these were arguments for why we should have zoos:
- Zoos are a tradition, and a visit to a zoo is a wholesome, family activity.
- Seeing an animal in person is a much more personal and more memorable experience than seeing that animal in a nature documentary.
These arguments seek to draw away from the fact that zoos imprison animals and often fail to take proper care of them. Human experience is more important than the lives of millions of animals. Who cares if the animal has a miserable life as long as you get a fun day out with the family.
I’m not even going to bother to list the rest of the points, but you can read them here https://www.thoughtco.com/arguments-for-and-against-zoos-127639 . Every argument on the list is later canceled out by the list of arguments against zoos.
Caged and Controlled
Not all zoos are the same but after recently visiting Clarington Family Outdoor Adventure Park (formerly the Bowmanville Zoo), I was pretty disgusted. The highlight of the trip was feeding and petting the pygmy goats that hang around and seeing the animals is always cool. But that’s about where it ends.
Two fully grown lions lay on cement slabs in a cage about the size of a suburban backyard. A group of Baboons share a cage even smaller, staring out at us, sometimes grooming each other, but obviously bored. A Serval paces and rocks in a similar cage, clearly in distress. A giraffe stands in a slightly large pen, which is barren except for a camel. It attempts to stretch its neck enough to reach the trees outside its fence but fails. Nearby a lion cub is passed around a group of people who paid a fortune for a chance to hold the wild animal.
I’m guilty of this myself. Last year, a group of friends planned a similar trip and I paid my share for this opportunity. We spent half an hour in a small pen with the cub and a handler. Although it was an incredible experience, it was very painful for me, watching the cub pace along the perimeter, calling to its sibling who was in a similar situation, several feet away. The handler repeatedly pushing it away, attempting to stop the cub from pacing and pawing at the wall. It had no interest in the people standing around, enthralled by it, attempting to play with, or pet it. I did get some beautiful photos, because of course it’s a beautiful creature – but I can’t help feeling guilty. Guilty about giving my money to people who force a helpless baby animal into this situation, day after day. And for this reason, I’ll never do it again.
This is one of the main criticisms of zoos – it’s a money grab. They charge a lot of money to visit for the day, and even more for any extra activities (encounters, feedings, rides, etc.). Babies are regularly the victims of these moneys grabs. Cause duh, they are cute AF – people will pay a lot of money to see them. Hell, I’m a prime example of this – cute animals are my weakness, I’d probably pay to play with a puppy. However, this means that young animals are taken away from their mothers for extended periods of time and are put on display, expected to put on a show. Can you imagine someone doing this to your child? For it to be treated as an object, something to buy and sell, for the entertainment of others?
This also means that some species are more desirable. Primates and big cats are favourites but this means they are also targets. They are imported from the wild and bought from other zoos because they are a big attraction.
Many claim that this is to help protect endangered species, but it does nothing to protect the animals in the wild or their habitats. They also tend to ignore animals that could benefit from this protection but don’t have the same type of public appeal. Keeping endangered species captive is also rather controversial. Animals bred in captivity cannot survive in the wild. Even if the species survives, it will only be in captivity. The money that the zoos allot to endangered species usually ends up being spent at the zoo, not on protecting the animals natural habitat.
In addition to zoos, there are other facilities that hold animals captive that are even more controversial such as Sea World and Marine Land. These facilities are known to house Orcas, dolphins and other marine life in tanks that are grossly undersized. In the wild, these animals would spend their days covering vast distances, not being forced to perform. After incidents and the deaths of orcas being largely publicized, these institutions seem to be feeling the heat. But for some reason, the general distaste towards these places has not entirely transferred to zoos.
Many animals in captivity show signs of stress and depression. This is evident when animals (often big cats) pace or rock. Similarly with marine life, we see their fins drooping. Animals can also be bullied by their cage mates. Many animals in captivity are trained and forced to perform. Starvation and punishment are common tools used when training animals. They may also be forced to give rides or be the subjects of research.
The sad part is, it can get even worse. Normally, when I think of zoos, The Toronto Zoo comes to mind. A huge place that has large habitats and lots of opportunities to learn about animals. In my mind, they seek to educate and genuinely care about their animals. But this is not the reality everywhere.
The Bowmanville Zoo is probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. In the past, they had shows, where big cats were trained to jump on boxes for a chunk of meat. The previous owner was accused of animal abuse and forced to close his business. I suppose it is a type of roadside zoo, but there are definitely much worse. The Dodo reports on zoos across the world where animals starve to death and ‘zoo keepers’ are more likely to torture animals than care for them.
It strikes me that maybe some people open zoos or work in them because they genuinely love animals and want to care for them. But this is not the way. Sanctuaries are great alternatives to zoos and aquariums. Sanctuaries are places where animals are protected and able to live out their natural lives. Different types exist around the world. For example, here http://veg.ca/animal-issues/animal-sanctuaries/ are all the farm sanctuaries in Ontario. In other parts of the world, there exist sanctuaries for giraffes, elephants, etc. where they protect animals from hunters/poachers. They take in animals that may have been part of the tourist industry, such as elephants who are forced to give rides. Visiting a sanctuary would be a much more positive experience. It fosters an environment of compassion rather than one of dominance.
Although it makes me sad to think I’ll never visit a zoo again, I’m not sure I want to continue support this industry. But it’s a choice, one that I will make, because the animals cannot.