While zoological facilities are facing increasing criticism from animal rights extremists, their benefits for people and animals are well established. Ever since the first opened in 1793, zoos have provided visitors with close encounters with wildlife and advanced conservation efforts for animals. Featuring a wide range of species, they deepen visitors’ environmental awareness and cultivate an appreciation for the natural world. What’s more, a visit to the zoo can be beneficial for one’s emotional well-being, with one study finding that it lowers blood pressure and reduces stress.
Zoos serve as vital conservation facilities supporting the most endangered species. Indeed, zoos have built a successful track record with breeding and reintroduction programs aimed at repopulating extinct animals.
Far too many species are at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, hunting, and ecological threats. As scientists warn we are in a “Sixth Mass Extinction,” the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species estimates there are over 42,100 species “threatened with extinction.” By maintaining populations of these endangered species, zoos can provide a safety net against the specter of extinction in the wild. In doing so, they serve as modern-day arks that ensure we do not lose vulnerable wildlife from our planet.
The conservation programs overseen by zoos have already saved multiple species on the brink of extinction. Consider the Perth Zoo in Australia. For more than a century, scientists believed the western swamp tortoise went extinct. But the species was suddenly rediscovered in 1953 in a small habitat in the Swan Valley region, making the tortoise critically endangered. By the 1980s, there were only around 30 of them left. Now, the species is slowly reemerging thanks to the zoo’s diligent conservation efforts. In fact, nearly 1,000 of these animals have been reared in the facility in the last three decades–many of which have gone back to the wild.
Loro Parque in Spain is another world-class zoo contributing to animal care and wildlife conservation. As detailed on its website, the zoo sees itself as an “embassy for animals and the ideal showcase for bringing the natural world closer to people.” Loro Parque has certainly kept its word: it has saved 12 species of parrots from extinction, supported more than 240 conservation projects, and reintroduced more than 100 animal species into the wild.
Safe, Nurturing Habitats for Animals
Another charge critics lay at zoos is that they dramatically displace animals from their normal living conditions and thus make their lives miserable. But this, too, overlooks the diligent work of zoologists in mimicking native habitats and promoting the well-being of each animal. Features such as open areas, vegetation, and climbing areas enhance an animal’s experience and allow visitors to see how animals behave in their natural environment.
Zoos around the world have taken creative steps to improve the lives of their animals while also enriching the visitor experience. For instance, the Smithsonian National Zoo boasts a 500-foot-long cable called the O-Line, which hovers above visitors and allows orangutans to walk between habitats. The Bronx Zoo features a 6.5-acre space for gorillas that imitates a Congo rainforest and hosts over 15,000 tropical plants. Zoos also invest heavily in healthcare and medical treatment for the animals they house.
Critics of zoos claim as evidence the fact that animals in enclosures can’t travel vast distances as they might in the wild. But animals in the wild travel large distances because they are in search of scarce food or fleeing predators. In human care, their needs are taken care of and the animals are protected. Zoological facilities provide food, protection from predators, top-of-the-line veterinary care, and more.
No wonder these animals tend to live longer and healthier lives than their counterparts in the wild. For instance, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago housed an Australian lungfish nicknamed “Granddad” that lived nearly 85 years until its death in 2017–far exceeding the typical lifespan of the species. Moreover, a study from the University of Zurich confirms that most mammals have a greater life expectancy in zoos–away from the threat of predation and food shortages.
Vital Education Facilities
Besides their conservation programs and safe habitats for animals, zoos operate as vibrant education centers that gain and teach valuable research, making us more informed about the world around us. By closely observing and studying animals, researchers at zoos can collect valuable insights into their behavior, biology, and habitat requirements. Zoos are especially known for studying crucial research topics that benefit both animals and humans–including infectious diseases, epidemiology, and comparative medicine. The hands-on approach taken by zoo employees also translates to research disseminated in academic journals: one review found that nearly one in ten of the published articles in Conservation Biology came from an author affiliated with a zoo or an aquarium.
Zoos are particularly effective at helping visitors understand their moral obligation to protect animals at risk. A three-year study by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on the impact of zoos found that a majority of visitors (61 percent) could talk about their experience months after a visit–and around 35 percent said a visit developed their concern for animal welfare and conservation. In another survey, the vast majority of respondents also recognized that a zoo’s educational role was at least as or more important than providing a fun time.
Conclusion: Critics of Zoos Are Wrong
Critics inaccurately portray zoos as inherently inhumane facilities that take animals captive and enclose them for our enjoyment. One recent New York Times opinion piece read “Modern Zoos Are Not Worth the Moral Cost.” A PETA spokesperson, representing the stance of many animal rights groups, opined, “Zoos are prisons for animals.”
However, these criticisms are ideologically driven. Any honest look at zoos shows these viewpoints are grounded on false caricatures. Zoos not only provide animals a safe, fun shelter but also save the lives and very existence of vulnerable species. Indeed, zoos may be the best-equipped places to turn the tide of animal extinction. (What’s more, many of the activist groups who oppose zoos are themselves engaged in unethical activities: PETA, for instance, notoriously euthanizes thousands of animals under its care each year. And these groups tend to do almost nothing for hands-on conservation efforts.)
Ultimately, zoos do far more than just entertain–as they should. Whether it’s managing breeding programs for endangered species or spreading awareness of wildlife protection, zoos play a critical role in enlisting public support for defending vulnerable animals. It is difficult to fully appreciate our natural world until one knows about and sees it. Every visit to a zoo gives us a new opportunity to accomplish both things at the same time.
Better yet, zoos ensure that those from all walks of life can see and be inspired by the wonders of the natural world. For instance, not everyone can afford to travel to Africa and immerse themselves in an expensive safari. But anyone can visit their local zoo and deepen their awareness of wildlife conservation from that simple experience.