Do We Need Zoos?
An Animal Rights Article from


Andrea C. Rumbaugh,
May 2010

Depending on whom you ask, a world without zoos and aquariums is either a glorious heaven or a gloomy dungeon.

These opposing ideologies make keeping animals in captivity a controversial topic, and with the recent death of SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by five-ton killer whale Tillikum, the debate has been renewed.

The issue has two sides: those who believe keeping animals in captivity promotes conservation and education, and those who believe it supports animal cruelty.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) falls under the first category. According to a study conducted over the course of three years, AZA concluded that zoos and aquariums teach visitors about nature and, by giving them a memorable experience, makes them want to protect it. In fact, when visitors were called seven to 11 months after their zoo visit, 61 percent were still able to talk about what they learned at the zoo and 35 percent said the visit reinforced their existing beliefs about conservation.

On the other side of the debate, activists like Dale Jamieson feel that keeping animals in captivity is immoral. In his essay, “Against Zoos,” Jamieson wrote that zoos restrict animals’ liberty by not allowing them to gather their own food or behave in their natural social patterns.

Also, zoos aren’t as successful in conservation and education as they claim, Jamieson said. In conservation, he accuses some zoos of taking more animals from the wild than replacing and of breeding more animals than they need—sending extra animals to individuals or institutions that don’t have the necessary facilities to care for them. In education, he argues that there is little proof of zoos having successful educational programs. He cited from Stephen Kellert's paper, “Zoological Parks in American Society,” that zoo visitors tend to know less about animals than backpackers, hikers and other people who have an interest in animals, and they sometimes only know a little more than people who don’t have an interest in animals.

The zoo’s argument

Jack Brown, the director of the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, said zoos have two major functions: to educate visitors and conserve wildlife. The teaching zoo, a five-semester program of classes and hands-on animal experience, helps train students to address these functions.

“We’re not making animal janitors,” Brown said. “We’re making zoologists.”

However, Brown said education is a zoo’s most important function. He believes that all of his students should be able to confidently teach visitors about nature because this is what gives guests a stronger desire to protect the environment.

“The whole idea of having a zoo simply as a place to exhibit animals is silly,” he said. “We need to be educators, and we need to make a huge impact on our community in terms of public education.”

The teaching zoo accomplishes this by placing informational plaques at each exhibit and offering educational programs for people of all ages. However, Brown’s favorite visitors to educate are children.

“I want little kids to have this insatiable hunger to always learn,” he said.

He hopes that giving children the desire to learn about nature will teach them to protect it in the future. Paraphrasing Florida’s “No child left behind,” Brown believes in “No child left inside,” and said the zoos’ programs focus on getting children outside and showing them the big, beautiful world available for them to study.

And visiting zoos make guests of all ages care about animals in this big world, he said. By having this experience, they want to conserve the environment, which is a zoo’s second important function.

Conservation is necessary to protect the world, Brown said. People need to live with nature and not abuse it. All species are intertwined, and humans’ survival is equally dependent on nature’s survival.

However, some of nature is already dying, and zoological conservation is the last hope for animals in these areas. The teaching zoo, which is part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), works to save these endangered animals.

SSP focuses on breeding animals for conservation, preserving natural habitats, teaching people about nature and supporting environmental research. The nation’s 116 participating zoos and aquariums protect 172 endangered species.

At the teaching zoo, SSP animals are used as message boards to teach visitors about the species and why it’s endangered.

And sometimes SSP is able to reintroduce animals back into the wild. The Guam rail, a bird found at the teaching zoo, became extinct in the wild when its island was overrun by an indigenous snake. However, SSP recently began reintroducing them into a nearby island that does not have these snakes.

Brown believes zoos play an important role in wildlife education and conservation, and if they disappear, then the world will lack important institutions needed to protect the environment.

In fact, in order for a world without zoos to be the same as one with zoos, Brown said two things must happen. School children must be able to travel the world to see animals in their natural habitats, and people must know how to protect the environment and eliminate endangered species. Since both of these are unlikely, a world without zoos would be a very sad place, he said.

The animal rescuer’s argument

Bruce Capin, a 47-year-old La Crosse, Fla., resident who rescues abused and neglected animals, has a similarly gloomy view of a world without zoos.

He sees it as a giant void. Without zoos, there will be a greater distance between people and animals, and one day this may lead to an empty planet.

“Once that’s done, the spirit of the earth is dead,” he said.

Therefore, he opened his nonprofit organization Yahtok’ya, meaning sunlight in the Native American language of Zuni, to rescue abused and neglected animals.

Capin currently cares for one wolf and four cougars, and he considers these animals as ambassadors for their species. They help conservation by making people care about cougars and wolves. People simply aren’t passionate for animals they can’t see or touch, he said.

And in his experiences, the cougars, which he has cared for longer than the wolf, have been successful ambassadors. By seeing these animals, people develop respect, care and concern for them and become more willing to protect and preserve them.

“There are many where [the cougars have] captured their hearts,” he said. “They’ve never had an experience like that before and they never will again. You can’t leave the sanctuary the same person.”

The animal activist’s argument

Many people think there are other ways to promote conservation and education than keeping animals in captivity. Anai Rhoads, Executive Director for the social justice group, is one of these individuals.

“[I am] completely against zoos because they are prisons. When you have a living being within bars, without the option of freedom, then it's a prison.” Rhoads said.

She also doesn’t support the animal cruelty that may take place in some zoos.

Physically, Rhoads is concerned that some zoos may starve animals, such those in aquatic zoos, to make them perform tricks in shows. Mentally, animals may experience psychological trauma when they are separated from family members and locked in isolation, she said.

“They are ignoring the suffering of the animals because it’s in their best interest to do so,” Rhoads said.

She also doesn’t support how some zoos may participate in the backroom trading of animals. “If an animal is born with an imperfection such as a short tail or crooked ear, it may be sold to a lab, circus or animal trader, and sometimes it may become a household pet,” Rhoads expressed.

“There are better methods for education and conservation than keeping animals in zoos,” stated Rhoads. “Visitors may learn more by watching a documentary or going to a museum instead. Plus, if people want to see animals in person, they can travel the world and see animals in their natural environment instead of going to these man-made habitats,” she said.

“There is also a better way to save endangered species,” Rhoads added. “Each year millions of dollars are spent on zoos. It’s a wealthy industry that offers top salaries to their directors, for example. The money being poured into these public facilities can be better utilized on restoring natural habits. We, as humans, are the cause of dwindling populations. We cannot use the excuse of low populations as a means to capture what’s left of them – for the sole purpose of entertainment. We can correct this and end perpetual reproduction in these facilities.”

Rhoads, an animal and human rights activist since 1991, asserted that, “a world without zoos is one less prison system for nonhumans.”

The responses to the activist’s argument

However, Capin and Brown disagree with many of Rhoads points and addressed some of her arguments.

Capin addressed animals’ rights and keeping animals in cages. Although he doesn’t particularly enjoy seeing animals in cages, he said they are better off here than in the wild.

To emphasize his point, Capin compared living in captivity to the choice of being homeless or living in jail. Federal prisons have three meals a day and sometimes even have amenities such as tennis courts and pools. Prison life sounds better than being homeless, and he said it is similar for animals who are well cared for in zoos.

“You’ve got a pretty good life if you’re in the San Diego Zoo,” he said. “The wild’s a rough place. There’s no vet care. There’s no regular food.”

Brown disagrees with animal critics such as Rhoads. In fact, he sometimes feels that they base their wilderness knowledge off of “The Lion King” where the wildebeest happily bows down to the birth of a lion, its major predator.

To address the backroom selling of zoo animals, Brown admits that it happened in the past.

“The problem is the critics of zoos just won’t let history be history,” he said. “Yes, in the past those things have happened, but through the accreditation process and things like that, we are trying very hard not to let it happen again.”

In addition, he admits that some zookeepers still trade animals; however, this is only a minority of zookeepers and most are fighting to end this trade.

Brown also addressed the idea of replacing zoos with documentaries or museums. He said if these institutions are taken away, then the majority of people may no longer care about animals.

He used elephants as an example. Seeing an elephant in person is a completely different experience than watching it in a documentary. On TV an elephant is only 6 inches tall, and watching this does not give people the amazement they feel from standing in front of a 13-foot elephant.

“Having the animals there and really getting to know about the animals on a personal basis makes all the difference in the world,” Brown said.

The killer whale Tillikum’s case

The debate of keeping animals in captivity continues with the death of SeaWorld trainer Brancheau. Some zoos and supporters of keeping animals in captivity see her death as a known risk of working with animals, but some animal activist organizations see it as an intentional attack from killer whale Tillikum.

Rhoads said Brancheau’s death was not an accident. Tillikum knew he could drown the trainer by grabbing her ponytail.

“It was out of sheer frustration that this mammal did this to her. These animals are exceptionally bright and let there be no doubt that they are also exceptionally dangerous,” Rhoads added.

In captivity, Rhoads said, “Dolphins and whales are isolated from one another, starved to perform tricks and are exploited for profit. SeaWorld admits that dolphins can swim up to a 100 miles a day, but the company doesn’t factor this in when placing these animals in what some would consider over-sized fish tanks.”

“These conditions may have contributed to the reasons why Tillikum killed his trainer,” Rhoads said. “It’s not the whale’s fault for being in that situation.” She also believes these attacks will continue to happen as long as animals are kept in captivity.

However, other people, such as Capin and Brown, do not blame Tillikum.

“One hundred percent of the time it’s the person’s fault,” Capin said. “You decide to go into the predator[‘s cage].”

And even though the event was tragic, he said people will still want to see the show.

“I’m sure it’s a horrific event for those who saw it, but people have short memories,” he said.

Similarly, Brown understands the risk of working with animals in captivity, and the attack does not change his opinion of Tillikum or SeaWorld. He still loves the park, and when the killer whale soars out of the water, he will still turn away from the tank to watch the audience’s amazement.

“Every time that animal comes out of the water, it’s winning hearts for whales,” he said.

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