Many people argue that zoos are only used for human entertainment and serve no purpose to the animals or the world at large. While it is true that for a long time zoos were indeed primarily for entertainment, over time, most zoos have “transformed from commercial competitors into cooperating members of zoological organizations whose mission became wildlife conservation, research, education of the public, and captive breeding of endangered species” (Cobb, 2013).
Zoos today concentrate heavily on teaching about the conservation of both the animals themselves and the habitats they come from, as well as taking active conservation roles around the world. In fact, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has spent “~U. S. $350 million per year on conservation actions in the wild” (Conde, et al, 2101). Seeing animals in real life, up close and personal, is vastly different than reading about them or watching a documentary.
Some opponents of zoos argue that we should instead travel to an animal’s habitat to see them in their natural environment, but most of us would not be able to see the majority of the animals if it weren’t for zoos. Not only is travelling very expensive, but these habitats are not always safe. People, especially children, who are able to experience and learn about animals are more likely to appreciate them, care about them, and hopefully take steps to make our world a better place. Have you ever gone to a zoo and seen a panda? A tiger?
These species, as well as Przewalski’s wild horse, the black-footed ferret, Guam rails, the scimitar-horned Oryx, and many others, would no longer exist if not for zoos’ captive-breeding programs (Conde, et al, 2011). All over the world, land development, habitat fragmentation, pollution of air and water, pesticides, poaching, and illegal pet trades, have driven multiple species towards extinction. Zoos have brought many of them back with a lot of hard work and dedication. While some conservationist groups believe that an endangered species must be saved in its own environment, others, such as the National Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, believe that “endangered species must be brought into zoos and wildlife parks where new generations can be raised [… ] and then released back into the wild” (Cobb, 2013). In fact, in order to build up large enough populations so as to be able to return the animals to their natural habitats, “many zoos participate in species survival plans (SSPs), which coordinate breeding efforts for more than fifty species” (Cobb, 2013).
ISIS, the International Species Information System, is used to ensure as much diversity in the gene pool as possible (Conde, et al, 2011). In 1982, less than two dozen California condors existed in the wild, thanks to “habitat loss, poaching, and lead poisoning (from hunters’ lead shot)” (Cobb, 2013). The San Diego Zoo stepped in and started the first California condor captive breeding program. As of 2010, 348 individuals, including 187 in the wild, now exist. (Cobb, 2013).
It’s slow, but it’s progress that would not be possible if not for breeding programs. Zoos also give researchers the opportunity to study animals up close. Through their veterinary programs, zoos provide us with invaluable information, much of which is highly applicable in the real world. The information gathered by scientists helps to protect and treat species in captivity as well as wild animals. Indeed, “[n]ovel and emerging diseases threaten wildlife populations that will require new, active methods of veterinary management” (Breheny, et al. , 2012).
Methods and tools that were “developed or tested in zoos are invaluable with wild populations for relocations, in situ breeding [i. e. , in the species’ natural habitat], management, or soft releases,” where the animals live in the wild but still receive some care. (Breheny, et al, 2013). Zoos provide a training ground, helping us learn how we can better care for our world and the creatures that occupy it. Adversaries of zoos often argue that zoo enclosures are too small, the animals receive awful care, and are bored by the lack of their natural activities, environment, and foods.
While it is true that in the past enclosures have been barren and small, in the “last fifty years, many zoos have become increasingly aware of the need to enrich the environments of the animals in their care” (Robinson, 2013). Environmental enrichment involves “changing the environment of the zoo animal to provide opportunities or choices not available before,” often with a heavy emphasis “placed on the importance of providing enrichment that is appropriate to the specific biology” of the soon-to-be-tenant (Shepherdson and Swaisgood, 2013).
Enclosures today are specifically designed for the animal that will be living there, made to imitate their natural environment. Animals are no longer just fed, often they are presented with “[c]ognitive challenges, such as mechanical apparatuses, puzzles feeders, or computer interaction with visitors, [which] put captive animals in a position in which they can learn to actively control and explore some aspect of their environment” (Shepherdson and Swaisgood, 2013). These methods challenge the animals mentally, similar to the way they would be challenged when seeking food in the wild.
Reputable zoos are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and are held to very high standards. In addition, both accredited and unaccredited animal exhibitors are regulated by the federal Animal Welfare Act, which establishes standards for animal care. Zoo staff, keepers, and veterinarians are experts in animal care, trained to care for and understand animal behavior. Not only is there a lot of training required to work with animals, but the people who choose to do so typically have deep affection for the animals they care for, spending every day with them and working hard to give the animals a fulfilling and happy life.
Many captive animals actually live longer than their wild counterparts. Over the millennia, animals on this planet have survived countless changes and dangers, only to be threatened by humans. Zoos began as a symbol of humanity’s domination over wild animals, but hopefully modern-day zoos can act not as prisons, but as sanctuaries, as well as reminders to be more respectful of nature and the place that humans have in it. The knowledge we gain from zoos’ efforts in conservation, breeding, and education, help us move towards a future that doesn’t require them. Works Cited