Zoos: Amusing or Abusing?


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By Grace Stratford

Walking into the Metro Richmond Zoo recently, I was thrilled to be able to see animals such as monkeys, giraffes, and lions. Once I arrived and had walked through the gates, I became excited to start passing the animals’ enclosures. However, I became very disappointed and disgusted as I began to see the animals. They seemed defeated and exhausted.

Animals in captivity at zoos often appear to be depressed and are often mistreated. The animal rights organization PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, cites three main reasons zoos are detrimental to the health of the animals. The first reason is the unnatural breeding of animals. Often they are torn away from their mothers in order to be used in photo ops to bring in money. After they grow past a certain age and size, these animals are often traded, loaned, or sold to various places. The second reason is that captivity causes “severe psychic suffering” to the animals. PETA states, “In response to their small enclosures, loneliness, and frustration, captive animals often exhibit stereotypic behavior, such as pacing, circling, and other repetitive actions,” and that often leads to the animals being given antidepressants or mood stabilizers. Jenni Laidman, a science writer for The Toledo Blade, states, “In the last decade, zoos across the nation have turned to antidepressants, tranquilizers, and even antipsychotic drugs such as haloperidol, sold as Haldol, to ease behavioral problems in zoo denizens.” These animals’ natural hormones are being affected by these drugs in order to create a “better performance” by the animals.

Baby tiger being held for pictures. Photo courtesy of PETA.

The final reason listed is the incredibly low standard of living the animals are forced into. The regulations for animal exhibition are barely ethical and need to be updated to higher standards. Some of the regulations include mandatory licenses for all animals, permits for transporting animals, and certain animal welfare standards. A Match feature article on the use of animals for entertainment, published in April by Caroline Baber (’18), goes into detail about the regulations, or lack thereof, and the impact on various animals in captivity. Many websites say the best way to defund and makes changes in zoos is to stop visiting them.

Zoos are an incredible way to see exotic animals that many would be unable to see otherwise. In The Atlantic article “Do We Need Zoos?” J. Weston Phippen states, “It is true zoos have played a massive role in conserving, and in the recovery of, some species, but this is a relatively small portion of the animals zoos work with.” Animal conservation and education can be a result of positive and responsible zoo organizations, yet many zoos do not fall into this category. National Geographic wrote an article on the “World’s Worst Zoo” near the Gaza Strip in 2016. Only 15 animals had survived out of hundreds. Is it really worth the mistreatment of the animals for human pleasure? National parks and certified animal sanctuaries that follow breeding laws are often safe and reliable alternatives to zoos.

Laziz, a nine-year old Bengal Tiger, was rescued from the zoo in Khan Younis, Gaza, in 2016. Photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Another reason why zoos are problematic to animals is that there are many cases where animals have been killed because of human fault. One of the most famous examples of this was Harambe the gorilla in 2016. After a three-year old boy climbed through a barrier at the Cincinnati Zoo and fell into the 17-year-old gorilla’s exhibit, the zoo was forced to put down the gorilla. PETA argued that the zoo should have had two barriers around the exhibit in order to assure an incident like this didn’t happen. Harambe did not attack the child but was shot in an effort to protect the child. Is this the fault of an innocent gorilla, or an unfortunate accident that maybe could have been avoided if the zoo had taken more precautions?

Harmbe. Photo credit: Robert Streithorst

More locally, at Maymont, two bears were euthanized in 2006 because of another unfortunate accident that involved human error. A four-year-old boy and his mother were admiring the bears when the young boy stuck his arm in the enclosure where there were two black bears. One of the bears proceeded to bite the child’s hand, leading to both bears in the enclosure having to be euthanized in order to check if the animals had rabies. Maymont then cremated the bears and spread the ashes around the park, yet it was still a tragic loss to the community.

The Maymont black bears’ memorial service. Photo credit: Alexa Welch Edlund.

There are many organizations that have begun an attempt to shut down or reduce the numbers of people attending these zoos. One of them, Born Free, has a mission statement that states, “Born Free takes action worldwide to save lives, stop suffering and protect species in the wild. Born Free never forgets the individual.” Organizations like this work to stop animals abused in laboratories, roadside zoos, and illegal or abusive private property cases. Support for these anti-animal abuse groups is rising, which allows them to further their campaign and message.

So really, why do we choose to pull healthy animals from the wild and place them in cages? Simply for human pleasure. Conservation and animal protection in large scale sanctuaries and top-ranked zoos have positive effects, but depleting animals of their natural habitat and possibly causing depression and anxiety is not something humans should have control over. So, next time you are thinking about going to the zoo, think about what the larger impacts are on the animals you are going to see.

About the author

Grace Stratford is a senior at Collegiate.