Why zoos are good

By Dave Hone

Many years ago I ended up doing a radio debate on national radio over zoos. I’m still not sure if it was a mistake. I had a couple of opportunities to kill my opponent dead but my inexperience and nerves got the better of me. By all accounts (both neutral and partisan) I did rather well, and my failing was that I had rather expected my opponent to respond to reason, logic and data. It was not to be.
Still, the core issues have stayed with me and given my general love of good zoos (note the adjective) I’ve long thought of writing something more formal about why zoos are good. Here is that attempt.
Now first off I am perfectly willing to recognise that there are bad zoos and bad zoo exhibits. Not all animals are kept perfectly, much as I wish it were otherwise, and even in the best zoos there might still be room for improvement. However, that some politicians and police are corrupt does not mean we should have government officials or that a group of people to enforce the law is a bad idea. It merely means we need to pay more attention to the bad and improve them or close them. In either case, zoos are generally a poor target – they have to keep the public onside or go bust. They have to stand up to rigorous inspections or be closed down. While a bad collection should not be ignored, if you are worried the care and treatment of animals I can point to a great many farms, breeders, dealers and private owners who are in far greater need or inspection, improvement or both.
If you are against animals in captivity full stop then there is perhaps little scope for disagreement. But even so I’d maintain that some of the below arguments (not least the threat of extinction) can outweigh any argument against captivity. Moreover, I don’t think anyone would consider putting down a 10000 km long fence around the Masai Mara to really be captivity, even if it restricts the movement of animals across that barrier. But at what point does that become captivity? A 10000 m fence? 1000 m fence? What if veterinary care is provided? Or extra food? Or the animal is left alone, but has a tracking collar attached? I’m not pretending that an animal in a zoo is not in captivity, but clearly there is a continuum from zoos and wildlife parks, to game reserves, national parks and protected areas. Degree of care and degree of enclosure make the idea of ‘captivity’ fluid and not absolute.
What I would state with absolute confidence is that for many (but no, not all) species, it is perfectly possible to keep them in a zoo or wildlife park and for them to have a quality of life as high or higher than in the wild. Their movement might be restricted (but not necessarily by that much) but they will not suffer from the threat or stress of predators (and nor will they be killed in a grisly manner or eaten alive) or the irritation and pain of parasites, any injuries and illnesses will be treated (and are far less likely to crop up in the first place), they won’t suffer or die of drought or starvation and indeed will get a varied and high-quality diet with all the supplements required. They can be spared bullying or social ostracism or even infanticide by others of their kind, or a lack of a suitable home or environment in which to live. A lot of very nasty things happen to truly ‘wild’ animals that simply don’t happen or even can’t happen in good zoos.
So a good zoo will provide great care and protection to animals in captivity. These are good things for the individuals concerned. But what do zoos actually bring to the table for the visitors and the wider world? This is, naturally, what I want to focus on, but it is I hope worth having dealt with the more obvious objections and misapprehensions.
Education. Many children and adults, especially those in cities, will never see a wild animal beyond a fox or pigeon, let alone a lion or giraffe. Sure documentaries get ever more detailed and impressive, and lots of things are on display in museums, but that really does pale next to seeing a living creature in the flesh, hearing it, smelling it, watching what it does and having the time to absorb the details. That will bring a greater understanding and perspective to many and hopefully give them a greater appreciation for wildlife, conservation efforts and how they can contribute. That’s before the actual direct education that can take place through signs, talks and the like that can directly communicate information about the animals they are seeing and their place in the world.
Conservation – reservoir and return. It’s not an exaggeration that colossal numbers of species are going extinct across the world, and many more are threatened. Moreover, some of these collapses have been sudden, dramatic and unexpected or were simply discovered very late in the day. Zoos protect against a species going extinct. A species protected in captivity provides a reservoir population against a crash or extinction. Here they are relatively safe and can be bred up to provide foundation populations. A good number of species only exist in captivity and still more only exist in the wild because they have been reintroduced from zoos, or the wild populations have been boosted by captive bred animals. Quite simply without these efforts there would be fewer species alive today and ecosystems and the world as a whole would be poorer for it.
Research. If we are to save many wild species and restore and repair ecosystems we need to know about how key species live, act and react. Being able to study animals in zoos where there is less risk and less variables means real changes can be effected on wild populations with far fewer problems. Knowing say the oestreus cycle of an animal or their breeding rate, or that they don’t seem to like a crop that’s about to be planted can make a real difference to conservation efforts and to reduce human-animal conflicts. Training people to handle animals and get direct experience with species they are going to work with in the wild gives similar advantages, minimising risks and maximising effects at the hard end of conservation work.
All in all with the ongoing global threats to the environment it’s hard for me to see zoos as anything other than being essential to the long-term survival of numerous species. Not just in terms of protecting them and breeding them for reintroduction, but to learn about them to aid those still in the wild, as well as to educate and inform the public about these animals and to pique their interest so that they can assist or at least accept the need to be more environmentally conscious. Sure there is always scope for improvement, but these benefits are critical to many species and potentially at least, the world as a whole, and the animals so well kept and content, that I think there can be few serious objections to the concept of zoos as a whole and what they can do. Without them the world would be, and would increasingly become, a poorer place.
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