by Anthony Soussou
The following article expresses the personal opinion of a single individual, and in no way represents the ideologies or positions of any public or private zoological organization(s) that the article may or may not reference.
What exactly is the point of a zoo or an aquarium? Do these places simply satisfy the demand of 183 million Americans per year by providing family fun on the weekend (1), or are they actually beacons of hope amidst a dim future for wildlife rehabilitation? Are zoological organizations hiding behind veils of “conservation” and “education” in order to profit from wild animal entertainment, or are they truly the last chance at survival for countless endangered species? Is there really any difference between a “roadside zoo” and an AZA accredited institution? In this piece, some of these questions will be answered and many more will be explored, while others will be left as mysteries for our individual ethics to grapple with. Here, I share my understanding of the purpose of zoos as well as how their role may change given our society’s evolving technology, access to information, and ever more environmentally-aware culture.
Premier zoos demonstrate diversity not just in wildlife, but in their business dealings as well. Their organizations participate and feature in many different fields, including sales, marketing, entertainment, customer service, animal welfare, scientific research, and policy, just to name a few.
An estimated 44% of American households include a dog, and 35% include a cat (2), but how many of those Americans have ever considered whether their pet would choose to live with them instead of being “free”? Most of us assume that our pets prefer our homes, but if we apply the same question to animals in zoos, the assumption is generally the exact opposite. Is this because we believe that exotic animals are better off in exotic places, or do we simply take for granted that the welfare of our house-pets is superior to that of animals in “enclosures”? Let’s address these ethical dilemmas in terms of common misconceptions regarding animals in captivity, as well as the little-known truths behind them.
Home aquariums are responsible for some of the most exotic animals in the world entering the pet trade. A general criticism of aquariums is that the practice of housing marine species allows the dimensions of a glass tank to constrain animals that require vast oceans. Does the “lesser intelligence” of fish and invertebrates affect our perception of their rights?
Myth: Animals in zoos and aquariums are taken against their will from the wild, and are then forced to live in subpar conditions in captivity where their health and well-being are of little concern to their “owners”.
False: For several reasons (including potential for disease, unknown pedigree, legality, expenses, and unnecessary stress), as few zoo animals as possible come directly from the wild (9). The vast majority are acquired from cooperating organizations, most of which are accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) for the purposes of a particular SSP (Species Survival Plan). Those few animals that are “wild-caught” are generally procured only when there is no other way to maintain the necessary amount of genetic diversity within a managed population, or when the only alternative is the candidate animal’s death (7).
The California Condor is an example of a species that would have become extinct without human intervention. The LA Zoo and San Diego Zoo collected all 22 surviving condors from the wild and carefully bred them for release back into the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Over 400 condors now exist, half of which are flying freely throughout their native range (3).
Myth: Zoo animals are held captive behind the scenes and are forced to learn tricks for the entertainment of paying customers. They are punished if they refuse.
False: Animals that are trained by zoo staff learn through careful, expert methods of positive reinforcement. They also must participate in training willingly, or not at all. The benefits of training zoo animals are numerous. Training allows for safe and cooperative health inspection of animals, enrichment and relationship-building between animals and handlers, as well as the education and entertainment of guests and the public (8). Animals that do not wish to interact with people are never forced to do so and are never punished for refusing, as this could create a potential danger for everyone involved.
A Capuchin monkey at the San Diego Zoo delights guests from the inside of its wired enclosure. Primates such as these are highly intelligent and capable of advanced learning, but does that translate to a higher emotional capacity as well? Does this relate in any way to the ethical dilemma posed by captivity?
Myth: Zoo animals would prefer to live in the wild and should always be returned to their native habitats. They will be happier, healthier, and better off living with their families in their ancestral homes where they belong.
Unknown: No one can answer this question, especially not as it pertains to animals born in captivity that have no understanding of “the wild”. Sadly, most zoo animals will never be able to return to their home ranges due to political warfare in habited regions, natural hazards that would result in their demise, and the simple fact that some wild habitats no longer exist. However, as a requirement of accreditation, animals living in AZA zoos and aquariums receive round the clock health care, freedom from predation, constant opportunities to engage in natural behavior, and facilitated access to mates. When/if ever possible, animals belonging to qualifying populations are always encouraged to be reintroduced into the wild (7).
The rainforests found throughout the islands of Indonesia may never recover from the damage caused by unsustainable production of palm oil. Animals such as the Sumatran tiger, Javan rhino, and Bornean orangutan have almost completely lost their natural habitats due to indigenous farmers clearing trees to make room for palm plantations (10).
If all of this is true, why are so many people hesitant to support zoological organizations? Maybe the problem is not with the public, but rather with the reliability and assurance that proper ethical standards are being met. After all, not all zoos are accredited by the AZA. The U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses over 2,400 “animal exhibiting” locations across the country (4), but as of today, the AZA has only 231 accredited members (5). Additionally, there are more than 10,000 zoos estimated to exist worldwide, yet the “World” AZA, known as “WAZA” is made up of only 330 total member organizations existing in over 50 different countries (6). Unfortunately, many non accredited institutions across the world operate well below the standards set by the AZA, and cannot afford the improvements necessary for accreditation.
Given that such a small proportion of existing zoological organizations are held to the highest standard, it seems reasonable that some skeptics remain opposed to the entire industry. However, it appears that the problem could be solved instead by supporting those institutions that go above and beyond in order to meet and exceed accreditation standards. If AZA organizations were sure to receive increased membership, media attention, and earnings directly because of their seal of accreditation, then current non accredited zoos would have more of an incentive to pursue their own AZA status. This is where the consumer holds the most power, where future generations can decide which types of zoos and aquariums will prosper, and where less-than-ethical organizations can be exposed and rooted out.
A major distinction between zoos that are accredited and those that aren’t is a global dedication to conserving species via research, funding, and educating the public. Here, a wildlife conservancy representative explains the organization’s purpose to a pair of interested guests.
Americans are taught to understand the economy in terms of supply and demand, but it is equally important to understand how our demand shapes the products and services that are supplied to us. The best way to realize this concept is by thinking of spending money in the same way that we think of casting votes. If the general public stops voting for a zoo that doesn’t meet acceptable standards, it will be forced to improve or it will go out of business. Conversely, if we support the proliferation of zoological institutions that prioritize animal welfare, education, and wildlife conservation over entertainment and profit, we’ll be voting for a much more resolute and successful definition of zoos.
An African elephant happily reaches for browse that keepers have fastened high overhead in order to encourage natural foraging behavior. The ample space, shelter, water features, and enrichment devices provided in the exhibit demonstrate a standard of care that should be met by every zoo.
How, though, can we know which organizations to “vote” for and which ones to avoid? The millennial way. Research your vacation destinations online before spending money at an unfamiliar attraction. Look for the AZA logo on member organizations’ websites or find out whether or not they’re actively improving in order to become certified. Then, visit the zoo or aquarium and share your experience across your preferred social media outlets. Many zoos, in fact, will offer benefits or enter guests into raffles and sweepstakes simply for tagging their zoo in a post or electronically “checking-in” on their premises. Finally, leave feedback however possible with the organization so that action can be taken to maintain or improve their facility and its attractions.
Would doing any of that actually make a difference? A single “like” on an aquarium’s online page may not save the whales, but every step that we take towards a more sustainable future will yield tangible benefits for us all, as well as for our children and grandchildren.
Younger guests are of a particular importance to zoos and aquariums. By associating animals and conservation with family fun at an early age, zoos are able to foster a child’s appreciation for nature. These wildlife warriors later become adults, employees, and policy-makers that understand the purpose of zoos.
1. Donating to a conservation fund can directly contribute to habitat reconstruction, helping to restore natural landscapes across the globe.
2. Becoming a member of an AZA nonprofit will promote multiple Species Survival Plans, which fight against the extinction of endangered plants and animals.
3. Telling a friend about the aquarium you visited will spread the word about coral bleaching. It might even convince them to visit with their own family.
4. Buying a water filter or a reusable bottle will reduce the amount of plastic that litters the earth, and reducing energy consumption by turning off extra lights will have an impact well beyond your utility bill.
The “Millennial” generation is quickly learning that detailed and accurate information exists, it is easy to find, and that it can be used as a powerful tool for influencing our surroundings. Animals ourselves, humans have more potential for modifying their environment than any species that has ever existed. It’s about time that we use that talent to reverse the negative affect that we’re having on our planet, and instead contribute towards making it stronger. Hopefully, zoos and aquariums will have a central role in continuing that effort on a global scale.
San Diego Zoo Global is a nonprofit organization accredited by the AZA. As a leader in the industry, SDZG funds nearly 100 different conservation and research projects in countries throughout the world, and is proudly spearheading the fight against extinction.
Photos – Anthony Soussou, Condor Photo – Cher Nicole Cloughley
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