Are Zoo Animals Depressed

David Lawrence
• Monday, 07 December, 2020
• 21 min read

The New York Times Magazine has published a long story by Alex Halberstadt about the people who treat zoo animals for behavioral problems. The most significant single expenditure of my life to date was a trip to the Galápagos so that I could pretend I lived in a National Geographic documentary.

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A sea lion sniffed my knee, I was stared at by curious penguins, and a pack of dolphins came swimming by our ship. But I loved it in part because the animals seemed relatively free to choose the time and place of our interactions.

I saw the fallout of such photographic harassment when I visited Sugar, a 21-year-old Masai giraffe at Roger Williams who had developed a fear of men with large cameras. Weeks before she was bolting at the sight of a zoom, Sugar began refusing meals.

“Some days she would eat, others she wouldn't, and she got picky about her food,” said Rachel McClung, one of Sugar's keepers. To make matters worse, she also began to avoid men in hats and trench coats, and after a while, she wanted no part of the public side of the yard.

Licking in giraffes, Virgo explained, is often a sign of what behaviorists call a stereotype: a repetitive or ritualized activity brought on by frustration or confinement, similar to when an impatient person jiggles his or her leg. Zoo vets examined her mouth, suspecting an abscess or an oral lesion, but nothing appeared to be amiss.

There is, yes, an entire philosophical debate about whether animals are emotionally and psychologically sentient, one which Halberstadt canvasses in passing. It is totally irrelevant to whether zoos ought to be able to maintain animals in conditions which produce these results.

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But as it stands zoos do not generally limit their animal holdings to endangered species. They tend to have all sorts of animals there who are acquired for the more or less direct purpose of being stared at by screaming schoolchildren.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer’s free daily podcast on iTunes. A sleep-deprived panda inadvertently crushed her newborn cub to death at a zoo in China last week.

Other warning signs include excessive grooming (like picking fur or plucking feathers), rocking in place, and pacing in circles. Last year, the Toledo Zoo admitted that it had been running an extensive psychiatric program : One gorilla took Prozac for anxiety that seemed to be associated with her menstrual cycle, zebras and wildebeests were given the antipsychotic Hall to relax in a new environment, and an agitated tiger was dosed with Valium.

No one knows if this really corresponds to the animal’s “happiness,” but researchers have found that it correlates with drug efficacy in humans. Explainer thanks Melissa Bain of the University of California and William Wanted of the National Zoo.

Zoos exist so that we can wander round with our children and say: “No, don’t bang the glass, Timothy, he’s getting agitated,” before going home to post on Facebook about the educational day that we have had. David Attenborough’s Planet Earth shows you all the animals you could ask for in their natural habitat, with added drama and narrative arcs.

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We are surely only a few series away from filming inside the animals, with Attenborough using his dulcet tones to give the origin story of an elephant turd. It’s apparently awful to shoot Cecil despite the fact he has had a much better life than the huge number of lions that we continue to keep in captivity.

One of our sons watches endless YouTube videos of Kinder Surprise eggs being opened, so the bar is set pretty low in terms of what will get him interested. I have no doubts that the people working in zoos, safari parks and conservation centers all really care about the animals.

But there is a pretty strong argument that there is a negative effect on conservation awareness, given that children take away the message that “endangered species” are probably OK because they have seen them in the zoo. When I found myself Googling: “How long will a puppy cry for its mother and siblings,” it occurred to me that I probably no longer wanted to do it.

The idea that I don’t want animals to be imprisoned, but that I quite fancy having a prisoner of my own doesn’t sit comfortably. I could never be sure if the cat coming back was a thumbs-up for the family, or a silent protest against the lack of amenities in town.

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology. Despite unfamiliarity with the species in question, or even that animal as an individual, this is a common occurrence and a blatant example of the conflict with anthropomorphism.

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Even I, before finally adopting a dog, found the behavioral patterns of that species to be foreign. The more animals I became in charge of caring for, the more I learned about them; things that books and even documentaries failed to do.

There have been many times that my mother would perceive that my spotted Genet was “calm” and try to pet him, but I would quickly intervene because I saw a nervous animal preparing to bite. People often misunderstand both sadness, aggression, and even happiness in animals.

Add on seeing this through cage bars, and it is totally heartbreaking. They represent loss of freedom, eternal confinement, lack of dignity, and criminality, among other things.

This is why a cage can provide the same amount of space, but people will feel better about enclosures that lack bars and instead have moats or see-through glass. Animals do not possess our evolved, cultural aversion to cage bars.

Most animals (or non-humans, for lack of a better term), perceive a barrier but do not associate the same emotional intensity with these structures. Humans on the other hand project their emotions with cages (or tanks) to animals.

zoo animals sad bars behind berlin change need these lost elias hassos depressing fubiz memolition demilked zoos
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The turquoise, clear water tanks that cetaceans are kept in may look inviting to us because they remind us of pools, tropical oceans and oasis, but recently this view has been challenged with more scrutiny by people who study their natural behavior. Sometimes something as simple as the money structure of an animal’s jaw can make it ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ to the human brain.

Most documentaries tend to show animals doing interesting things, being more active and doing things such as hunting or forging, playing, swimming, and other entertaining behaviors. In not too many circumstances can you approach an animal habituated to humans during its ‘downtime’, and at the zoo, you are seeing animals that are 100% acclimated to the constant stream of human visitors.

But in some circumstances, if they are bored in nature it isn’t likely to occur in a human’s presence. Zoo animals have their essential needs taken care of and can afford to be ‘bored’ just like you, your dog or your cat (perhaps your boredom led you here).

Too much boredom however, defined by a lack of stimulus, is a welfare issue. Take into account also the natural history of an animal and the percentage of time it may spend not moving.

Casting judgment on the animal welfare standards of a particular zoo by a short observation is hardly fair. It is possible that sometimes animals can be 'sad' about something, or stressed due to some change in their environment.

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It is important for the public to discern right from wrong and object to poor animal welfare...BUT...the tricky part is fairly determining that this is taking place when you aren't exactly an expert on how a specific animal should be kept or its normal behavior. Each species has unique needs, and animals are also individuals with different histories.

When people hear the word zoo they like to jump to conclusions and think about animals behind bars or glass that were captured from Africa and little toddlers screaming at it. This is a very outdated point of view, many zoo animals are “tamed” --although not domesticated.

*I know this post is kinda old, but I hope the next person who stumbles into the comments section understands :P You are giving people who only value animals as entertainment so much validation with this article.

We're certainly not the most intelligent species on the planet as we're doing a great job so far at destroying and polluting our only home, and we're even aware that were doing it! I recently took my niece to the zoo .... and I will s ya there are pros and cons for sure ... but what I noticed was not the ABI ALS “facial expression” but the malnourished and some even panicked bc they were born nocturnal and were in hard lighting etc.... that being said .... this I realize is one zoo .... a zoo that made me sad because the animals were in the wrong settings in the wrong times.

I’m hoping to get more people in my city to see what o saw and help this zoo get better caretakers who know simple things like when they sleep and when they eat. I love zoos, but sometimes I've been tempted to take this view of their captivity being cruel.

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This article points out a lot of important things to consider before making that judgement! I think that when wild animals are caged, they have been treated cruelly.

When wild animals are forced to live in cages, to perform via inhumane 'training,' etc., they are abused and that should end. The little wild vs captivity challenge gave me an idea for a video.

Personally I think this article doesn't even prove a point we all know that animals in zoos are totally sad BECAME they are used to living with packs hunting and or having a lot more free space, zoos can not give that to them, they only teach them to do tricks by hitting them. This is an interesting take, although I personally feel that animals are always happier in the wild.

An example is the helmeted honeyeater, here in Victoria, Australia, which is critically endangered. Without zoos, it would probably be extinct by now, but because of captive breeding, birds have been released into the wild, and the population is now a little larger.

My snakes don't really have much change of expression, but they are well-fed, and I imagine they are content! Captivity basically gives animals exactly what they want, but many are likely not aware of the good deal they're getting.

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Personally, I would love to see animals running free in the wild. Thanks again, this makes it a lot easier to understand my pet Rabbit and our local PHX Zoo.

I was simply addressing the argument that many people make against animals being in captivity as a space issue. Enrichment goes a long way in terms of keeping an animal mentally and physically stimulated, as well as husbandry training programs where they are applicable.

It's really great that more and more zoos are taking steps towards better their animals lives through different types of enrichment. I also don't think that most migrating animals 'need' to travel the distances they do in the wild, yet you may be facing some issues regarding their physical well-being if they are under exercised (one example, obesity and foot disease in captive elephants).

Their routine must have replacement enrichment, which of course is the reason many zoos are attempting to provide this. I think a decent amount of acres can please a free-ranging animal (too bad killer whales can't be provided this).

Loss of one freedom yields another (animals in the wild do not have freedom from being guaranteed to always have plentiful food and water, like they typically do in zoos) And then I read an article in the book “Animal Training” by Ken Ramirez that made a great point: Animals that travel great distances in the wild and that maintain large territories are for the most part only doing so for the sake of hunting and finding prey.

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Thanks, John, I was surprised that Hub pages chose this controversial subject as hub of the day, but that wasn't my decision! I feel like half the people who commented on here are just miserable grievers who want zoos closed because, in their almighty opinions, the animals are sad and unhappy.

But since I'm a rational and sane person, I understand that animals are not people and have different needs, desires, and ways of expressing themselves. Guys... animals that are in Zoos and Aquariums DO NOT belong in the wild.

They have grown up in this setting, and do not know how to survive the harsh reality of the wild. Just like how YOU belong in a city, with your grocery store, with your air-conditioned house.

What if someone one day decided that you weren't “free” and threw you out into the woods to be a hunter-gatherer? Life in a facility (if it's a good one) is great, and I've often envied the pampered lifestyle of those animals.

And I think many of you missed the point of this article about NOT projecting your thoughts and emotions onto those animals. I keep seeing people throw that word around to try and discredit someone else from having an opinion that is not inline with their animal rights beliefs.

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Yes it does make me 'feel better' to know the truth, that invalid emotional projection is the reason for most people exclaiming that animals are 'sad' in zoos. If you're going to attribute my mental experience to animals, that furthers the argument that they should be removed from nature, as I want no part of it.

Makes you feel better about keeping exotic animals captive, huh? She was expressing a polarized opinion from my attempted defense of a commonly bashed subject with typical little substance, so she shouldn't have expected a cheery response.

Melissa A Smith 2 months ago from New York Hub Author They'd rather be in the back, which is tiny and shallow compared to their viewing pool, because they feel safer that way.

It's too bad some are commenting in support of the zoo animals are sad mantra; it's obvious they did not thoroughly read your insightful post. I am actually going to school to be a zookeeper so I do understand a lot of what you are saying.

But the reality is that, that is not possible, many animals have little to no natural habitat left or at extreme risk for poaching for bush meat/medicine. Without the breeding programs that take place in reputable zoos many of these species would have no chance.

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Melissa this is a great article and I hope people read it and then think the next time they visit a zoo. I then try to tell them that pythons are ambush predators and even in the wild they don't do anything but sit around waiting for food to come close.

I am a qualified animal behaviorist and mammal / ape keeper and I fully back it. I'm afraid that the posts by many on here simply show their lack if understanding and education on the matter and I would not take it to heart.

Or does it imply that even I, this ‘simple’ and ‘socially isolated person’ found dogs a mystery, so how can the rest of us hope to? Unlike humans, most animals do NOT communicate with their face like we do, or they have entirely different meanings.

You see, Melissa wouldn't know whether an animal looks bored or not, because she cannot interpret facial expressions in humans. We are limited to our experience of just walking through the zoo, which can create a judgement on how the animals are being treated and their living conditions.

While there are people who do abuse and neglect animals, and force them into less than adequate living conditions it isn't always the case and the amount of time, energy and money some zoos put into creating environments for the animals I find it hard to believe that we should be so quick to judge. Hi Relationship, I responded that way because Lady wrote “Zoos should be closed down”.

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I would be happy to hear her extrapolate that sentence, instead of imploring me, a person who obviously cares strongly about zoos, that I'm wrong because of some unspecified experience she had. I imagine that if this Hub was what you expected it to be (another article deriding zoos and showing sad pictures to make its point) you'd find it to be just great.

Melissa you seem very sure of yourself but unwilling to let in anyone else's opinion or experience. Lady never said she is the only person who has seen animals in the wild...what a rude and immature thing for you to say.

Melissa, I read your hub and stick to my statement because I have actually seen and lived with some of those animals in the wild. This is a brilliant article filled with interesting information.

Longevity is important to consider, because many animals that fare poorly in captivity do not live long, as stress hampers the immune system considerably. Some animals, such as markets which I've just written about, can double their lifespan in captivity.

Their wild lives consists of always being terrified about inevitable pending death. I would be very, very skeptical about the example you provided, especially the 'scolding' of the cars' aspect of it.

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For an animal to possess such awareness, I wonder why they wouldn't have enough to start learning to avoid passing cars. Also, that was not a (cattle) prong, but a billhook, also called the Angus, Peter Dickinson has a good hub about this item, look up 'Angus' on this site.

You make some valid points, and it's true that anthropomorphism plays a part in peoples' perceptions. A case in point is the current “viral” phenomenon of “Grumpy Cat,” who shows up all over Face Book with assorted cranky captions of being in a bad mood, when in point of fact, the kitty is very sweet and social, but her facial expression is caused by a form of feline dwarfism.

That said, I'm still not a fan of zoos and keeping in captivity animals who should be wild such as lions, elephants, and the like. Regardless of the quality of care they may receive, or the type of exhibit, they are still confined to a much, much smaller area than they would inhabit in their natural environment, and I do not believe this is healthy for them in the long run.

To take the view that animals 'don't care,' or 'don't experience feelings or emotions' is but a convenient thing to believe for those who would confine these magnificent beasts. Animals do, indeed, possess feelings and emotions--that can be seen in the elephant video you've provided; (and I don't approve of one of the keepers having a cattle prod at the ready...), it can also be seen in another video I've seen, of a squirrel standing over the body of a dead mate (or offspring or friend), scolding all the passing cars because one of them was the cause of the companion's demise.....

Hi Barbara Kay, male gorillas certainly seem to enjoy 'hamming it up' for visitors. The dominant male at the Bronx Zoo is a great example of this.

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If you read the hub Lady, you'd see I also included a little tidbit about alleged 'energy' from animals which I will repeat. Animals that are habituated to the presence of humans will certainly not be as alert and active as those you may see in the wild.

Believe it or not, animals in the wild have their 'downtimes' and this happens when strange primates are not in their presence. The male enjoyed picking his nose and the attention he got when everyone thought it was gross.

And of course their faces don't show whether they're sad or happy, but you can sense their energy. Unfortunately the resolvability of this situation will depend on the expertise of the keeper.

I think 'animal boredom' is pretty difficult to determine without scientific analysis. Our local zoo doesn't have the proper space for bison, elephants or giraffe and I believe they are bored.

It makes sense to me given the psychology and natural history of animals. Humans have many negative associations with cages that are more substantial than inhibition of movement because of our unparalleled awareness.

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All I meant with that statement is that animals are not 'thinking' about their confined lives from the same perspective of a human which makes it so adverse to us. They may want to get out if they are afraid (such as when they are newly introduced or the environment is suboptimal) or desire something on the outside, such as in my dog's case, to try to leave with us.

Even I can sometimes be guilty of judging enclosure or settings that are not permanent. I agree that most animals in a zoo lead miserable lives, devoid of stimulation.

To see the big cats and primates confined to tiny areas is heartbreaking, although I believe all animals caged is a terrible thing. I worked in an animal shelter for years and saw the effects of caged adult dogs and cats daily.

It was very sad to see these animals live for long periods of time confined and isolated. The dogs, social animals by nature, are never together in a cage...but isolated.

Animals are God's creations, and they were not created to sit in a zoo or in captivity for our pleasure! Human brutality has wiped out many species, and more are on the endangered list because we keep taking their natural habitats away.

They are living beings that feel pain, sadness, and depression. I understand that animals can look sad when they are just sitting around, bored, or thinking, but I don't get where you got your facts from.

When my dog gets locked in his kennel, he sometimes does not want to be in there, and he tries to tell me in no uncertain terms. In effect, I prefer seeing any animal wild and free, but if they are captive, as long as they are cared for by people who truly care about the animal, I see nothing wrong with it.

These animals serve as ambassadors for their species respectively, and without the opportunity of getting to see them up close, many would not be inspired to learn about them or care. These parks are where some children and adults are touched by one or more animals, and they make changes in their own lives and perhaps influence others.

Sometimes animals are rescued and cannot be released back into the wild. I appreciate the way you presented the material, especially how people are so quick to jump to conclusions.

I worked at a Science Center and at one point I was hosting an exhibit on Swamps of the Southeast in which we cared for over 40 animals. People were very quick to make statements about the enclosures, which I understand.

What they didn't realize is that these animals had plenty of one on one enrichment and play time in much larger areas both before and after visiting hours. We had an entire outside closed in area with a river and trees that was an outside playground.

The skunk and raccoon would both just follow me out there and walk with me up and down the empty halls after hours. The skunk was my baby & she was usually on my shoulders as I carried out my chores before work.

The simple truth is that we never know what goes on behind the scenes, and it is easy to judge things we do not know. After working at the Science Center, it made me much more understanding, realizing we don't know everything at face value.

I think the only time to worry is when you see animals in very small enclosures, and they are doing the 'cribbing' or 'rocking.' Even then, it could be a throwback to a bad past, but that's generally a sign of stress.

My heart aches for animals in zoos especially when they are confined to such an extent they barely have room to move around. It breaks my heart when I see a majestic elephant pacing up and down, up and down in a tiny confined space longing for her homeland.

Seshagopalan Mural from Chennai, Tamil Nadu on August 11, 2013: This was a good article, and that chimp picture made me LOL.

I said I could make even my very happy, content, spoiled pup look positively heartbreaking if I took pictures of it lying around and played a slideshow of them with sad music. I know there have been unethical zoos, and I'm not condoning that, but many major zoos take good care of them-- they get good medical care, food, no predators-- I would probably rather live at Animal Kingdom's safari in Disney than in the real wild if I were a deer or a lion.

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