Some zoos make animals behave unnaturally: for example, marine parks often force dolphins and whales to perform tricks. These mammals may die decades earlier than their wild relatives, and some even try to commit suicide.
Some zoos provide a safe environment for animals which have been mistreated in circuses, or pets which have been abandoned. Zoos also carry out important research into subjects like animal behavior and how to treat illnesses.
One of the most important modern functions of zoos is supporting international breeding programs, particularly for endangered species. In the wild, some of the rarest species have difficulty in finding mates and breeding, and they might also be threatened by poachers, loss of their habitat and predators.
In addition, as numbers of some wild species drop, there is an increased danger of populations becoming too genetically similar. Breeding programs provide a safeguard: zoo -bred animals can be released into the wild to increase genetic diversity.
While a bad collection should not be ignored, if you are worried the care and treatment of animals in captivity I can point to a great many farms, breeders, dealers and private owners who are in far greater need or inspection, improvement or both. 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.
What I would state with absolute confidence is that for many species (but no, not all) 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, injuries and illnesses will be treated, 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.
Even apparently non-threatened species and entire groups can be threatened suddenly (as seen with white nose syndrome in bats and the Chytridiomycosis fungus in amphibians) it’s not just pandas and rhinos that are under threat. Being able to study animals in zoos where there is less risk and fewer variables means real changes can be effected on wild populations with far fewer problems.
Knowing say the kestrels cycle of an animal or their breeding rate helps manage wild populations. Things like capturing and moving at-risk or dangerous individuals is bolstered by knowledge in zoos about doses for anesthetics, and experience at handling and transporting animals.
This can make a real difference to conservation efforts and to reduce human-animal conflicts, and collectively provide a knowledge base for helping with the increasing threats of habitat destruction and other problems. 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 their world: 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 good zoos what they can do.
Humans have been capturing and displaying exotic animals for thousands of years. The earliest known collections date back to 3500 BCE in Egypt, where rulers kept hippos, elephants, baboons, and different species of large cats.
Modern zoos, where the public can come and watch animals exhibiting their natural behavior, didn’t really become a thing until the early 1800s. Zoos may be great entertainment, but their big goal is to educate the public about wildlife and what we can do to protect them.
In addition, zoos work really hard to save animals that are threatened in the wild. Zoos can take at-risk animals, breed them in captivity, and then reintroduce them back into the wild.
What this means is that not all zoos have the resources to properly care for the animals they house. And for many critics, no amount of education or research justifies keeping animals captive.
And while zoos have been really helpful is saving endangered animals, it doesn’t work out for certain species. For example, most large carnivores like lions and tigers that are bred in captivity die when released into the wild.
A couple of weeks ago, there was an accident at Cincinnati zoo. This one event, however tragic, simply doesn’t interest me very much, when there are vastly more important things to write about.
Yet what these events have done, is reignited the debate over the role of zoos (and Aquarian). Whilst much of attention that generates is unfortunately negative, it does give folks like me an opportunity to shout about the great and critically important work zoos do for conservation (and how they might get better at it in the future).
Normally, one would hope that zoos themselves would be proudly showcasing their work, but as I discovered last week on Al Jazeera given the barrage of attacks that Cincinnati experienced, many zoos are reluctant to speak up. These are species that would have vanished totally were it not for captive populations around the world, many of which reside in zoos.
For species whose survival in the wild looks in doubt, zoos often set up ‘insurance’ populations. These are captive groups of animals that could in the worst case scenario assist in reintroduction to the wild, should the original population go extinct.
The Amur leopard, for example: There are perhaps 35-65 left in the wild, a species teetering right on the brink. But fortunately there is a long-running breeding program with over 200 surviving in captivity.
I would argue that it’s not the zoos at fault, it’s that a reintroduction can’t occur if the reason they went extinct in the first place hasn’t been resolved. The last of the wild population was taken into captivity in a last ditched attempt to save the species, with chicks being reared at San Diego zoo.
In 2003, the Golden Lion Tamarin was down listed from Critically Endangered to Endangered after thirty years of tireless conservation efforts involving the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and the Associated Mico-Leao-Dourado in Rio de Janeiro. But, surely that number of visits had to create some sort of connection with the natural world that might not have occurred otherwise.
It’s difficult to engage people with conservation efforts taking place half a world away, believe me, I know. But by enabling people to experience wildlife first hand, and using that as a vessel in which to tell a story, we can, I hope increase participation in international conservation efforts.
In addition to habitat loss, hybrid fungus has emerged as a deadly threat to worldwide amphibian populations. Responding to threats such as this, especially in small or medium-sized vertebrates is surely one of the greatest uses of zoos around the world.
In fact, many zoos have set up specialist amphibian centers and are pioneering treatment and breeding programs. Conservation is full of bad news stories, yet on many occasions I have stood peering through glass at a species that shouldn’t exist.
At WET Barnes on the outskirts of London I have stood on a wet Winter day watching Nine, which was once the world’s rarest goose (now, incidentally, successfully reintroduced). In Antsohihy, Madagascar I have peered through the mesh fence at the world’s only population of Malagasy Richard, a duck thought to be extinct for years and then rediscovered.
In the UK I’ve stood while a Bali Myna flew over my head, a bird numbering less than 100 in the wild (but thankfully more than 1000 in captivity). More than ever, good zoos are aware of their evolving role in conservation and responding to it.
It’s absolutely right that there are bad zoos too, both in the UK and around the world. What is much, much harder is taking action to support conservation in the field, to reduce the impact of climate change or tackle pollution.
That I think is why so many animal rights groups attack zoos, when instead I would argue that they could achieve a much greater net good by working together and protecting natural habitats. Zoos are run by people who love animals, but as with any passion project, we might differ in our views on how best to achieve what we want.
So I would urge you to support the good ones, improve the bad ones, don’t tar them all with the same brush and remember: The focus should be on protecting natural habitats and that zoos can help achieve that. Every year, millions of people go on safaris, board whale -watching cruises and watch Jeff Cor win get attacked by snakes on Animal Planet; others drive to their local zoo for a full day of animal gazing.
Later, in early 13th-century England, Henry III moved his family's royal menagerie to the Tower of London for public viewing. For a small fee, visitors would be treated to glimpses of animals like lions, camels and lynxes.
And if they brought a dog or cat to feed the lions, they got in for free . The first modern zoo -- the Imperial Menagerie in Vienna, Austria -- was established in 1752 and continues to attract visitors to this day.
Nearby, in Germany, is the world's largest animal collection: Zoo Berlin (formerly The Berlin Zoological Gardens) houses more than 15,000 animals from almost 1,700 species . All U.S. animal exhibitors, like the 265-acre (107-hectare) Bronx Zoo just a subway ride away from Fifth Avenue, must apply for and receive a license from the Department of Agriculture.
Millions of people visit the thousands of zoos around the world, proving that we simply never grow tired of observing wildlife. Depending on your point of view, though, zoos are either sanctuaries of education and entertainment or unnecessary prisons.
While some people argue that zoos play an important role in conservation and research, others counter that they do more harm than good. Adding another point for zoo pros, the procedure for acquiring animals has also changed.
Some breeding programs also help to restore threatened species. After 10 years of working to strengthen the population numbers of the endangered California condor, a type of vulture, the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos were able to rebuild a population of fewer than two dozen birds to around 170 birds .
Successful breeding programs brought the Père David's deer back from extinction. Though this Asian deer ceased to exist in the wild, Chinese and European zoo programs enabled four of the deer to be released back into the wild in 1985, where they're now self-sustaining .
The cub, Leo, now spends his time frolicking and chasing small animals that wander into his enclosure . And although zoo animals aren't treated quite like guests at a four-star hotel, their care has improved tremendously.
Zookeepers now understand that many animals, such as monkeys, bears and elephants, need engaging activities to prevent boredom and mental deterioration. This is why you'll often see chimps playing with toys or tigers “hunting” for a meal.
The Toledo Zoo, in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy, is helping to restore butterfly habitats in Ohio, and the Bronx Zoo has channeled more than $3 million toward conservation projects in Central Africa . The information they gather helps them to develop new medicines and techniques to improve animal health .
Beyond the positive impact zoos try to have on animals, they often affect the people visiting as well. With a variety of programs geared toward children and adults, zoos teach people about the needs of animals and the importance of conservation.
And if people get excited enough, the thinking goes that they'll be more inclined to donate money to conservation efforts -- another zoo pro. Until the Alaska Zoo finally caved in to public pressure in 2007, Maggie was forced to spend days on end in a small indoor enclosure because of the frigid outside temperatures.
Perhaps as a form of protest, she refused to use the elephant-sized treadmill the zoo brought in to encourage her to exercise . Even in optimal conditions, some experts contend, it's incredibly difficult to provide for the needs of animals like elephants.
If Maggie and her captive compatriots lived in the wild, they would wander as much as 30 miles (48 kilometers) a day in large groups, grazing on leaves and stopping to splash in the occasional watering hole. Zebras at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. starved to death because of insufficient or incorrect food, and the same zoo's red pandas died after ingesting rat poison .
And while many zoos, like those in the United States, are supposed to at least meet the minimum requirements spelled out in documents like the Animal Welfare Act, standards aren't always adequate or enforced . While conditions have improved from the years of bars and cages, detractors take issue with other items.
Although the natural-looking habitats are certainly more attractive, people like David Hancock's, a zoo consultant and former zoo director, describe them as mere illusions, arguing that they're not much of an improvement in terms of space . Indeed, many captive animals exhibit signs of severe distress: People have witnessed elephants bobbing their heads, bears pacing back and forth and wild cats obsessively grooming themselves .
Despite a zoo's best efforts, its animals often are deprived of privacy, confined to inadequate spaces and unable to engage in natural hunting and mating activities. Forced to live in artificial constructs, many animals succumb to what some people refer to as psychosis, the display of obsessive, repetitive behaviors .
In addition, many animals have precise needs that zookeepers are just beginning to understand. Some, like the aardvark, survive on a limited diet that zoos have a hard time fulfilling; others thrive only in certain temperatures and environments that aren't easy to recreate.
Of 145 reintroduction programs carried out by zoos in the last century, only 16 truly succeeded in restoring populations to the wild . According to one study, many visitors don't pay much attention to the animals -- they're actually talking to each other about unrelated things and spending only a few minutes at each display .