My first trip to the Bronx Zoo was memorialized on a bit of 1950s home movie footage. His act of defiance told me exactly how this animal felt to be locked up in that cage.
Living an inner-city life once again with 2 little boys, I began to visit the Philadelphia Zoo often. As a veterinary student who was engaged in animal welfare issues, I found the zoo visits with my children both enthralling and enraging.
I saw the big cats pacing and circling the perimeter of their cement cages smaller than my living room I gazed at giraffes munching on vegetation while in earshot of city traffic. My preceptor ship there gave me a coveted behind-the-scenes glimpse of life inside one of the most famous zoos in America.
It also gave me basic training and a desire to treat birds, reptiles and little mammals. But experiencing these animals in captivity made me realize where I stood on the zoo controversy.
Many zoos today are redesigning their facilities to better accommodate large animals. Gorillas, big cats, gibbons, markets and monkeys cavort on freeways and suspended trails.
In general, zoos are downsizing in the variety of animals (the Noah’s Ark model) and giving attention and space to fewer, more specialized exhibits. Zoos will always be a controversial topic, even if they include compassionate conservation in their programs.
Zoos may remain controversial, but the ethical caring and instinctual knowledge of the zookeepers and veterinarians was never in question. Be as minimally invasive as possible, trust the zookeepers’ observations of the animals they know so well and follow your own instincts.
Any handling, chemical restraint or even close human proximity is a major stressor for these creatures. This is a respite in their captive lives when they are not on display as exotic oddities for the public.
This rockeries on Netflix explores the true crime story between a tiger breeder and his big cat sanctuary owner rival. That has DEFINITELY changed over the decades, but originally people just wanted to look at cool animals up close.
Once I watched markets for a research project, and they made me laugh and smile so much. When I worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I loved watching the okapi.
Okapis are an elusive and endangered species that live in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Humans directly caused species extinctions and declines through the destruction of habitat, poaching, overhunting, climate change and pollution.
When people learn about and have real and personal connections with nature, they are more likely to have pro-conservation attitudes and behaviors. This experience is different from zoos were you can hold the animals because the lion has a choice.
With increasing urbanization and people spending more and more time indoors, these experiences with nature decline with every generation. Connections with nature are especially important in urban areas where green spaces can be harder to find.
If I tell a group of people that climate change threatens polar bears, some of them may take action to reduce their impact. This is a Mack lots’ python ambassador animal that we were allowed to gently touch at the North Carolina Zoo.
Hopefully, by seeing animals, people will be motivated to either (1) change their own behavior to alleviate the problem that is impacting animals in the wild or (2) donate money to conservation programs that help protect the species in the wild. In this case, we were only allowed to use two fingers to touch this Mack lot’s python and were instructed to do it gently.
A lot of factors outside our direct control, such as habitat loss and poaching, threaten many species. African forest elephants, the species I studied for my Ph.D., are poached so badly for ivory right now that it could very well lead to their extinction.
Donations to organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (which is affiliated with the Bronx Zoo) pay for rangers’ salaries to patrol parks and reduce the poaching. The rare exception is when a species’ population is so small that the animals need to be put into captivity to breed for a reintroduction program.
Professionals choose specific animals to mate with one another based on their history and genetics. Ethical zoos often transport animals to other zoos for mating purposes to increase the genetic diversity of the captive species.
IMPORTANT : Just because a zoo breeds endangered species does not mean they are contributing to conservation. However, when I worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we administered contraceptives to the cotton-tops because there was a healthy captive population size.
Zoos need a lot of money and space to support a large collection of animals. In 2014, people were outraged at the Copenhagen Zoo for euthanizing a healthy giraffe that was not genetically diverse enough to help reduce inbreeding in the captive population.
Captive bred exotic animals are unlikely to survive in the wild without many considerations in their husbandry. Zoos work with scientists and vets to develop programs to increase the odds that animals bred for reintroductions to the wild will actually survive.
One of the ways that ethical zoos help conserve animals in the wild is through species reintroduction program. Zoo captive breed animals like this black-footed ferret to make sure the species does not become extinct.
Photo from Image by PublicDomainImages from Apixaban Scientists design reintroduction programs so captive-bred will know how to eat, mate, and survive in the wild. Many endangered species are threatened by poaching and therefore scientists want to keep animals fearful of humans.
Often the public does not see the animals involved in captive breeding for species reintroduction programs. Ethical zoos also provide resources to protect threatened and endangered species such as anti-poaching rangers.
Zoos owned by organizations have a board of directors and multiple parties responsible for making decisions about the welfare of animals. Government and nonprofit zoos are thereby run by groups of people which includes a board of members or tiered directorship.
Animals in cages frequently show signs of stress and boredom through stereotypic behavior like pacing and head bobbing. Over the years, scientific knowledge about animals increased in addition to public demands for better exhibits.
The AZA guidelines are set by animal care experts, scientists, and veterinarians with decades of experience and are constantly evolving. Due to their large space requirements, high intelligence, and sophisticated social structure some professionals think that elephants should not be in captivity at all.
Ethical zoos are those that prioritize animal welfare, education, and conservation efforts above profits. They are run by non-profits or the government (at least in the United States, this might not apply to other countries) and have AZA accreditation.
According to the AZA website, “less than 10 percent of the 2,800 wildlife exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act meet the more comprehensive standards of AZA accreditation.” Keepers frequently provide their animals with enrichment activities like treats or scents to encourage this behavior.
Ethical zoos create more realistic enclosures for their animals and allow young to stay with the mother. Ethical zoos hire professionals including skilled animal keepers, scientists, and veterinarians.
The individuals who own these zoos sacrifice animals’ wellbeing and welfare to make money. Making money is the primary objective and sole purpose of an unethical zoo.
In the series, they showed someone with no veterinary experience sewing up a wound on a tiger. Unethical zoos allow you to get extremely close to the animals posing a danger to you and them.
They immediately take the babies from their mothers after birth (as seen in Tiger King). These types of zoos establish a relationship of human dominance between the handlers and the animals.
In contrast, ethical zoos allow the mother and baby to stay together in their enclosure as would happen in nature. Unethical zoos use photo opportunities with baby animals as a means to lure people.
This in itself is a form of animal abuse because the adults are constantly being bred to produce babies all year long (like puppy mills). When the baby animals grow up, they are no longer useful to the unethical zoo and are sold to other private individuals, roadside zoos, or canned hunts (where people pay to hunt animals in captivity).
Stephanie Shuttle is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, My Unexpected Journey Into Science to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology.