Despite the popular boycott on other animal entertainment industries such as circuses and Sea World, zoos remain popular all over the world, bringing in millions of visitors every year. Many zoos are run for profit, making the zoo industry a multi billion dollar market.
The most popular defence for zoos is based on their conservation work. While many zoos do actively contribute towards conservation efforts, most of the significant conservation work is performed by private breeding institutions and conservation organisations, not zoos. David Hancocks, a former zoo director with 30 years’ experience, estimates that less than 3 percent of the budgets of accredited zoos go toward conservation efforts. Only 16 of 145 reintroduction programs worldwide ever actually restore any animal populations to the wild. Of those most were carried out by government agencies, not zoos. Most animals in zoos are not endangered, a quarter of British zoos for example don’t have any threatened species whatsoever. Even the zoos that do successfully breed animals in captivity have very little success with reintroducing them into the wild, since animals bred in captivity over generations just do not have the essential skills to survive, and may even introduce disease to wild populations. Zoos also often over-breed, many of these surplus animals are often sold to roadside zoos and circuses. Zoos aim to conserve captive populations, not wild ones, but even in this they fall short. Undesirable animals are routinely culled because they are not profitable, and those animals who are selected for display usually have significantly shorter lifespans. Elephants for example, live half as long in captivity as they do in the wild, a deficit often attributed to stress.
Zoos claim that their other main purpose is education, but study after study has demonstrated that zoos fail miserably at this task. Knowledge retention in visitors is abysmal and your average visitor only spends about thirty seconds to two minutes viewing any given exhibit, including reading any information signs. A CAPS study in the UK found that 41% of the individual animals on display had no signs identifying their species – the most basic of information. The majority of children studied (62%) show no change in learning or, worse, experienced negative learning during their trip to the zoo. Animals in zoos also demonstrate vastly different behaviours than their wild counterparts, with many exhibiting repetitive stress behaviours, depression and increased aggression. This begs the question of what we can possibly learn about wild animals by observing the behaviour of their unhappy, stressed and atypically behaved captive counterparts. For the majority of visitors the experience seems to be less about conservation or education and more about entertainment.
Zoos capitalise on our deepest need to feel connected to animals and nature, but this comes at a great cost to the animals themselves. To view an animal in a zoo is to look at them on your terms entirely, in an artificial environment that will never adequately imitate their homes, trapped, helpless and unable to escape your glare. Authentic experiences come from animals who interact with you because they want to, because they have chosen to appear before you, not because you have paid for it. These animals do not exist for our consumption, they are not commodities, they are not amusements. We simply do not have the right to place these animals in cages for our own benefit.