The Complicated Moral History of Zoos

When I tell people that my intended major is Zoology, I receive mixed reactions. Most assume I am planning to work in a zoo, although that is not quite what zoology entails exclusively. This has led me into a number of heated discussions regarding the ethics of zoos. I have no doubts about the good intentions of those who oppose zoos. I think it is fair to question whether animals should be held captive for our entertainment. However, I would argue that many zoos have come a long way since their questionable beginnings and some responsible zoos have transitioned their focus to conservation and protecting earth’s genetic diversity.

Before I begin to get into my arguments in favor of zoos, I wanted to share a bit of background information that may shed light on the controversy for those who have never questioned zoos. Zoos have been around for thousands of years, existing in ancient Egypt, China, and most notoriously Rome, where animals were slaughtered by the thousand in brutal combat at the Colosseum. Private collections of exotic animals were sometimes kept by ancient rulers to symbolize their power and wealth. While some zoos existed for research purposes, zoos became a booming for-profit industry as demand for entertainment in urban centers grew rapidly. Zoos all over the globe have been responsible for countless moral wrongdoings, including the display of caged African men alongside animals as recently as the late 1950s. As travel by vehicle became more widespread, drive-thru safari parks and roadside zoos gained popularity. Roadside zoos are the subject of many of animal cruelty stories due to the lack of regulation enforced on them.

As we approach the modern day on this brief trip through the history of zoos, it’s pretty obvious that zoos have had a spotty record. That being said, in the known history of zoos, a time span stretching over at least 5,500 years, we have only spent about 45 years or so gearing our zoos toward conservation and ethical animal treatment instead of focusing on using the animals for our own gain. The 1970’s brought new public interest in environmental and ecological issues, and zoos started to change to reflect the changing culture. However, many zoos continued the practice of breeding baby animals to attract more visitors, and then killing or selling off the older, less attention grabbing members of the same species. Furthermore, while zoos continue to try to emulate an animal’s natural habitat, the environment will never be quite perfect. This can result in “zoochosis,” or in layman’s terms, symptoms of mental illness, boredom, or stress.

So far, I’ve explained a lot of things that are wrong with zoos. But there are quite a few things that good zoos are doing that make them valuable. Many dismiss the educational potential of zoos, instead arguing that most people go with the intent of being entertained rather than educated. However, in my experience, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has done a fantastic job of making sure each visitor has access to plenty of information about the animals they’re seeing. They have interactive exhibits geared toward learning, and their employees share plenty of facts about the animals and their environments toward visitors. Personally, I would be nowhere near as interested as I am in pursuing a job involving animals if it weren’t for all I learned by visiting the zoo. Of course, not all zoos are as good as Cleveland’s, so I want to make it clear that I support good, well regulated zoos, not just all zoos.

Zoos are also an important tool for conservation. There are hundred of different species across the planet that have been helped by various zoos. For example, the Arabian Oryx was hunted to extinction in the wild in 1972, but the Phoenix Zoo carried out a breeding and reintroduction program that rose their population in the wild to over 1,000

Furthermore, zoos are excellent centers for research where vaccines and treatments can be discovered to help save animal populations in the wild. They help researchers observe how the animals live and interact, which can help humans understand how to better protect and appreciate them. Scientists can also use zoos as a “bank” of sorts. Instead of money, zoos hold valuable genetic information. In an emergency, scientists can tap into the genetic information stored in these animals to either diversify the gene pool of a wild population that has grown too genetically homogenous, or even put the genetic information into a surrogate mother to deliver offspring if there are no more mating couples of the species left in existence.

The moral issues that zoos raise are more complex than one would first imagine. I’ve only scratched the surface of a few. I believe that zoos are getting better, and there are a handful of very respectable zoos out there that do more good than harm.

Makena Hayes ’17

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