It’s been many centuries since Montezuma first caged jaguars and monkeys for the public’s entertainment. Today, however, people have become much more informed about the needs and behavior of wild animals and the toll that captivity takes on them.
Most zoos do not begin to replicate the lush jungles, vast Savannah, and dense forests where animals belong. Many animals in captivity have little control over their lives, including what they eat and who they share space with. They may not even get to decide who their mate is since some zoos artificially inseminate animals.
Instead of providing lifetime care, zoos often trade, lend, sell, barter, and warehouse animals they no longer want—despite knowing that many species form lasting bonds that are important to their long-term health and happiness. Removing animals from established social groups and forcing them to adjust repeatedly to new routines, different caretakers, and unfamiliar cage mates is disruptive and traumatic.
Zoos limit the natural behavior patterns of animals, including migration and in many cases, flight. Animals who would shun contact with humans in nature have no way to escape routine contact with them. Many develop neurotic and self-harming behavior that are rarely, if ever, observed in the wild. Primates may throw feces and eat their own vomit. Some birds pluck out their own feathers. Elephants often sway back and forth. Tigers pace incessantly, and polar bears are often seen swimming endless figure-eights.
Aquatic animals suffer, too. A study conducted by the Captive Animals’ Protection Society concluded that majority of public aquariums studied had animals who showed stereotypical neurotic behavior, such as repeatedly raising their heads above the surface of the water, spinning around an imaginary object, and frequently turning on one side and rubbing along the floor of the tank.
Keeping animals in cages does nothing to foster respect for animals. Study after study, including by the zoo industry itself, has shown that most zoo visitors simply wander around the grounds, pause briefly in front of some displays, and spend their time on snacks and bathroom breaks. One study of visitors to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., showed that visitors spent less than eight seconds per snake exhibit and only one minute with the lions. Researchers concluded that “people … treat[ed] the exhibits like wallpaper.” In fact, numerous studies have shown that exhibiting animals in unnatural settings may undermine conservation by leaving the public with the idea that a species must not be in jeopardy if the government is being used for display and entertainment.
Even a study by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums itself has concluded that claims that zoo exhibits might contribute to conservation “were not substantiated or validated by actual research,” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said that it has “sincere doubts” about the conservation benefits from public exhibitions of wildlife and no longer accepts “education” as a basis for issuing Endangered Species Act permits.
Zoos leave animals vulnerable to a variety of dangers from which they have no defense or opportunity to escape. Animals in zoos have been poisoned, left to starve, deprived of veterinary care, and burned alive in fires. Some have died after eating coins, plastic bags, and other items thrown into their cages. Still others have been killed or stolen by people who were able to gain access to their exhibits. During natural disasters, such as floods and wildfires, there may be no way to evacuate every animal to safety.
A bear starved to death at the Toledo Zoo after zoo officials locked her up to hibernate without food or water—not knowing that her species doesn’t hibernate. At the Niabi Zoo in Illinois, a 3-month-old lion cub was euthanized after his spinal cord was crushed by a falling exhibit door.
There are many ways to learn about and appreciate animals without supporting zoos. Nature documentaries abound in which animals are shown behaving naturally in their rightful homes.
North America’s only natural freshwater “aquarium” is located in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Opened in 1990, the Suncor Energy Fluvarium, has nine panoramic glimpses into a real diverted brook, where brown trout swim freely in and out of the viewing areas, which include deep and shallow ponds and a fast-flowing “riffle” where the fish spawn in the fall.
The following are a few examples of how captivity adversely affects the well-being of various species.
In the wild, great apes live in dense tropical forests, where these highly social beings are constantly engaged and active in a rich and diverse environment. They show love for one another, laugh, play, and grieve. In captivity they become lazy and complacent – bored. They are reduced to nothing more than scared animals living in an environment they don’t understand.
Elephants in their natural habitats are on the move for up to 18 hours each day. In a single day, a herd can cover a distance of up to 30 miles. In addition to walking, elephants regularly dig, forage, swim, climb, rub on trees, take mud baths, and experience a variety of terrains and substrates, such as leafy jungle floors, grass, and sand. They live in matriarchal groups and share mothering responsibilities for the herd’s babies. In captivity they live in small contained areas separated from other members of their herd.
Large Cats – Lions, Tigers, Panthers, Cheetahs, Jaguars
Large, roving predators show stereotypical symptoms of stress when kept in captivity, because they are unable to satisfy their instinct to roam. Given that the average tiger enclosure is about 18,000 times smaller than the animals’ natural roaming range, it is simply impossible for these animals to express instinctive behavior such as staking out territory in dense forests, choosing mates, running, climbing, and hunting. It’s little surprise that so many captive big cats snap. Countless people have been seriously injured, maimed or killed by captive large cats.
Bears are long-lived animals, with life spans ranging from 15 to 30 years. In the wild, they live in diverse habitats, including tundra, alpine meadows, and forests. Their home range can cover thousands of square miles. They are opportunistic feeders who are always investigating and exploring their environment, digging up and raking through vegetation, debarking trees, excavating, and lifting and turning over objects to find tasty snacks. In captivity they are given balls and toys to play and lose their ability to hunt.
The remaining images are of animals from zoos and travelling zoos.