Animals In Captivity

Facing the frightening reality of a fun day at the zoo

Looking back on my early years many of my memories include outings to the zoo. Entering under the large welcoming sign, walking down the numerous pathways that meandered through the endless fences and glass walls that held within them the most exciting variety of animals you had ever seen. I remember seeing a polar bear, every time I visited, that would do backflips underwater over and over again. Back then all I saw when attending the zoo were those strange new creatures that I had only seen in books and on tv, and the gift shop at the end where you could take home a stuffed animal lookalike of that back flipping polar bear with a smile stitched on its face that you thought looked exactly like the one behind that glass wall.

I recently returned to that childhood zoo and happened upon that polar bear habitat. There was the great white bear…in the water…. doing backflips….still. I started thinking more on why this animal was preforming such a feat so I looked it up and found some disturbing results.

The flipping polar bear from the Como Zoo

“ Zoochosis”- a term coined by Bill Travers, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation “to describe the obsessive, repetitive behavior, and described zoo animals behaving abnormally as ‘zoochotic’.” ( This was what appeared on my screen when I looked up what this seemingly happy animal was doing. I read more about “zoochosis” and what it entails and found that such repetitive behaviors as the bears are abnormal and “it can include stereotypic behaviors — repetitive behaviors which appear to have no obvious goal or function — such as repetitive pacing, swaying, head-bobbing or circling and bar-biting demonstrably caused by the frustration of natural behavior patterns, impaired brain function, or repeated attempts to deal with some problem”(

“The Zoochotic Report” Video by the Born Free Foundation

This deeply disturbed me as I continued my journey through the zoo. I saw the repetitive actions in most every animal there. Big cats pacing, sea lions swimming in circles, monkeys head bobbing. Now seeing the negative I started noticing the poor living conditions of the animals. I started noticing the dingy cement rooms. I started noticing the sad paintings of savannas and jungles. I started noticing the lack of essential habitat needs of animals. No longer did I see this as a utopia. No longer did the stitched smile of the polar bear toy in the gift shop look like the one I had just saw behind that glass wall.

Every day millions of people flock to zoos and aquatic parks such as the SanDiego Zoo and Sea World to view a variety of spectacular creatures coming from every corner of the world. From Polar Bears to Orca Whales they have it all, and for many people these establishments are the only way they would ever be able to see these amazing creatures in real life. It would be a shame to get rid of such an entertaining, educational place to visit. But that is from a humans perspective on the issue. We fail to consider how this environment effects the main attractions. The animals.

Most animals in zoos today were born in captivity. These animals know nothing more than life in a cage. They have not experienced the wild yet they are still wild animals, not evolved to be living with such alien climates, diets, and enclosure characteristics that they are presented with in captivity. They rely on humans to provide them with all of their basic needs because they are not in the right environment to learn how to survive by themselves. If their environment is not specifically catered to their certain species, and human intervention is imposed there can be a deterioration in both the physical and mental health of the animal such as “development of abnormal behavior, disease, early mortality, and severe and lasting distress.” (

Recently an expository documentary about killer whales in captivity titled Blackfish came out featuring Sea Worlds own Tilikum. In the film you watch how young whales are ripped from their mothers sides in the wild and thrown into small tanks with unfamiliar new whales that are supposed to be its new “family”. As you watch you see just how emotional and intelligent these animals are. They know this new group of whales is not their real family and this shows through the violent attacks on each other causing them to be physically harmed in a way that they would not have been in the wild. They are put under an immense amount of pressure and stress through their training in these aquatic parks (human intervention) that break them mentally (lasting distress) causing them to harm their trainers. The whales are also doomed to a premature death, “According to PETA’s documentation of captive whale deaths, the average age of death is 12 years old for SeaWorld’s female orcas — which are expected to survive in the wild for about 50 years. For males — which are expected to survive in the wild for 30 years — the average age of death is 16.”( These are wild animals that are not meant to be put into a tanks as show ponies, they are meant to be in the open ocean with their rightful pods.

The question of wether it is morally right to keep an intelligent creature locked up in a cage for its entire life comes into play when seeing just how preceptive these whales were. It is true that “we remain the inventive species. No other animal has built skyscrapers, written sonnets, or made a computer.” (NatGeo) but we need to take into account evolution and that “creativity, like other forms of intelligence, did not simply spring from nothingness. It, too, has evolved.” (NatGeo). We have been around and evolved alongside these animals. But every individual species evolves differently and are driven by different things. We don’t take into account that Chimpanzees make tools to access food…just like us, Whales and other marine mammals are highly vocal and social…just like us. We neglect to take these similarities into account and realize that animals have a place in this world just as we do.

Zoos may argue the fact that they protect endangered species when they are held in captivity. While in some ways this is true even endangered animals are entitled to animal rights. Groups such as PETA fight for animal rights stating that “we do not have a right to breed, capture and confine other animals, even if they are endangered.” (animalrights). If an animal is endangered we need to work to keep them alive in the wild, protecting them in the most natural way possible.

Zoos, while claiming to be entertaining, educational, animal safe havens, they are big on making money. And what brings in more money than baby animals!? This gives zoos incentive to breed more and more animals which eventually leads to overpopulation. And what is a zoo with already inadequate living space for their existing animals supposed to do with MORE animals? The sad truth is that “Surplus animals are sold not only to other zoos, but also to circuses, canned hunting facilities, and even for slaughter.” (animalrights).

In connection to overbreeding, animals don’t have access to the same size population as they would in their natural habitat, populations in captivity being significantly smaller than they are in the wild. Therefore the gene pool is not as varied which leads to health problems and non-beneficial mutations. Many common mutations are increased occurrence of albinism, extra extremities, and the drooping of dorsal fins in aquatic animals. Mutations in coloring can effect breeding because biologically certain traits are more favored than others, otherwise known sexual selection. When the gene pool is limited, if there is a disease that goes around because there are no mutations that could protect individuals from it, many of the animals in the population are susceptible to acquiring the disease.

Although there are an abundance of zoos and marine parks that are not suitable for the animals which they contain to inhabit, some larger and properly funded zoos provide somewhat adequate living conditions for their animals. The Philadelphia Zoo is home to a new habitat. It’s an ‘environmental immersion’ model, this is where “zoos design exhibits to resemble animal habitats, keeping animals’ surroundings as natural as possible.” (usatoday). This cageless concept is a major improvement in regards to the zoos of the past. Instead of using metal bars or glass to separate animals from humans you are separated by large moats or other natural barriers whenever possible.The Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredits only those who meet the highest level of animal care and wildlife conservation. “Currently 216 zoos and aquariums worldwide have got this endorsement” (usatoday). These zoos and aquariums are guaranteed to provide animals with excellent daily care, professional standards for animal welfare and management, vetrnairy care, behavioral enrichment, and nutrition. This is a step in the right direction of zoo reform.

While these changes to zoos and aquatic parks are being made it still does not change the fact that we are holding wild animals in captivity for our pleasure. As people become aware of the issues involved with holding animals in captivity even more changes to the standards of zoos may occur. Certain animals may not even be allowed to be put into captivity in the future due to their social patterns and habitat needs. Once these issues have been raised it is difficult to ignore the fact that animals are truly suffering for our viewing. Its time to think of these creatures as more than just our entertainment, and start thinking of them as valuable pieces of our global puzzle.

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