The Ethics of Zoos

I often hear people express disapproval of zoos because of how unhappy the animals are in confinement. This has always struck me as too easy a position, since most of them are not in a demographic that goes to the zoo much anyway. You’ll notice that few people are plagued by this concern when they’re kids, and they rarely remember it when they have kids themselves. But for the years in between, it’s an easy patch of moral high ground.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s definitely a real wrong being done when large, intelligent animals are kept in close confinement. It’s particularly sad to see their frequent pacing and other repetitive behaviors, which are clear signs of stress and mental illness.

Zoos often defend themselves by arguing that as advocates for conservation, they actually have a net positive effect on overall animal welfare. I’m not convinced that’s true and I don’t know how you’d even begin to measure it, but I don’t think it’s necessary to justify their existence. I think the simple fact is that for most of us, the wrong done to the animals is outweighed by the gain to so many humans from seeing them up close. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.

In fact, the focus on conservation and education may sometimes be opposed to the interests of individual animals, because it can lead to overcrowding and an unnecessarily wide range of species. I’m always surprised, for example, by how much space is given over to boring herd animals. When’s the last time you heard an excited young voice at the zoo saying “come on, Mom, the gorillas can wait, I want to see the European Bison!” If I had a kid who said that, I think I’d just abandon them right there and then. And yet these kinds of animals get a huge amount of space in every zoo, while leopards, monkeys and other star attractions are crammed into boxcar-sized cages and glass-walled dioramas.

Similarly, when I visited the Leipzig zoo earlier this year, this conversation was being repeated throughout the aquarium building:

Toddler, pointing to a big fish: “Hai?! Hai?!” (shark?)
Parent, shaking head gravely: “Das ist kein Hai.” (that’s not a shark)

Kids know what they want to see, clearly, and it’s not the spotted archerfish or the bighorn sheep. And yet zoos and aquariums persist in boring them to death. At the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, the last “species of the month” — I am not making this up — was coral. Or take the “Antelope Yards” in St. Louis:

The Saint Louis Zoo has one of the finest collections of hoofed mammals in the nation. The Antelope House and Antelope Yards are home to most of our hoofed mammals. During the 1930s, the Antelope House was designed to faithfully reproduce huge geological formations found in Graniteville, Missouri. Large moated yards radiate from the house, which is open year round for a variety of hoofed mammals. A quiet, shady part of the Zoo, with simulated red granite qwgeaSVD243q a>aaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Sorry, I fell asleep just re-typing that. Look, you’ve seen the antelope at a zoo before, right? They just sit around all day, entertaining no one, indifferent to their own existence, probably praying quietly for death. They don’t want to be there any more than you want to see them.

Suppose we just made the fences a little higher and connected their enclosure to the tiger house? I can guarantee about a week of record attendance (during which you’d also save a bundle on feeding costs) and then the tigers would have three times as much space to roam around in. And if you gradually opened up the rest of the zoo to them, you’d wind up with something like Texas’s Big Cat Sanctuary, which looks way cooler than any zoo anyway.

Joking aside: whatever you think of zoos, they’re not going away and they’ll probably never provide the best quality of life for their occupants. But there are some ways to make them more interesting and more humane at the same time, and I think a “fewer species, more space for each” approach could be one of them.