This MLA paper explores the purpose and value of putting animals in zoos. The author argues zoos are a necessary evil of the world in which diminishing areas of wild enable animals to live free but not without a level of risk. This ethics essay was written at the undergraduate level as a sample for the Ultius blog.
Zoos: Necessary and Important or Old and Outdated?
The question of the value of zoos has been reignited by the recent loss of a Gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. However, this incident does not reflect a lapse on the part of the zoo as much as reveal the level of distraction of parents. Zoos serve many important functions for increasing animal awareness, cultivating conservation, providing breeding support for animals, and doing much needed research. The debate around the value of zoos is really a debate concerning environmental ethics and social psychology which extends in all areas of culture. For just as how a culture shapes an environment their own future is shaped.
Questioning the value of zoos
The question of the value of zoos is multi-layered and complex, relating to environmental ethics and social psychology, as well as the dangers of extinction. It is sobering that, “The current extinction rate is approximately 100 extinctions per million species per year, or 1,000 times higher than natural background rates. They also predict that future rates may be as much as 10,000 times higher” (Tsuji). The question of the value of zoos hinges on whether or not exposure to the dwindling animal population will inspire empathy, encourage conservation, and help empower the next generation to do what they can to stem the tide of environmental slaughter.
All of the accredited zoos in the United States cite that awareness and conservation cultivation as a major motivation for their organization. In order to understand what insights crowds to emotional responses which could lead to behavior and belief shifts, “psychologists at zoos, aquariums and universities are exploring how experiences with live animals influence visitors’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and behavior” (Dingfelder). Researchers have found it is exceedingly difficult to educate and inspire in regards to animals. Dr. Susan Clayton, zoo research and social psychologist from the College of Wooster has found:
“People don’t pick up much factual information from their trips to zoos and aquariums—only about 27 percent read interpretive signs, according to one of her studies. In fact, says Clayton, a decade of research suggests that people generally go to zoos for entertainment, with education as a secondary goal. But, she says, a recent spate of studies is finding that people may be taking away something harder to measure, but just as important, from their zoo visits. ‘What seems to be happening is that zoo-goers are enjoying themselves, making a connection with the animals, and developing a shared understanding of their relationship with the animals.” (Dingfelder)
This emotive resonance is often difficult to quantify outside of the sphere of social psychology but is a positive effect of zoos. After all, humans are animals, and sharing a social experience, and researchers have observed that human families in zoos sometimes come together physically in an intimate fashion when experiencing the animals together (Dingfelder). This may be an unconscious effect of recognizing the animalistic nature before them, which if people are separated from can have devastating psychological effects. Observing this interplay of conscious and unconscious relations, researchers report:
“zoo-goers, often families, used the animals as a jumping-off point to define humans’ relationship with the natural world. About 47 percent of the comments people made to one another, for example, were positive—comments like, ‘He’s beautiful.’ And 33 percent of the observations used the pronoun ‘he or she’ instead of ‘it.’” (Dingfelder)
Observing this Clayton feels encouraged about the role zoos play in social awareness. She comments, “’Without coming right out and saying it, we’re saying, ‘We like animals,’ and ‘They are similar to us…They are making a connection, and I think this connection forms the basis of stronger environmental attitudes’” (Dingfelder). Zoos are also found to be a place where children can confront irrational fears they have of animals.
As in one instance, “Clayton heard a little girl say, ‘Let’s kill him! Wolves are bad.’ The girl was quickly corrected by her mother, who explained that wolves are not bad and it’s our job to protect them” (Dingfelder). This would be a good opportunity to share the wisdom of how reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone positively transformed the national park, which could quickly lead to the understanding that without animals life on this planet would not be as healthy for humans.
Exploring the many roles of zoos
Besides cultivating conservation spirit zoos provide many other services for the community. This has largely been since the Endangered Species Act of 1973 which has changed how animals can be treated. A few of the roles of zoos are:
- Conservation ethic
- Captive breeding
- Reintroduction of endangered animals
- Activism (Blease)
However, this is largely only the case in highly developed and aware nations, while around the world many zoos exploit animals and mistreat them. However, educating today’s youth about the reality of zoo abuse and the differences in the U.S. could serve the spirit of activism and spirit which is needed for conservation. The five worst international zoos with a history of abuse are:
- Surabaya Zoo, Indonesia: Tiger fed meat laced with formaldehyde.
- Mumbai Zoo, India: Lets animals die, then puts them on display as taxidermy.
- Giza Zoo, Egypt: Cramped conditions and refuses to exercise the captive animals.
- Kiev Zoo, Ukraine: Called a “concentration camp for animals.”
- San Antonio Zoo, U.S.: 6 years as a bad zoo for elephants. (Cronin)
The fact that there is one U.S. zoo on this list represents that the conservation spirit has yet to trump the desire for easy and unethical profits. That is after all the spirit which has put all species (including humanity) is a seriously endangered position. However, for an understanding of the debate on the value of zoos the negative argument must be heard. Those who advocate against zoos under all circumstances ask, “Imagine what it would feel like to be locked inside a room for the rest of your life, unable to escape and see any other part of the world” (Warner). Many people can verily understand this feeling as they are tightly ensnared by the mad rush of consumerism in a shrinking world. Advocates against zoos highlight:
- “Cages and cramped enclosures at zoos deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs.”
- “Zoos breed animals because the presence of babies draws zoo visitors and boosts revenue. But the animals’ fate is often bleak once they outgrow their ‘cuteness.’ And some zoos still import animals from the wild.”
- “Most animals in zoos are not endangered, and while confining animals to zoos keeps them alive, it does nothing to protect wild populations and their habitats.” (Warner)
These are valid concerns, and a good response to it would be to improve the quality of zoos, as well as make a move towards breeding to the degree that all animals in a zoo were born there. For, if an animal never knew freedom it may be happier ignorant of the outside world. Perhaps zoos should change their approach to education as “One study found that 62% of the surveyed children showed no change in learning after visiting the zoo” (Warner). This is a complex issue.
English professor at Georgia State University, Randy Malamud, PhD, is the author of the book Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity. He emphasizes, “why bother saving rainforests if we can scoop out all the interesting animals and put them on display for our enjoyment? ‘I don’t think that zoos can possibly encourage people to think ecologically, that we’re all in this together’” (Dingelder).
Philosopher and zoo researcher, Ralph Acampora, PhD advocates that people percieve “zoos and aquariums as places where humans have control over animals’ lives and are masters of nature, for good or ill…Even worse, zoos and aquariums separate animals from their natural habitats—a process that further undermines their message of conservation” (Dingelder). In response to these justifiable concerns many zoos have changed their programs and improved their services to animals.
Studies are not always conclusive, and greater sensitivity and awareness of the complex effects and roles of zoos requires more study. After all:
“54 percent claim that their experience made them reconsider their role in the world’s ecology and 57 percent report that their zoo visit inspired them to think about their relationship with nature, according to his organization’s recent audience surveys, funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the National Science Foundation.” (Dingelder)
Humanities relationship with the nature world has been dramatically hindered by the expansion of the Industrial Revolution, and the effects on the collective psyche are widespread throughout global culture. Shown in the prisoner animal program, and in many areas animals help people connect with their innate nurturer, and this sensitivity and care is in great need today. Animals should be made more available and supported in and out of the wild, zoos, and homes in order to help people find their own inner animal.
Zoos are a necessary evil of the world in which diminishing areas of wild enable animals to live free. The widespread threat of extinction is the single greatest reason to cultivate quality conservation in order to continue genetic plasticity and longevity. The value of exposure to animals has been difficult to quantify, but would be much more challenging without access to animals. Greater levels of ethical awareness is needed throughout the world to enable zoos to take a backseat to real life in the wild. This would require a change of heart in which humans in a position to kill and exploit animals were no longer supported by their community, but rather, punished.
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Blease, Thornton, W. “Are Zoos Necessary?” Common Sense for Animals, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.commonsenseforanimals.org/zoos.html
CBS. “What’s the future of zoos and aquariums?” CBC.ca, 19 Mar. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/zoos-aquariums-conservation-1.3499034
Cronin. Melissa. “The 5 Worst Zoos in the World—and How to ae Their Animals.” The Dodo, 28 Apr. 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.thedodo.com/the-5-worst-zoos-in-the-world–528392319.html
Dingelder, Sadie F. “Wild Encounters.” Monitor, Vol. 40.1 (2009), pp. 32. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/11/conservation.aspx
Hone, Dave. “Why zoos are good.” The Guardian, 19Aug. 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/lost-worlds/2014/aug/19/why-zoos-are-good
Tsuji, Via. “Current Extinction Rate 10 Times Worse Than Previously Thought.” IFL Science, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/current-extinction-rate-10-times-worse-previously-thought/
Warner, Alexandra. “Are Zoos Outdated Or Worth Keeping Around?” The Lala, 1 Jun. 2016. Retrieved from: http://thelala.com/zoos-outdated-worth-keeping-around/