For centuries, humanity has used and continues to use, animals as an everlasting resource. We have hunted species to oblivion, destroyed the homes of many others, and, worst of all, imprisoned countless wild animals for the sole reason of entertainment. A visit to a zoo or aquarium is likely part of the childhood of almost every person all over the world. But how ethical is a visit to these places? Do we really go to learn about the intelligence of animals and their complex behaviors? Or is that just the lie we tell ourselves to not feel guilty while throwing peanuts at a depressed chimpanzee? What zoo and aquarium visitors often fail to realize is that behind their playfulness and tricks, the captive animals endure a great deal of mental and physical suffering. In an effort to justify their existence, zoos and aquariums often claim that their roles have evolved to prioritize education and wildlife conservation. While, in fact, they do more harm than good in both areas.
Wild animals have evolved to thrive in vast oceans and boundless lands in herds and groups of their own kind. Therefore, when these animals are confined to incredibly small cages and isolated from members of their own species, they suffer both physically and mentally. For example, animals such as tigers and lions have about 18,000 times less space in zoos than they do in the wild. Polar bears have 1,000,000 times less space. to put that into perspective, imagine being forced to live in a bathtub for the rest of your days. Wild animals such as these often show signs of depression and psychoses such as biting the bars of their cages, rocking repeatedly, and pacing due to the stresses of confinement. Elephants, which are highly social creatures that need their families and offspring to survive, do especially badly in zoos. The average lifespan of zoo elephants is about 16-18 years, while wild elephants can live up to 50-70 years. Aquatic animals are no strangers to this suffering either. “Hugo was the first and only killer whale I ever trained. He was extremely lonely and would often crash his head into the side of the tank. Eventually, after banging his head one final time, he died from a brain aneurism.” – Orca trainer turned activist, Rico Barry.
Can we really learn anything about wildlife by watching depressed isolated animals? Zoos and aquariums often claim that their main purpose is not entertainment, rather it is education and wildlife conservation. However, they have failed time and time again to fulfill any of these promised roles. For example, zoos and aquariums often claim that they are keeping animals safe from habitat destruction, poaching, and other threats which may lead a species to become extinct. However, effective conservation is carried out by working in the animals’ natural habitat to protect individuals and entire ecosystems. Zoos and aquariums do not save species from extinction. Instead, they divert much-needed attention and funding away from important conservation work in the wild. Also in the name of conservation, zoos and aquariums claim to inspire people to protect wildlife by teaching them about animals and their magnificence. However, one cannot learn anything from an animal while it is isolated and locked behind bars. Actually, presenting animals as living exhibits teaches children that animals can be manipulated in order to fulfill our own curiosity about them. It suggests that animals have no right to be treated as individuals who think and feel for themselves.
If we truly wish to see our ecosystems thrive and what little we have left of the animal kingdom flourish, we would return wild animals back to where they belong. Kidnapping and imprisoning animals for our entertainment is not only unethical but cruel and inhumane. We can lie to ourselves and continue calling zoos and aquariums educational facilities or conservation centers, but the captive animals will continue to suffer no matter what you label their cages.