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Zoos and Animal Rights: Right or Wrong?

One of the most precious memories of my childhood is the one of my parents taking me to the Chapultepec Zoo of Mexico City. Being born and raised in Acapulco, it was sure a rare opportunity to behold such magnificent animals such as elephants, rhinoceros, lions, penguins, polar bears and of course, the cuddly pandas.

As I grew up, however, this annual visit to the Chapultepec Zoo became more and more depressing. It was truly saddening to see the relatively small spaces in which these large animals were kept and the monotony of their daily lives.

“Come on, they look happy, here they don’t have predators and they don’t have to worry about obtaining food” my mother wisely told me when I was nine and started to raise doubts about the conditions and the way animals were treated in the zoo. I politely agreed and yet, the inner (and foolish) me just wanted to release these animals into the wild and let them enjoy their lives.

Then, the best (or probably worse) thing happened that made me change my mind. They finally freed Willy.

The Sad Ballad of Keiko the Orca

Who is Willy? You may ask. Willy is the star of a 1993 movie, “Free Willy” about an orca and a boy. Long story short: The little manages to free the orca into the wild after befriending it. What most people didn’t know was that “Willy” wasn’t a CGI or an actor in a convincing orca suit, it was an actual orca named Keiko (Lucky One” in Japanese, oh, the irony), that at the time, was living peacefully at the “Reino Aventura” Theme Park in Mexico City.

Granted, the enclosure was extremely small for an orca of its size so it is completely understandable that after the movie came out, many people protested for the orca to be relocated since it was logical that Keiko needed more space. The “Free Willy-Keiko Foundation” however, wanted to release Keiko into the wild, inspired by the little foolish boy in that cheesy kid’s movie. At this point, you’re probably guessing how this story is going to end, don’t you?

Keiko was captured at the age of three, meaning that, he had spent more than 20 years living inside of aquariums and was completely unable to adapt to living in the ocean. The foundation however, managed to release him and, under their care, Keiko died in 2003 of pneumonia.

To me, the story of Keiko was a cautionary tale about going against nature. But wait, isn’t it already unnatural for animals to be born and raised in captivity? Yes and no. Let me explain.

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Pros and Cons of Zoos

For me, the make-it or break-it point when it comes to Animal Rights and ethics is simple: Was the animal raised in captivity or was it captured as an adult? Sadly, there are more than 1,000 Zoos and menageries all around the world and regulation is mild at best and inefficient at worse. 

The saddest part? some Zoos are owned by unscrupulous individuals who would not think twice before buying exotic animals from a poacher just to increase their annual revenues.

On the other hand, most Zoos have breeding programs that allow for certain species of exotic and/or endangered animals to reproduce and continue to survive, at least in captivity. Sure, it is not the ideal way of life for a Panda but once you consider what their wild counterparts are experiencing today on their own…maybe the Zoo is not THAT bad after all.

Getting close and personal with the Komodo Dragons
Getting close and personal with the Komodo Dragons

In fact, Zoos help raise the awareness of endangered species and also serve as an educational vehicle for children and adults. People who lobby for the erradication of Zoos are basically elitists who believe that the average citizen has no rights to see giraffes, hippos and gorillas without traveling to Africa.

How can the average Joe care about the hunting of the black rhino if he/she has never seen one and has no way to emotionally connect with it?

It is sad to know that there are certain species of animals like the Scimitar Oryx, majestic African beast that inspired the myth of the Unicorn, that have entered the endangered category of “Extinct in the Wild”, meaning that if it wasn’t for the conservation effort of the Zoos, this animal would be completely lost to us.


So yes, while I do agree with the concept of Zoos as a way to ensure the preservation of species as well as to make people aware of the many different species of animals that can be found in the world, I strongly believe that there should be a strict regulation in order to improve the living conditions of said animals, especially in Zoos run by third-world countries.

Snow Monkeys of Japan
Snow Monkeys of Japan

A Tale of Two Zoos

In Argentina, we have the two polar opposites that can totally illustrate my point. One is the government-run Zoo that houses lots of exotic species in small enclosures, has run-down facilities and actually encourages the visitors to buy snacks to feed the animals.

And no, this isn’t restricted to the domestic llamas, ducks and deers, no…you can actually throw those biscuits at the Pygmy hippos and watch how they open their big mouths. It’s no wonder that the Polar Bear in this zoo died in 2012 because of over-heating. This is basically everything that a Zoo should not be.

On the other side of the equation you have the Temaikén Bioparque, which yes, it’s just another fancy name for a Zoo but, I gotta admit it, is on par (and in some aspects even superior) to most European Zoos. Huge enclosures, organized activities with park rangers to raise awareness about how animals should be treated as well as interactive spaces where you can learn more about the fauna of Argentina and the World.

Elephant Riding in Chiang Mai 06
Elephants in Chiang Mai

A little bit further outside of Buenos Aires, in the town of Lujan, you can also find another place to see animals, although I could hardly  considered it as a Zoo since it seems more like a Circus. Taking inspiration from the Tiger Kingdom of Thailand, this “Luján Zoo” allows you to pet tigers and lions.

However, contrary to the breeding and education program used in the Tiger Kingdom to make tigers human-friendly, this Lujan Zoo actually drugs the animals. Taking a photo next to a paralyzed lion is no different from taking it next to a stuffed one.

Other services offered by the Lujan Zoo? Riding elephants and camels. Not that there’s anything wrong about that (after all, people have used them as means of transportation throughout the ages) but the way they are treated at this place sure reeks of animal abuse and circus life.

What is your opinion about Zoos? Love them? Hate them? Share your opinion and let me know about it!

Two orangutans climbing a tree in Tanjung Puting, Borneo
Two orangutans climbing a tree in Tanjung Puting, Borneo