Zoos and Animal Rights: Right or Wrong?

Snow Monkeys of Japan
Snow Monkeys of Japan

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.

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

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.

Finding chubby unicorns aka rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park
Finding chubby unicorns aka rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park

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 arround 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 let’s say 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. Forever.

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!

44 Comments

  • My boyfriend and I have this discussion all the time. We’re lucky in Adelaide that our zoos are great, so it’s not a case of animals being mistreated, but he still refuses to visit our zoo on the grounds that the animals shouldn’t be in enclosures smaller than what they are used to in the wild. I agree it isn’t ideal, but can see the conservational benefits. We also have a large open air zoo where the animals have much more freedom – he’s willing to go to that one! Thanks for such a thoughtful post :)

    • When I visited Peru I was kind of torn to see llamas in a Zoo since they are animals that can be found all around the country. I guess the same could be said about Australia’s kangaroos found in a Zoo and the wild.

  • This is a good article. I’m torn. Like you, I believe in the reproduction and propagation of endangered species. I hate seeing zoos where the animals are in confined and poor conditions. Captivity seems so unnatural to me, but yes, when you consider some of these species’s alternatives in the wild- a captive life is better than the slaughter. I think if they are done “right” -zoos can definitely be a positive thing.

  • I don’t like zoos, not now I’ve done a fair bit of travelling and seen the real thing. It just drives home how bad conditions in some zoos are and what gives us the right to cage up another animal like we do? Sure I can see the benefits of well organised establishments advocating animal welfare and educating people, but for me it’s heart-breaking to see animals so far from their natural homes being gawped at by a load of kids dribbling ice-cream down their chins. Give me a game reserve any day!

    • The problem is that the average human doesn’t have the resources to travel to Africa and see the real thing, so in a way, Zoos are a form of traveling for people who lack the resources to see said majestic animals in the wild.

  • I wouldn’t say I finitely like or dislike zoos. Some are obviously better than others. I’ve travelled and seen some terrible conditions which I find impossible to support and genuinely break my heart. Like most, I can see the positives in establishments that are well run and the Associations are working to improve conditions in many places. I do support conservation efforts and I was speaking only the other day to my local zoo about their conservation efforts and preservation of endangered species. I guess also this work needs to be funded, and if this can be done in a way that brings people together, educates and motivates them about the animals then it’s arguably positive, though not ideal.

  • I just watched Blackfish and it made me really depressed. As a child, I loved seaworld and got roped into their whole schpeel but as you realize the conditions of the orcas and how they are treated, it’s just wrong. Some zoos really are there to help animals and some others obviously exploit the animals.

  • As a child I liked a ZOO. And as an adult I must admit, I don’t have any interest in visiting a ZOO. I did enjoy the Lions park in South Africa where lions are basically kept captive (sort of), but in their natural habitat and in a large park where they can move freely within the limits of the park. Visitors drive through the park and watch the lions from the car.

  • I also have mixed feelings about zoos. Some of them do great work and have interesting animal protection programs, others are just horrible and should be shut down immediately. I can’t understand why there are still zoos who treat their animals in a bad and disgusting way. They should know better by now!!!!!!!

  • You really can’t lump them all together in one big group. They aren’t all the same. Zoo’s, game reserves, animal ‘sanctuaries’, rehab centres, etc etc etc, there are good and bad examples of them all. There are some animal attractions which are amazing and put a lot of effort, research and work into animal treatment and conservation efforts (Singapore Zoo, Semmengoh Organg Utan rehab centre, etc), and unfortunately some which actively abuse animals and hamper conservation efforts and are only there to make money off tourists (such as the despicable Tiger Temple in Thailand).

    Education is paramount, and any traveller or backpacker should read and know as much as possible about any place they intend on visiting/supporting.

  • You have a great point on the pros and cons of zoos. There are some that really do want to make a difference in wildlife habitats and species going extinct and then there are those that just exist for the money and not the animals. There is light and dark in any situation – so we have to choose which are the best to support and continue to visit and which are the ones to ‘condemn’ in a way so that they stop the mistreatment. Good post, thanks :D

  • There are really huge differeneces between ZOOs, in some of them you can actually see the animals suffer, while in others the animals are just simply not free. I know some ZOOs actually contribute in an important manner to saving animal species, but I still feel quite unnatural being in a zoo and staring at animals on the other side of the fence.

  • Such a controversial and fascinating topic. Yes, it depends on the zoo, as far as whether it is education and conservation or imprisonment. Very sad they they all can’t just roam free, and thrive, in their natural habitats, safely.

  • I have to admit, we both love visiting zoos so I would say that I am a ‘pro zoo’ person, but that’s not to say I don’t see the potential negative aspects associated with them.

    For the most part it really depends on the type of zoo and the quality within the confines of the zoo exhibits. I have been fortunate to visit several throughout UK and USA and for the most part all have been in excellent condition but I am convinced there are many throughout the world that are not like this.

    This also brings up the topic of animal sanctuaries which I am also in favor of. We visited Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Australia at the end of 2012 and had a great experience there. Everything they do there is non-profit and purely for the love of an endangered species. Unfortunately again, this is not always the case so the pros and cons of such establishments is certainly debatable.

    Great topic and post here Raphael!

  • All great points. We unfortunately, (or fortunately, I guess) can’t lump all zoos into one category. Some are amazing and some are terrible. For that reason, I can’t honestly say whether I like or dislike zoos. I love animals and for that reason always enjoy seeing them, but it makes me sad too.

  • we have been to a few Zoo’s (adelaide and Sydney) but have found them all to be fairly average with the enclosures being fairly small.
    The game parks in Africa are great though – lots of space to wander around

  • I see the benefits zoos bring through conservation and research efforts, so I’m hardly ‘anti-zoo’. That said I’m not a big fan of visiting them.

  • I think it’s a complex issue. You’ve touched on the relevant arguments and a lot does depend on the individual zoo. The wilderness (Madagascar, anyone, while we’re referencing kids’ movies?) is not always a kind place, especially to those animals which are injured, elderly, or otherwise infirm. To the extent that animals are sheltered against a worse fate, and good-quality breeding programs and decent research come out of it, that’s great. And of course most zoos do a lot on the behavioural side these days to give animals the things they need to be happy.

    But I think we need to put a greater focus on habitat conversation and the kind of tourism and research that involves wild animals. Travel is much more common and accessible these days, so in theory it should be easier than ever to promote awareness in these alternative ways.

    We still visit zoos from time to time.

    • bronwyn, about the injured and etc: that’s the way nature controls population. it might seem cruel, but it happens across every species, even humans.

      that’s why we have diseases and earthquakes. the earth needs to renew itself from time to time, in order to grow. for life to happen we must have death.

      we can’t save them all, and that’s not our duty anyway. what we could do instead is to take care of this earth, because it is our home. the only one we have. and the only one we know about. if life disappears here, who knows when the universe would come out with another?

  • I’m 100% against zoos. All sorts of animal imprisonment makes me shiver. Animals are bought, sold and exchanged as if they were things and killed when the zoos don’t need to display the many more. Have you heard about the scandals in Scandinavia, about the killing of the baby giraffe and a whole lion family because the zoo decided they didn’t want them anymore… ?

    i believe in natural reservations, protected wild parks, etc, where animals can be protected and free, but not in zoos.

  • I don’t really like zoos, but am okay with most free-range safari type places. Animal instinct is to roam free, to hunt or to find their own food, which will never happen in a traditional zoo. I agree that some animals do need to be helped out (like pandas), but is a zoo the right place for this to happen? I don’t know.

  • I hadn’t known the whole story about Free Willy/Keiko before reading this, so I’m really glad you included it in the post. Have you watched the documentary ‘Black Fish’? That was a really interesting one and it made me much more aware of the kind of things going on in dolphin/whale/orca parks and how the animals react. If you haven’t, I strongly recommend it, I think you’d be interested.

    On zoos, I’ve never been a fan. I feel like majestic animals have been reduced to sadness. I am, however, very in favour of nature parks/reserves and that sort of thing where animals are closer to living in their natural environment. I also feel that though many people won’t have the opportunity to visit them (because of inability to fund a trip to those sort of countries, like Africa, where they exist) then unfortunately they will have to make do with the internet and documentaries instead.

  • I don’t really know what to think about the ZOOs. In my opinion most of them should make more space and better conditions for the animals. I don’t mind going to a spacious Safari or ZOO where the animals are treated as they should. And what’s more, I even would like to work with animals, let’s say for example in Safari Park.

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  • i would like you to think about this on another way: would you like to be free, on your own habitat but having the chance to die, or would you prefer to be kept on a cage but lived for 90 years?

    as a traveler, i believe you would prefer to be free. even if that meant the species extinction.

    we don’t have any right to put an animal in captivity just for the sake of learning. we have photos, videos, simulations for that. or would you put a chinese, a portuguese, and a puerto rican in a zoo, just so people know how they look like?

    animals or any living being are not here to serve us. we are all nature. we are all the same. what we need to do is to stop harming their and our environment. to stop killing them for pleasure and/or profit.

    zoos for the sake of preserving life is just another excuse for profit, for pleasure and for causing suffering.

    here are some more of my thoughts on the subject, if you’d like to consider a different point of view: https://themaskwriter.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/do-you-belong-to-the-jungle-or-the-circus/

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