Justifications of Zoos

Another approach to the zoo debate is to examine the reasons for keeping animals in captivity. If the benefits of zoos are negligible, animal advocates contend, then keeping wildlife captive cannot be justified. However, if significant benefits can be shown, captivity for at least some animals might be defensible.

ENTERTAINMENT. Historically, the predominant function of zoos has been entertainment. Studies of zoo visitors show that most people continue to see these facilities as parklike settings for casual family socializing (Kellert). To zoo opponents, public amusement is a trivial reason for holding animals in confinement (Jamieson). Opponents especially attack circuslike events, such as sea lion shows, that use trained animals to draw large crowds. Similarly, zoos that import animals such as giant pandas to boost attendance and revenues have been condemned. Such events are seen as denigrating the animals by exploiting them as public spectacles.

Although zoo directors vaunt high attendance rates, many de-emphasize entertainment as a zoo goal (Luoma). Baby elephant rides and similar amusements are gradually disappearing as zoos try to develop a more serious image. However, zoo educators claim that entertainment is necessary to keep visitors interested in learning. Also, zoo administrators assert that animal shows, special events, and traveling exhibits are sometimes essential to raise the funds needed to pay for research and other zoo missions (Cohn).

RESEARCH. Few visitors are familiar with the scientific efforts of zoos. Although a handful of zoos sponsor field research, most studies are conducted on site by zoo staff or affiliated researchers. Common topics include animal behavior, nutrition, reproductive biology, genetics, and pathology (Hutchins and Fascione). Animal activists challenge both the quality and usefulness of this research (Jamieson). According to critics, the experimental design of most zoo research lacks scientific rigor, rarely qualifying for publication in peer-reviewed journals. In a nutrition study, for example, a small sample size or the absence of a control group may obscure study results. Some critics also say that much of the research is aimed at improving captive husbandry and exhibit design—unnecessary benefits if wildlife were not confined in the first place. Regardless of any benefits, some animal-rights advocates oppose all animal research. Tom Regan (1983) argues that the utility of research, whether to gain practical information of basic knowledge, is no justification for violating an individual animal's basic rights.

Zoo scientists reject the position that animal research is intrinsically wrong. They emphasize that most zoo research is noninvasive, nonterminal, and aimed at benefiting captive and wild populations (Hutchins). While acknowledging weaknesses in past studies, zoo proponents see a growing commitment to quality research at many institutions. Zoos are hiring research staff, cooperating with university faculties, and investing in major research facilities such as the U.S. National Zoo's 3,000-acre Conservation and Research Center. Much current research employs sophisticated, controversial techniques, such as embryo transfers, in efforts to improve captive breeding success. Although the experimental techniques may harm individual animals, zoo scientists contend that the long-term benefits for species conservation outweigh the costs to individual animals.

CONSERVATION. Animal advocates doubt that zoos can make a significant contribution to conservation (Fox). Although many recognize the biodiversity crisis, critics hold that zoos can do little to resolve the primary cause of extinction: habitat destruction. Nor can zoos protect more than an insignificant portion of the estimated five to thirty million species on the planet. Further, zoo conservation efforts are biased toward the charismatic large mammals preferred by zoo visitors, nearly ignoring disliked organisms such as bats and invertebrates (Kellert). When zoos do have success in maintaining a captive population, critics worry that the animals suffer from inbreeding and loss of natural behavioral characteristics. Are zoo animals and their wild relatives equivalent organisms? Could animals bred in zoos for generations be successfully reintroduced into the wild? If reintroduction is never possible, how long should the species be perpetuated in zoos? Extinction, to some zoo opponents, is more respectful of individual animals than endless confinement.

Yet conservation is viewed by many as the preeminent function of modern zoos. Zoo advocates liken the zoo to a crowded ark, struggling to accommodate as many threatened species as possible. Advocates remind critics that several organisms have already been saved from extinction by zoos, including the European bison and Mongolian wild horses (Tudge). Increasing resources are devoted to captive breeding through programs such as the AAZPA's Species Survival Plans (SSP) (Wiese and Hutchins). SSPs manage rare animal populations at zoos throughout the country, asking zoos to cooperate in breeding plans that promote genetic variability and demographic stability. SSP organizers hope that as such programs grow, world zoos will eventually be able to protect 500 to 900 endangered species (Luoma).

Zoos are also expanding efforts to reintroduce animals born in captivity to the wild, using some reintroduction projects to study techniques for managing small, isolated populations in the wild and to encourage habitat protection in developing countries. While they agree that zoos cannot directly save the majority of endangered species, zoo advocates proclaim that saving any species keeps options open for the future.

EDUCATION. The educational benefits of zoos are also viewed skeptically by animal advocates. Visitor studies indicate that relatively few people are interested in learning about animals or conservation, and there is little evidence that the zoo experience improves knowledge of biological facts or conservation issues (Kellert; Kellert and Dunlap). Given zoos' poor record of educational effectiveness, critics suggest that films, lectures, books, and nature centers may offer superior learning benefits without the ethical costs of confining wildlife. Most important, critics charge that zoos may be presenting harmful information and values (Sommer). Seeing rare animals in captivity, for example, may give visitors an inaccurate impression of human abilities to combat extinction. In addition, witnessing listless creatures in sterile cages may diminish respect for animals or concern for conservation.

Zoo advocates respond by describing the diversity of education programs and a growing commitment to educational progress (Chiszar et al.). Zoos attempt to teach casual visitors through signs, demonstrations, learning laboratories, and interactive computer technologies. Part of the revolution in exhibit design aims at enhancing learning by immersing visitors in natural environments. To extend their educational impact, zoos are developing curricula for primary and secondary students, holding workshops for teachers, visiting community centers, and organizing public lecture series. Michael Robinson (1989) promotes such changes as part of an educational revolution committed to teaching visitors about the interactions between wild animals, plants, and humans. Zoo proponents believe that, in our urbanized society, the zoo may be the only institution capable of demonstrating these vital links to the public.

Education, in fact, may offer zoos their best hope of effecting long-term, large-scale benefits (Kellert and Dunlap). If zoo educators could demonstrate positive program impacts, they could defuse criticisms and justify program expansion. Zoos should embark on a coordinated program of systematic educational evaluation and implement their findings through innovative programs dedicated to further progress. Given the wide popularity of zoos, it is doubtful that the ethical debate will result in their abolition. If zoos can learn how to teach the public scientific information and humane and conservation values, animal advocates, zoo proponents, and wildlife will all benefit.


SEE ALSO: Animal Research; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Environmental Ethics; Veterinary Ethics; and other Animal Welfare and Rights subentries

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