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July 2000
Zoos: Myth and Reality

By Rob Laidlaw


In recent years, zoos have become the target of intense public scrutiny and criticism. In response, many have tried to repackage themselves as institutions devoted to wildlife conservation, public education and animal welfare. But most zoos fail to live up to their own propaganda and vast numbers of zoo animals continue to endure lives of misery and deprivation.

Nearly every zoo, from the smallest amateur operation to the largest professional facilities, claims to be making important contributions to conservation, usually through participation in endangered species captive propagation initiatives and public education programming. The zoo world buzzword of the moment is "conservation."

Yet, with an estimated 10,000 organized zoos worldwide, representing tens of thousands of human workers and billions of dollars in operating budgets, only a tiny percentage allocate the resources necessary to participate in captive propagation initiatives, and fewer still provide any real support for the in situ protection of wildlife and their natural habitat.

So far, the record on reintroductions to the wild is dismal. Only 16 species have established self-sustaining populations in the wild as a result of captive breeding efforts, and most of those programs were initiated by government wildlife agencies—not zoos. The contribution of zoos in this regard has been minimal, and often involves supplementing existing wild populations with a small number of captive-born individuals who are ill-prepared for life in the wild.

As the futility of captive breeding as a major conservation tool becomes evident to those in the industry, many zoos are now turning to education to justify themselves. Yet, zoo claims that they teach visitors about wildlife conservation and habitat protection, and their contention that they motivate members of the public to become directly involved in wildlife conservation work, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The truth is that scant empirical evidence exists to prove that the primary vehicle for education in most zoos—the animal in the cage—actually teaches anyone anything. In fact, viewing animals in cages may be counterproductive educationally by conveying the wrong kinds of messages to the public. Also, the legions of conservationists that zoos should have produced, if their claims were true, have never materialized.

Humane Treatment
But there is one issue about which there appears to be widespread agreementæat least in principle. So long as wild animals are kept in captivity, they ought to be treated humanely.

Studies have shown that animals can suffer physically, mentally and emotionally. For this reason, captive environments must be complex enough to compensate for the lack of natural freedom and choice, and they must facilitate expression of natural movement and behavior patterns. This principle has been widely espoused by the modern zoo community in various articles, books and television documentaries.

Yet despite the best of intentions or claims, most animals in zoos in North America are still consigned to lead miserable lives in undersized, impoverished enclosures, both old and new, that fail to meet their biological and behavioral needs. Many in the zoo industry will bristle at this statement and point to numerous improvements in the zoo field. They’ll claim they’ve shifted from menagerie-style entertainment centers where animals were displayed in barred, sterile, biologically irrelevant cages, to kinder, gentler, more scientifically-based kinds of institutions.

But many of the "advances" in zoo animal housing and husbandry are superficial and provide little benefit to the animals. For example, the many new, heavily promoted, Arctic "art deco," polar bear exhibits that are springing up in zoos across the continent consistently ignore the natural biology and behavior of these animals. The artificial rockwork and hard floor surfaces typically resemble a Flintstones movie set more than the natural Arctic ice and tundra habitat of polar bears. These exhibits are made for the public and dupe them into believing things are getting better. What they really achieve is more misery and deprivation.

In addition, many new exhibits are hardly larger than the sterile, barred cages of days gone by. And one look at the prison-like, off-display holding and service areas in most zoos, where many animals spend a good portion of their lives, is proof of the hypocrisy of zoo claims that things are better for the animals than they were in the past.

Behind the Invisible Bars
If not all is well behind the invisible bars of North America’s more luxurious zoos, a more transparent problem is found in the hundreds of substandard roadside zoos that dot the continent. These amateurish operations fall far below any professional standard and do nothing but cause misery and death to thousands of animals.

My own investigations have revealed animals in visible distress lying unprotected from the full glare of the hot summer sun; primates in barren cages with no opportunity to climb; groups of black bears begging for marshmallows as they sit in stagnant moats of excrement-filled water, scarred and wounded from fighting; nocturnal animals kept without shade or privacy; animals without water; and the list goes on and on.

Many zoos, including those that meet industry guidelines, also annually produce a predictable surplus in animals that often end up in the hands of private collectors, animal auctions, circuses and novelty acts, substandard zoos, and even "canned hunt" operations where they’re shot as trophies [see Green interview].

A look at compliance with the zoo industry’s own standards (which in the author’s view do not necessarily constitute adequate standards) demonstrates how bad the situation really is. Of the estimated 200 public display facilities in Canada, only 26—slightly more than 10 percent—have been deemed to meet the standards of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA).

In the U.S., out of the 1,800-2,000 licensed exhibitors of wild animals (which includes biomedical research institutions, breeding facilities, small exhibitors, travelling shows, educational programs using live animals, zoos and aquariums), about 175 are accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), equivalent to less than 10 percent of all facilities.

Times are changing, and with them, public attitudes. Increasingly, members of the public find the confinement of animals in substandard conditions offensive. Zoos across the continent are feeling the pressure. They have to accept that if wild animals are to be kept in captivity, their needs must be met.

Are there good captive environments where the biological and behavioral needs of animals are being satisfied? The answer is yes. A recent Zoocheck Canada survey of black bear and gray wolf facilities in North America revealed a number of outstanding exhibits where the animals displayed an extensive range of natural movements and behaviors. But they are few and far between.

Can zoos make a useful contribution to conservation and education? Again, the answer is yes. The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Jersey Zoo) in the U.K., for example, clearly shows that zoos can become leaders in conservation education and wildlife protection. But few actually do.

I can’t understand why the more responsible segments of the zoo industry have not come to their senses and acknowledged the obvious—the present state of zoos is untenable. Either zoos can voluntarily adopt humane policies and practices, push for the closure of substandard facilities, and participate in advocating for laws to help wildlife, or they can be dragged kicking and screaming into the new millennium. It’s their choice.

Rob Laidlaw is Executive Director of Zoocheck Canada, which he helped establish in 1988. He is a specialist in captive wildlife issues and has conducted close to 1,000 zoo, circus and wildlife display inspections throughout Canada and the U.S. To learn more, visit or call (416) 285-1744.


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