Myth and Reality
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
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 agenciesnot 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, doesnt stand up to scrutiny. The truth is that
scant empirical evidence exists to prove that the primary vehicle for
education in most zoosthe animal in the cageactually 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.
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. Theyll
claim theyve 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
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 Americas
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 theyre
shot as trophies [see Green interview].
A look at compliance with the zoo industrys own standards (which
in the authors view do not necessarily constitute adequate standards)
demonstrates how bad the situation really is. Of the estimated 200 public
display facilities in Canada, only 26slightly more than 10 percenthave
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
I cant understand why the more responsible segments of the zoo
industry have not come to their senses and acknowledged the obviousthe
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. Its
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 www.zoocheck.com
or call (416) 285-1744.