Are zoos ethical? The pros and cons of visiting the zoo

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(Last updated on: 17/03/2021)

Are zoos ethical? This is a question that more and more people have been asking in recent years. In fact, many people have boycotted zoos altogether in response to stories about maltreatment and unnatural environments provided for the animals housed in zoos. Whilst there is certainly an element of truth to this, this is very short-sighted, in my opinion.

The problem is that too many people take things at face-value. They don’t dig a bit deeper or look at a situation from different perspectives. Objectivity is key in making rational and justified decisions in life. This is an integral skill that doesn’t always come naturally. BUT it is one that can be developed, and studying at degree level or above is a great way to do this. If you want to learn more about this you can read about why I believe that doing a degree can you make you a better person. Anyway, I digress… back to the question- are zoos ethical.

There is a lot more to zoos than many people realise. Yes, some are exploitative and demonstrate less than adequate treatment of their animals, but nowadays these types of zoos are largely concentrated in developing countries, where regulation isn’t as strict as it is elsewhere in the world. And what many people don’t realise about zoos is that there is a lot going on behind the scenes, including conservation efforts, breeding programs and important ecological research.

Before you decide to take (or not to take) a visit to the zoo in your local area or on your travels, I suggest that you consider both the advantages and the disadvantages, this helps you to make a decision about whether zoos are ethical or not. Fortunately, I have done all of the research for you- read on to learn all about the good and bad aspects of zoos.

Are zoos ethical? The advantages of a zoo

When it comes to answering the question of ‘are zoos ethical’, there is a lot to consider. Below you’ll find the main advantages of zoos. The zoo makes for a fun family day out, and on top of that they do some great things to give back…

Conservation 

In practice, conservation within zoos includes captive breeding, species reintroduction and species’ survival plans. Zoos are able to save certain species from going extinct- that is pretty amazing, don’t you think!?

A great example of this is the Pere David’s Deer: they were completely extinct in the wild, until various zoo programs teamed up to breed and release four deer. They were released into the wild in 1985 and are now self-sustained. Zoos continue to make an effort in this way, aiming to protect and improve the conservation status of various species. 

Periodic release of animals bred in captivity ensures genetic diversity of the species in the wild. This population restoration is definitely a big advantage of zoos. The work they do with animals in captivity often directly supports their wild counterparts. Of course, the fact that captive breeding helps to maintain the numbers of different species in existence is a definite positive feature of zoos.

Education

Are zoos ethical
Zoos have fantastic educational benefits for children and adults.

When it comes to learning about animals, there are few better (and safer) places to do so than a zoo.

Many people will never get the chance to see elephants, tigers and giraffes (for example) in the wild. But with over 10,000 zoos worldwide, there are other ways to get up close and personal with all of these amazing animals and more.

Zoos usually have information boards next to each exhibit, meaning there is plenty to learn. Find out:

  • Where this species lives in the wild (in global terms)
  • What type of habitat they would have in the wild
  • Their conservation status
  • What they eat, both in the zoo and in the wild
  • What habits they have
  • Individual animal names, skills and personalities 

On top of this, many zoos have ‘classroom areas’. School trips are common, and students will get the chance to listen to talks from zookeepers, conservationists and researchers. They might learn in depth knowledge about certain species, or hear an overview of the work the zoos do. 

Visiting a zoo is a sure fire way to encourage children – and animals – to take an interest in animal welfare! Nearly fifty percent of the world’s population live in cities, meaning they are mostly disconnected from nature and that this is the only opportunity they may have to experience wildlife tourism. In these cities, zoos (as well as aquariums and urban farms) are a fantastic way to win huge support for wildlife preservation and conservation.

Research

Chengdu with kids
We thoroughly enjoyed learning about the panda research in Chengdu.

Another thing to consider when asking ‘are zoos ethical’ is the amount of research zoos do.

Zoologists and the zoos themselves contribute so much to our overall knowledge of animals which ultimately leads to scientific breakthroughs and just a better understanding of various species. I saw this first-hand when I visited Chengdu with the kids– I was super impressed with the research that took place at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding!

So what sort of things do zoos research? They look into the following:

  • Wildlife biology
  • Population dynamics
  • Animal behaviour, health and welfare 
  • Reproduction
  • Environmental enrichment 

The EAZA – the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria – sets out guidelines for zoo research. Their mission is to:

  • Make a significant contribution to ethical and highly effective research,
  • particularly in the areas of biodiversity conservation and animal welfare;
  • Produce and use excellent science to increase knowledge which improves the
  • quality of decision-making and management of collections, programmes and
  • projects;
  • Engage in and foster scientific education, training and benefit sharing.

EAZA ensures that all zoos in Europe do the following:

  • Provide the necessary facilities, tools and staff to conduct effective research
  • and to develop a thriving scientific culture;
  • Create a meaningful expenditure plan for research purposes;
  • Keep abreast of contemporary research in its widest context and use this to
  • inform and improve zoo programmes and guide future direction;
  • Develop new scientific perspectives, linking basic and applied research and
  • using existing and new methodologies and innovative technologies;
  • Produce and publish high-quality scientific research in increasingly greater
  • measure;
  • Engage in collaborative partnerships with peer institutions and kindred
  • organisations at home and abroad;
  • Share research results and contribute to broad-based education and training
  • as well as wider communications exercises.

While this is specific to Europe, there are similar guidelines in place worldwide. This ensures that zoos give back. It means that there is an overwhelmingly positive impact – going some way to answering the question ‘are zoos ethical?’

Are zoos ethical? The disadvantages of a zoo

In order to answer the question of ‘are zoos ethical’, it is pertinent to examine the negative sides of things too. I have outlined some of the negative impacts of zoos below…

Dependency 

Are zoos ethical
I was shocked to see animals used for performances like this on my visit to Harbin, China in 2021.

Zoos are dependent on humans. The work they do (as mentioned above) is dependent on the money that comes from visitors in the form of entrance fees, refreshment and souvenir sales and more. If the visitors don’t come, the money doesn’t exist.

The global pandemic born from the Covid-19 outbreak has had an undeniable impact on zoos. In order for people to follow the stay-at-home guidelines and reduce the spread of coronavirus, zoos were forced to close. This meant that many zoos were facing cash crises. In the UK, government rescue packages were available for businesses facing this type of hardship, but they were inaccessible to many zoos. By October 2020, only one zoo had been able to successfully claim this financial assistance according to a BBC article. Zoos were instead forced to ask for donations to ensure they could continue to take care of their animals.

Likewise, many elephants have faced prospects of starvation in Thailand. Without the tourists, zoos, orphanages and elephant sanctuaries in Thailand have struggled to meet the needs of these precious animals. It is a sad reality that demonstrates the dependency that zoos have on people and their cash. When they are so dependent on humans in order to even stay open, the question should certainly be asked: are zoos ethical?

Zoos also create a world where animals, to a degree, are dependent on humans. The animals in these institutions would, for the most part, be unable to go out into the wild as they wouldn’t understand how to hunt/prey/forage – and they might be unable to keep themselves safe. On the other hand, many of these animals wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for the conservation work that zoos do across the world. So as with many ethical dilemmas, there are two sides to the story…

Welfare

Wildlife tourism
Sadly, not all parts of the world have strict regulations for animal welfare in zoos.

Unfortunately, it seems that some zoos are not always entirely focused on animal welfare. In many places, zoos fall short when it comes to taking care of their animals.

Generally, standards are much better now than they were in the past – laws have tightened around animal welfare, meaning that there are certain rules and guidelines that zoos must stick to in terms of enclosures, feeding schedules, animal treatment and more. Animals are not used for entertainment as frequently as they were – shows and tricks are much less common nowadays. In the early days of zoos, animals were often tied up in small spaces and obviously mistreated. Thankfully in most zoos this isn’t the case now!

But that isn’t to say animal welfare is 100% of the focus. A report by World Animal Protection found that many zoos across the globe still fall short. They found that around 43% of facilities allow animal petting, with around 1/3 of zoos also offering the chance to walk or swim through an enclosure. 23% of zoos also offer hand feeding experiences. Clearly these activities are not entirely for the animals – they are for guest entertainment too. WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria, says that zoos must “focus on natural behavior” and “not demean or trivialize the animal in any way”. However, these experiences blatantly go against the WAZA guidelines.

Ethics

Wildlife tourism
Ethics is often a subjective notion and people feel differently about different issues. BUT education is KEY. If people don’t know then they cannot make an informed judgement on whether zoos are ethical or not!

When it comes to the question of ‘are zoos ethical?’ it mostly boils down to personal ethics and opinions. In fact, zoos are frequently a conversation in ethical tourism debates. If you believe that keeping animals in captivity is cruel and unnecessary, then it is likely that you would be one to disagree with the concept of zoos. Whereas if you are on board with animals being kept in captivity given then positives that this has, then of course you would agree with zoos.

So are zoos ethical, and is there really an answer? It is definitely a matter of opinion. They offer so much in terms of education and (more importantly) conservation. But keeping animals in captivity can lead to them becoming stressed – there are many arguments against it, on top of the dependency issues discussed above. There is no easy yes/no answer to the question of whether or not zoos are ethical!

Depending on the research you do and the people you listen to, there are different conclusions to draw. For example, people can find holes in the best conservation programmes – while others would easily be able to find positives in the fact that zoos (and the animals within them) are dependent on humans. The ethics of zoos are mostly right, it seems, but there is always a question to be asked.

Are zoos ethical? Do your research before you go!

Are zoos ethical
I am always torn when it comes to zoos. My kids learn so much on our visits, but if I see any poor treatment I am always keen to explain this to them so that they understand.

So, we have determined that the questions ‘are zoos ethical’, is not one with a simple answer. And matters are further complicated by the wide range fo zoos around the world that operate under differing regulations, laws and company values.

I strongly recommend that you research any zoo before you visit it. If it is a well-known zoo then there will be plenty of reviews on Trip Advisor- these will give you a good idea about the operations and practices at said zoo.

However, if you are visiting a lesser-known zoo, there may be less reviews from which you can draw a conclusion. This has caught me out many times, and I have been angry at myself for visiting a place that clearly has little regard for animal welfare. Whilst it is difficult to generalise, Russia, India and China have demonstrated inadequate respect for animals at wildlife tourist attractions, in my personal experience. But there are poor examples like this throughout much of the developing world.

My advice, if you do have a negative experience is to share what you learnt. I do this myself- I have written about the truth about bullfighting in Spain and elephant sanctuaries that are not and ‘ethical’ as they claim to be, for example on this website.

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