Do Vegans Support Zoos?

Despite their commonly cited benefits, zoos are no home sweet home for the animals. Even at their best, zoos can never replicate or replace animals’ chosen and natural habitats. Animals are either taken from their home or born into captivity where they are prevented from doing things that are natural to them like running, roaming, flying, climbing, foraging, choosing a mate, raising a family, and being with others of their own species.

A zoo is a business where the babies draw crowds and adult animals are routinely traded, loaned, or sold. The disposal of older (“surplus”) animals is a not-so-well kept secret (and sometimes illegal) industry practice. Animals end can end up at auction, on a hunting ranch, in research laboratories, or dying in a more depraved situation.

So, do vegans support zoos? They shouldn’t and neither should you.

Debunking the Myths

“We need. . .to respect non-human animals, to want them to remain capable of living and moving freely in the habitats to which they’ve naturally adapted, rather than be alienated from those spaces.  To leave birds in their forests rather than remove them and cage them as decorative or talkative pets; to let chimpanzees live in their natural territories rather than expect them to have babies in zoos and language labs. . .” – Lee Hall, Author On Their Own Terms (1)

According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, over 175 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year- more than the NFL NBA, NHL, and MLB annual attendance combined. (2)

93%

People enjoy seeing animals up close

The public perception of zoos is overwhelmingly positive- zoos are seen as sanctuaries whose primary goals are the conservation and care of animal species.

But just like happy cows and other humane myths, there’s more to the story.

Zoos exist to satisfy our desire to view other species.  This desire led us to capture (and/or breed) and cage free-roaming animals, sentencing them to an existence based solely on our desires.

RELATED READING: The Public Face of Zoos: Images of Entertainment, Education, and Conservation

Zoos are, first and foremost, a business.

And like any business, zoos need funds to operate.

Zoos generally raise money in three ways: taxes/government support, philanthropy and earned revenue from ticket sales, and merchandise sales.  Some zoos run separate businesses to bring in additional revenue.  Other zoos hold special catered events, serving animal-based meals under the guise of helping [other] animals.

Amusement is an important function of zoos because people want to be entertained.  If a zoo wishes to remain financially sound it must cater to the people.

Remember, a zoo is a business.

“All zoos are businesses. They are not protectors of endangered species, conservationists or research centers, and they do not teach anyone to truly respect animals (or visitors would run to become members of animal protection agencies instead of going for a hot dog at the zoo cafe).”– Ruby Roth, Author (3)

Amusement – It’s Only Fun For You

Many animals held in captivity begin to form poor health conditions or abnormal mental health problems. One common neurotic and atypical behavior is known as “Zoochosis.”  Zoochosis occurs as a result of boredom, depression, frustration, a lack of mental and/or physical enrichment, and removal from the animal’s natural habitat and social structures. (4, 5)

Signs of zoochosis include:

  • Bar Biting
  • Coprophagia (Eating & playing with feces)
  • Self-mutilation
  • Circling
  • Rocking & swaying
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  • Pacing
  • Rolling, twisting, nodding of the neck or head
  • Vomiting
  • Frequent licking
  • Excessive grooming
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“I photograph at zoos regularly and I know that they are not all bad or ill-intentioned places . . . Many have adequate space, food, shelter and enrichment for the animals. Sadly, this is the exception rather than the norm” – JoAnne McArthur, weanimals.org (6)

“Some species. . . are prone to problems that include poor health, repetitive stereotypic behaviour and breeding difficulties. Here we investigate this previously unexplained variation in captive animals’ welfare by focusing on caged carnivores, and show that it stems from constraints imposed on the natural behaviour of susceptible animals, with wide-ranging lifestyles in the wild predicting stereotypy and the extent of infant mortality in captivity. Our findings indicate that the keeping of naturally wide-ranging carnivores should be . . . phased out.” (7)

“Many of these same conditions and others are documented in Pathology of Zoo Animals, a review of necropsies conducted by Lynn Griner over the last fourteen years at the San Diego Zoo. This zoo may well be the best in the country, and its staff is clearly well-trained and well-intentioned. Yet this study documents widespread malnutrition among zoo animals; high mortality rates from the use of anaesthetics and tranquillizers; serious injuries and deaths sustained in transport; and frequent occurrences of cannibalism, infanticide and fighting almost certainly caused by overcrowded conditions. Although the zoo has learned from its mistakes, it is still unable to keep many wild animals in captivity without killing or injuring them, directly or indirectly. If this is true of the San Diego Zoo, it is certainly true, to an even greater extent, at most other zoos.” (8)

Education

When polled, 94% of people believe that zoos teach children how to protect animals and their habitats. (2)  In reality, zoos teach people how animals react to boredom, depression, and stress in captive situations.  Never will a zoo-goer witness an animal in its chosen habitat and in a natural state, thus making true education almost impossible.

94%

People believe that zoos teach children about how to protect animals and the habitats they depend on.

“Even if there were an abundance of signs, descriptions, and educational displays beside the animals’ cages, very little of this information, if any, will be remembered. Facilities that teach most effectively do so by presenting videos, wildlife documentaries, slides, interactive modules, graphic displays, and computer simulations. All of the aforementioned present animals in their natural environments, which allows individuals to truly understand the way they hunt, feed, raise their young, breed, respond to and display affection, fear, pain, hunger, instinct and ultimately how they behave and survive naturally. Simply showing animals in extremely restrictive spaces misinforms patrons by misrepresenting what those animals’ lives naturally consist of.” (5)

“Of course, it is undeniable that some education occurs in some zoos. But this very fact raises other issues. What is it that we want people to learn from visiting zoos? To what degree does education require keeping wild animals in captivity?” (8)

“Though I hoped to find evidence to the contrary, I must conclude that zoos continue to be detrimental to animal welfare, and that they do not teach children positive lessons about animals. Kids who watch leopards pacing in mindless patterns get a completely inaccurate picture of what large predators are all about. They also learn that making sentient beings suffer for human amusement is acceptable. We want to teach kids to show kindness towards animals, not stare at their misery while eating popcorn.” – Sujatha Ramakrishna, Child Psychiatrist & Author Raising Kids Who Love Animals (9)

“. . . as memory recedes and the zoo populations become ever more genetically attenuated, ever more conveniently docile, ever more distantly derivative from the real thing, people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the same forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity. Adults, except a few recalcitrant souls, will take their absence for granted. Children will be startled and excited to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world.” – David Quamenn, Author Monster is God (10)

Scientific Research

“Zoos support scientific research in at least three ways: they fund field research by scientists not affiliated with zoos; they employ other scientists as members of zoo staffs; and they make otherwise inaccessible animals available for study.” (8)

Few zoos support any real scientific research, fewer still have staff scientists with full-time research jobs.  And, among those that do, it is common for these scientists to study free-living animals rather than those in zoo collections.  Research conducted in zoos can be divided into two categories: behavior studies and anatomy/pathology studies.

“Behavioral research conducted on zoo animals is very controversial. Some have argued that nothing can be learned by studying animals that are kept in the unnatural conditions that obtain in most zoos. Environments trigger behaviors. No doubt a predation-free environment triggers behaviors different from those of an animal’s natural habitat, but there is no reason to believe that better, fuller or more accurate data can be obtained in predation-free environments than in natural habitats.  There are simply very few zoos that practice relevant and reliable research. Those that do mainly examine the physiological structure of a captive animal, as well as the illnesses he or she has acquired. These results however, are obviously skewed towards animals living in captivity. They therefore generate little information about how to best conserve species in the wild.” (5)

Conservation

By far, the single most recited benefit of zoos is the conservation of animal species who would otherwise become extinct.  Zoos do host conservation programs for endangered species, and it is true that some of those programs have had some success.  But it can be argued that zoos continue to remove more animals from the wild than they return.

79%

People like companies that support wildlife conservation at zoos

66%

People are more likely to buy products and services from those companies

One problem with zoo breeding programs is that they create many unwanted animals.  In some species (lions, tigers, and zebras, for example) a few male animals can service an entire herd.  And, much like in other animal agribusinesses, extra males are unnecessary as well as a financial burden.

Dealing with these and other “surplus” animals is a dirty little industry secret.  Some animals are sold at exotic-animal auctions, putting animals at risk of ending up in the hands of individuals and institutions which lack facilities to properly care for them.  Some animals end up at roadside zoos, amusement parks, or tourist attractions, others end up at private hunting preserves where they’ll eventually be shot to death by someone who paid for the privilege.  Some end up at research laboratories or tested on in university research programs.

RELATED READING:

The practice that is perhaps what would be most shocking for the general public to know is, the surplus animals that are not sold simply end up as food for other zoo animals.

“Some zoos have been considering proposals to ‘recycle’ excess animals: a euphemism for killing them and feeding their bodies to other zoo animals. Many people are surprised when they hear of zoos killing animals. They should not be. Zoos have limited capacities. They want to maintain diverse collections. This can be done only by careful management of their ‘stock’.” (8)

“There are further questions one might ask about preserving endangered species in zoos. Is it really better to confine a few hapless Mountain Gorillas in a zoo than to permit the species to become extinct? To most environmentalists the answer is obvious: the species must be preserved at all costs. But this smacks of sacrificing the lower-case gorilla for the upper-case Gorilla. In doing this, aren’t we using animals as mere vehicles for their genes? Aren’t we preserving genetic material at the expense of the animals themselves? If it is true that we are inevitably moving towards a world in which Mountain Gorillas can survive only in zoos, then we must ask whether it is really better for them to live in artificial environments of our design than not to be born at all.” (8)

The resources (time and money) that go into breeding programs should instead be used for the preservation of habitat destruction, the cause of how species become endangered and extinct in the first place.  It also cannot be overlooked how the production of meat and dairy products contributes to environmental destruction, and by default, habitat loss.

Ironically, some zoos offer visitors hamburger-hotdog style fast food.  The standard American fare for purchase at zoos is part of the disconnect that patrons swallow at each visit: Certain animals are to be enjoyed through a gate or glass— those are available for purchase as stuffed animals on the way out. Others are to be eaten- passed off as the kids meal at the zoo café.

“It makes no sense to support zoos in general and then express anger . . about [the] disposal of . . surplus inventory. Rather, as we evolve . . . our relationships with other species must . . evolve; it is time for us to stop viewing their members as objects for our amusement. It’s also time to stop trashing this planet, thereby making zoos into a necessary evil.” – Karen Dawn, Author (11)

“By avoiding animal products, zoos, aquaria, animal racetracks and the like, vegans erode the power of the institutions that breed domestic animals into existence as commodities- institutions that, at the same time, use habitat needed by autonomous animals.” – Lee Hall, Author (1)

Rescued chimps, some of whom spent up to 40 years living in small cages thanks to biomedical research industry, now relax & socialize at their new home at Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida  www.savethechimps.org

There Are Alternatives

Zoos can be a busy hub of activity, and parents might worry that skipping the zoo means their children are missing out. There are many alternatives to visiting the zoo that help children connect with and learn more about animals:

Visit an animal sanctuary

Animal sanctuaries are veganism’s greatest advocates and the perfect alternative to visiting a zoo. They are a physical space that allows people to “connect with animals” in a way that a zoo cannot replace. Visitors are able to interact with animals in a peaceful and natural setting, allowing a greater understanding of their lives as individuals.

RELATED: Find an Animal Sanctuary Near You

Observe wildlife habitats and learn about local plants, trees and animals

One of the easiest ways to teach children about animals is to simply walk outside. There is abundant animal life right outside our back doors. Learn about all the different species of animals where you live.

Visit local parks and hiking trails

Grab a pair of binoculars and head to the park or trail. Look for different types of animals in the area- make a game out of counting numbers of animals spotted. Learning more about the local animal life not only teaches children about the lives of animals, but also how to coexist with them.

Watch educational documentaries

Programs such as Planet Earth have stunning visuals and excellent commentary for learning and entertainment. Visit Vegan Flicks to find more movies, DVDs, and TV shows with a compassionate message to help teach children kindness.

Walk dogs or care for other animals at a local shelter

This is hands-on experience with animals who desperately need the TLC, plus children will learn how to give comfort (be kind) to animals.

Read and share books with children

The following books help explain an ethical worldview in a way children will understand and enjoy:

  • Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action introduces children to veganism as a lifestyle of compassion and action. This book illustrates how our daily choices ripple out locally and globally, conveying what we can do to protect animals, the environment, and people across the world. Vegan Is Love explores the many opportunities we have to make ethical decisions: refusing products tested on or made from animals; avoiding sea parks, circuses, animal races, and zoos; and more.
  • JJ The American Street Dog and How He Came to Live in Our House is a feel-good childrens’ book with real-world impact, at the heart of this sweet story is a message about companion animals that can teach children and parents alike. JJ Goes To Puppy Class is the second book in the series that teaches children about the complex world of dog training, through their own perspective, and in a simple and easy-to-understand way.
  • Steven the Vegan teaches children how to deal with the ridicule and harassment that can sometimes happen when their friends learn they are vegan; and how to explain why animals are friends, not food.

Bonus vegan cookbooks to get compassionate kids cooking:

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Your Daily Vegan is committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented in this article has been meticulously researched, and is based on the information available to me at the time of publication. Each guide is periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. You can find the update date listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

1. ^ Hall, Lee (2010). On Their Own Terms.Darien, Connecticut: Nectar Bat Press.

2. ^ Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “Visitor Demographics“. Retrieved February 1, 2014

3. ^ Roth, Ruby (2014). “Let’s all be on the same page here about this now, yes?”. Facebook. Retrieved February 10, 2014

4. ^ Born Free. “Zoochosis: Abnormal and stereotypic behavior in captive animals“. Retrieved February 11, 2014

5. ^ Last Chance for Animals. “Zoos and Circuses“. Retrieved January 30, 2014

6. ^ McArthur, JoAnne. “Zoos “.  WeAnimals.org. Retrieved January 30, 2014

7. ^ Clubb, Ross and Mason, Georgia (2003). “Captivity Effects on Wide-Ranging Carnivores”. Retrieved January 30, 2014

8. ^ Jamieson, Dale (1985).  “Against Zoos“.  Retrieved January 30, 2014

9. ^ Ellis, Samantha (2011). “Zoos Fit For Neither Child Nor Beast, Says Psychiatrist“.  Global Animal.  Retrieved February 12, 2014

10. ^ Quammen, David (2003). Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 13.

11. ^ Dawn, Karen (2014). “They Shoot Giraffes Don’t They? Why Marius’s Death Is No Surprise”.  Huffington Post. Retrieved February 11, 2014

PHOTO CREDIT

Man & Child | Bonguri, Flickr
Chimps at Sanctuary | JoAnne McArthur, weanimals.org

Chances are you’ve seen the award-winning photography of Jo-Anne McArthur.  Her documentary project, We Animals, is a project that documents animals in the human environment using photography.  The objective, “to photograph our interactions with animals in such a way that the viewer finds new significance in these ordinary, often unnoticed situations of use, abuse, and sharing of spaces.”

The photos on this page were obtained from We Animals.  To view more of this project or to support its mission, visit weanimals.org.

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner. Last update October 2016