Do Vegans Support Zoos?

By KD Angle-Traegner / Last Update: September 2019

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 181 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year- more than the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB annual attendance combined. (2)


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 much more to the story.

Zoos exist solely 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 own wants.

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

Zoos are, first and foremost, a business. Like any business, they require 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 nothing more than a business that must remain profitable to remain open.

“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, (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
  • [/fusion_li_item]
  • Pacing
  • Rolling, twisting, nodding of the neck or head
  • Vomiting
  • Frequent licking
  • Excessive grooming
  • [/fusion_li_item] [/fusion_li_item]

“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.” (6)

“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.” (7)


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.


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?” (7)

Sad child at zoo looking at a hippopotamus through glass.
Children at a zoo.
Hippopotamus in a tiny enclosure at a zoo.

“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 (8)

“. . . 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 (9)

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.” (7)

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)


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.


People like companies that support wildlife conservation at zoos


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.

The practice that is perhaps what would be most shocking for the general public to know is, these surplus animals that are not sold simply end up as food for the other zoo animals. Zoos engage in this practice for several reasons. Firstly, feeding zoo animals is expensive, they’re not going to waste large quantities of meat.

Secondly, zoos use live feedings as a means of entertainment for visitors. In 2016, China opened a new tour at a theme park where visitors are driven around in a mobile cage through an enclosure with lions, tigers, and bears. The visitors bring live animals with them to feed to the zoo animals. (10) To attract more visitors, an Iranian zoo fed live donkeys to the lions at least once a week. (11) In February of 2014, a healthy young giraffe named Marius was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo because he did not have the genes the zoo conservationist program were interested in. His body was then dismembered in front of a crowd and then fed to the zoo’s lions. (12)

The practice of feeding animals to other animals is a stark reminder that zoos are first and foremost a business.

“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’.” (7)

“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 (13)

“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.” (7)

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.

“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)

Family-Friendly Alternatives to Zoos

Zoos can be a busy hub of activity, and parents might worry that skipping the zoo means their children are missing out. Not so! There are many alternatives to visiting the zoo that help children connect with and learn more about animals, here are a few activities to do instead of going to the zoo.

Two smiling children petting a rescued sanctuary pig laying in the grass.

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

vegan zoo

Observe local wildlife habitats

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 local plants, trees, and all of the different species of animals in your area.

vegan movies

Watch educational documentaries

Programs such as Planet Earth have stunning visuals and excellent commentary for learning and entertainment. Visit the Vegan Movie Library and the Vegan Netflix Guide to find more movies and TV shows with a compassionate message to help teach children kindness.

vegan zoos

Walk dogs or care for animals at a 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.

vegan zoo

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.

Use Online Educational Tools

Open up the laptop and visit websites dedicated to helping children learn more about animals. The following are websites educate in a fun and engaging way:

Read and share books with children

Share books with children that help explain an ethical worldview in a way children will understand and enjoy. Here are a few titles to start with:

  • 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:

Truth in Advertising

I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented on Your Daily Vegan has been meticulously researched, and is based on information available at the time of publication. Guides are periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. Update dates can be found 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.” Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Retrieved March 16, 2017

3. ^  McArthur, JoAnne. “Zoos.” Retrieved January 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

9. ^  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.

10. ^  Shanghai List (2016). “Chongqing theme park has new ride that lets you feed lions and tiger from the comfort of a mobile cage.” Shanghai List. Retrieved March 16, 2017

11. ^  Jevalchi, R. (2012) “Video of live donkeys being fed to lions sparks outrage in Iran.” The Observers. Retrieved March 17, 2017

12. ^  CNN. “Danish zoo kills healthy giraffe, feeds body to lions.” CNN. Retrieved March 17, 2017

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

Photo Credits

Feature Movie | Video Blocks
Man & Child | Bonguri, Flickr
Havana Zoo. Cuba, 2008. | JoAnne McArthur,
Melbourne Zoo, Australia. 2010. | JoAnne McArthur,
Chimpanzee display. Warsaw Zoo. Poland, 2012. | JoAnne McArthur,
Hippopotamus. Zoo. Undisclosed location. Europe, 2015. | JoAnne McArthur,
Lion. Copenhagen Zoo. Denmark, 2015. | JoAnne McArthur,
Bear at the Pata zoo in the Bangkok Pata mall. Thailand, 2008. | JoAnne McArthur,
Giraffe. Washington zoo. USA, 2003. | JoAnne McArthur,
Chimpanzee. Warsaw Zoo, 2011. | JoAnne McArthur,
Children petting a pig | Happy Trails Animal Sanctuary
Cricket, Children petting a cat and young hikers | pixabay
Man and child on tablet | Thinkstock

More About

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.”

A large portion of photos on this page were obtained from We Animals.  To view more of this project or to support its mission, visit


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