Baltic Grey Seal on display in Lithuania / Source
Captivity Isn’t Good for Animals
Zoos portray themselves as wonderful places filled with people who care deeply for animals. They insist the animals are happy and love their homes.
But that isn’t the full truth.
Without a doubt, life in captivity differs significantly from what life would be in the wild.
Free-living animals can choose their environment and carry out instinctual behaviors necessary for survival. They control their social interactions, diet, and climate.
Captive animals, on the other hand, cannot. And this life in captivity may force animals to experience challenges they’re not equipped to handle.
Polar Bear at a zoo in Germany / Source
Many zoos have enrichment programs, puzzles for play and stimulation, foods that may take longer to eat, ropes, or more complex structures added to their enclosures.
But try as they might, zoos can never replicate even a slim fraction of the kind of life animals could have in the wild.
Take Polar bears as an example. Because sea ice is vast and ever-changing, a polar bear’s home range can be enormous. (6) Much more significant than any other species of bear, and more than a million times the size of an average zoo exhibit. (7) Lowland gorillas have a range of up to 4,600 square miles. (8)
Zoos simply don’t have the land space to provide animals their natural ranges. And while enrichment is better than nothing, having a good or even great enclosure is still nothing more than a cage.
A lifetime spent in a cage is no life at all.
Visitors Watch A Gorilla At A Zoo In Germany / Source
Exhibits are for People, not Animals
It’s worth repeating that zoos are, first and foremost, for people, not animals. You are their customer, and the design of each exhibit is with you in mind.
After all, an exhibit where you can’t see the animal isn’t much fun, is it?
Animals are there to look at, and that is a problem because most of them find this staring stressful.
The recessed gorilla exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo is an excellent example of this. Because of the recess, there’s no glass surrounding the enclosure. Visitors look down at the gorillas. But being seen from above puts the gorillas in a vulnerable position, which in turn makes them feel uncomfortable. (7)
Orangutan at a zoo in Australia / Source
Many animals deteriorate in captivity and begin to form poor health conditions or abnormal mental health problems. This deterioration may manifest in the development of physical disease or abnormal, stereotypic behaviors.
One common neurotic and atypical behavior is known as “Zoochosis.”
Zoochosis occurs as a result of boredom, depression, frustration, impaired brain function, a lack of mental or physical enrichment, and removal from the animal’s natural habitat and social structures. Repeated attempts to deal with a problem are also a cause. (9)
Signs of zoochosis include:
Coprophagia (Eating & playing with feces)
Rolling, Twisting, Nodding of the neck or head
Pharmaceuticals, an Industry Secret
Treating stereotypic behavior can be complicated. One conventional treatment is the use of antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs, though it’s very hush-hush in the industry.
Zoos are reluctant to tell people that zoo animals are depressed and need antidepressants to deal with their lives in captivity. Doing so could ruin their wholesome image of a place for family-friendly activities. (7)
Many zookeepers are asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, preventing them from talking about it.
Because of this, it’s hard to get a lot of details about how many animals receive medications annually. What is known, however, is the animal health companies are doing quite well. In 2016, they produced $11.4 billion of medicines in the United States. (10)
African Elephant At A Zoo In Denmark / Source
What Do Experts Say About Holding Animals Captive?
“Some species. . . are prone to problems that include poor health, repetitive stereotypic behavior, 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 behavior 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.” (11)
“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 anesthetics 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.” (12)