In August of 2017, the Cincinnati Zoo welcomed a new gorilla, one year after the death of Harambe. Zookeepers shot Harambe in May of 2016 after a 3 year-old boy fell into his enclosure. The incident reignited the long-standing debate over whether it is right to hold animals in captivity.
Zoos have a long history in the world with evidence of their existence found in wall carvings as far back as 2500 BCE in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The appearance and purpose of zoos has changed over time. The first zoos, known as menageries, occurred as private collections of animals and were a way for people to display their wealth and power. In 1874, the Philadelphia Zoo opened making it the oldest modern-day zoo in the U.S. It opened for the purpose of breeding and conducting scientific research on the animals. Public opinion of zoos has changed over time with 25% of Americans reporting that they are more opposed to zoos than they were 10 years ago. However, support for zoos is still strong with 73% of Americans backing their existence. Many people believe that zoos are humane and important for education and conservation while some see their existence as inhumane and an unnatural way for animals to live.
Those that support zoos argue that they are vital for conservation efforts, scientific research, and are an important teaching tool. Zoos help conservation efforts through breeding programs which help species grow, maintain genetic diversity, and reintroduce endangered or extinct species back into the world. The Arabian Oryx was once considered an endangered species, but now there are over 1,000 living in the wild as a result of zoo breeding programs. In addition, thanks to a captive breeding program, the California Condor population was once down to 23 but now there are hundreds living in captivity. Seventy-five of the birds were successfully reintroduced to the wild. Supporters say that zoos are also important teaching tools because most people visiting zoos would never be able to see those same animals in the wild. In addition, researchers learn from zoo animals through observation leading to improvements for the lives of the animals in the wild.
Those that oppose zoos argue that wild animals are not meant to live in captivity and they are kept there selfishly for human’s pleasure with no say in the matter. Animals in zoos have difficulties adapting to life in captivity and often show abnormal behavior that is not seen in the wild. They suffer from depression, anxiety, and some have even killed themselves. Those against zoos question the argument that zoos are important for conservation. They point out that even if conservation efforts save a particular species they are rarely reintroduced back into the wild. This means that they will live out their days in captivity, never living as intended in the wild. A Princeton University professor pointed out that while there are some legitimate reasons to have animals in captivity it does not make it right for people to view them. Those against zoos also argue that zoos work to create a false image for patrons that the animals are well cared for with elaborate, modern exhibits, but the animals actually get little benefit from the exhibits.
Are zoos important for animal conservation and research? Or are humans unnecessarily keeping animals in captivity for our own pleasure? What do you think?