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“What did the animals do wrong?” the young child asked their Mum. In the simplicity and honesty of a child, they saw the animals exactly as they are in a zoo…in prison.

Searching for peer-reviewed articles on this subject from a true animal care point of view was not easy. One of the first articles I read (Bashaw et al, 2007 p.95-109) stated quite early on in the piece, ‘The observers noted that a change in the animal’s habitat causes them to be more active and thus more enjoyable to watch by visitors during the day.’ The care was not for the welfare of the animals, but rather how could they be more interesting and entertaining for the humans to look at.

I lived in hope for some sort of connection, some attempt even, to place the writer of any reports into the animals’ position. How would a magnificent Sumatran tiger feel in a small space when in their natural habitat their territory can be more than 10,000 square kilometres? (Science, 2018) I lived in hope for some empathy.

African Grey Parrot imprisoned in an Australian Zoo
Credit: Bear Witness Australia

The argument that zoos keep endangered species from going extinct is often touted, and upon first mention, seems very plausible. Whilst a certain species of animal sits in the safety of a zoo, they cannot have their habitat taken over by developers, they can’t be shot by poachers or hunted by predators. Any illness they may get can be quickly addressed by the zoo’s vets and their diet is well maintained. What a great argument for some species, but the questions remain of who created the near extinction in the first place, and is a zoo really the place to keep a species safe?

Hamadryas Baboons on ‘display’ in an Australian Zoo
Credit: Bear Witness Australia

This argument is covered in ‘Captivity for Conservation? Zoos at a Crossroads’ where the author quotes Peter Singer when he said, “what is the point of preserving animals if they are having miserable lives?” (Keulartz, 2015 p.340) Although at the time, Singer was not opposed to zoos safely and humanely capturing animals for conservation, he did concede that this was not usually what happened. Zoos primarily keep animals for human entertainment.

Long before I was vegan, I always felt uncomfortable about visiting zoos. I guess I always knew that deep down it was wrong and struggled with the cultural norm of this being a thing that you did with your family. Not long after becoming vegan, I did attend a zoo, not yet having made the full connection of my contribution to the suffering and ‘use’ of other living beings held in captivity. Still trying to rationalise why it was ok to visit the zoo, despite the real nagging truth that I knew it wasn’t right, I visited a ‘nice’ zoo; the Werribee Open Range Zoo.

A zebra imprisoned inside an Australian Zoo
Credit: Bear Witness Australia

Gorillas kept here, a species considered to be endangered, are kept in a small enclosure in the centre area of the zoo close a children’s playground and family picnic area. At this playground were pipes that children could hit and push around to create loud ringing noises. The noise was overbearing! I can’t imagine sitting there all day in a small area you cannot escape from with this loud repetitive noise. Hardly a ‘nice’ environment.

Cockatoos imprisoned in an Australian Zoo
Credit: Bear Witness Australia

Yes, it can be argued that zoos contribute to conservation, but statistics quoted in the Keulartz article show that this is not an argument that stands up. Only 15% of threatened species of terrestrial vertebrates are held in zoos, and these populations are too small to breed with the space and conditions they are able to offer these species also inadequate (Keulartz 2015). The success rates of breeding programs are low, and the reintroduction of a species to their natural habitat is expensive and not viable with conditions in their environment changing all the time due to the reasons they are endangered in the first place (habitat loss, climate change etc) (Keulartz, 2015). The replication of their natural environment is also hard, with teaching a captive animal to feed themselves as well as evade predators, something that would not be easy to do, no matter how well educated in the ways of a particular species caregivers may be.

Kluet – Orangutan imprisoned in an Australian Zoo
Credit: Bear Witness Australia

Should we, as humans, be looking to preserve certain species through captivity, or through righting the wrongs of our past? Surely the latter should be where our energies and financial efforts are focused.

Another argument often used is that zoos are necessary for education. The detrimental effects of a zoo on those captive there would outweigh this claim. For example, an Elephant in captivity will live for 19 years, compared to 56 in the wild. Over the years, there are many documentaries where one gains far more educational information than visiting a zoo. And, is the behaviour we are observing of many of these animals a reflection of their natural behavior? Or, are we simply educating on the behaviour created from captivity? What is a tiger pacing the same steps in circles through her enclosure over and over, creating deep holes in the earth, teaching us about tigers, ironically other than that captivity is wrong?

A study commissioned by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) (Falk et al, 2007) claims that zoo education has a positive effect on the attitudes of people towards other animals. This study has been seriously questioned in a study by Lori Marino and colleagues, of Emory University. Marino and team conclude that this study (Falk et al.,2007) contains at least six major threats to its methodological validity that undermine the conclusions of the study. This study urges the AZA to stop citing and quoting this article, as it is so misleading and the conclusion unwarranted (Mario et al, 2010 p. 136).

Mali – an elephant imprisoned in an Australian Zoo
Credit: Bear Witness Australia

There is no doubt that when looking at a problem, we need to find a solution. Having a solution also encourages those in a position of power to actually listen to us. The reality exists that there are many animals kept in zoos that, for a variety of reasons, cannot be rehabilitated to live in the wild in their natural habitats. So, what can we do with all of these animals? Do we kill the giraffes to feed to the lions as was the case at the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark? Absolutely not! As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said in his book ‘The Little Prince’, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” Although those in captivity are not necessarily tamed, we are still responsible for their welfare and must therefore look to the best possible outcome we can offer them. There are several sanctuaries that can take in different species of animals and offer them care, without exploitation. Yes, funding these sanctuaries can be an issue, but surely that is the least we can do, after so many years of captivity and ‘use’ at the hands of humans.

Monkey imprisoned in an Australian Zoo
Credit: Bear Witness Australia

The time has come to stop continually looking at what humans want as the dominant species of this planet. This planet isn’t made to have a dominant species, but rather to live in harmony with each other. Many wrongs will be righted when our species realises this. Not only will we save our planet’s endangered species, we just may save our own as well.

Author: April Meddick
Occupation: Communications – Local Government
Animal Justice Party Member & Volunteer

Cover Image by Bear Witness Australia Witness #1


Bashaw, M., Kelling, A., Bloomsmith, M. and Maple, T. (2007). Environmental Effects on the Behavior of Zoo-housed Lions and Tigers, with a Case Study of the Effects of a Visual Barrier on Pacing. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 10(2), pp.95-109.

Science, L. (2018). Tigers: Facts & Information. [online] Live Science. Available at: [Accessed 4 Jun. 2018].

Keulartz, J. (2015). Captivity for Conservation? Zoos at a Crossroads. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 28(2), pp.335-351.

Falk, J. H., Reinhard, E. M., Vernon, C. L., Bronnenkant, K., Deans, N. L., Heimlich, J. E. (2007). Why zoos & aquariums matter: Assessing the impact of a visit to a zoo or aquarium. Silver Spring, MD: Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Marion, L, Lillienfeld, S, Malamud, Nobis, N and Broglio, R 2010, Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study, ‘Society and Animals’ 18, 126-138. accessed 26 June 2018.

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