• Victoria Bowers

The Captive Argument

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

I visit zoos a lot and yet I don’t fully support animals in captivity (i am aware this is a contradictory statement). I can see the benefits of conservation efforts to help the survival of species that are endangered, primarily due to human behaviour such as; habitat loss, over hunting and pollution to name a few. I don’t know why there are still animals in zoos that are not considered endangered and I also don’t know what happens to the multiple babies produced from breeding programmes. We all know that once animals are in captivity, they generally remain captive.

We too are animals, we have basic needs; food, water, shelter, warmth and companionship. Think back to the period of lockdown and being confined to your home with limited social interaction, less food supplies, less space to escape the mundane. We coped but were we truly happy? Some might say they enjoyed parts of lockdown. I know I enjoyed the quiet streets when I went for a walk and the way in which nature seemed to thrive during this period. Now think about an animal in captivity, do they have the opportunity for a change of scenery when they feel like it? Do they have enough variety in their lives to prevent a mundane existence? Do they really enjoy hundreds of visitors going to see them, when in reality the majority of wild animals keep their distance from others (except when hunting for food). Generally speaking, animals keep themselves to themselves where there is enough land and vital supplies. What can we do to make zoos a pleasant experience for all involved?


I have heard statements such as zoos being pitiful prisons, that captivity can be bad for both the physical and psychological health of animals, that the animal is deprived of its natural habitat and that animals, although they may live longer lives in zoos than in the wild, they may also experience a lower quality of life. I can see the validity in these points of view, but I can also see the benefits to having zoos. I am not a zoologist, conservationist or anything of any importance in the animal sphere (other than being one) and I certainly don’t claim to know much about other animals. So, to continue this argument, I have used articles and research found online.


It’s important to educate the public about animals, their behaviour, habitat, population changes, and why they need to be conserved. However, zoo resources should be devoted to a chosen few rather than trying to conserve too many species together. They should also not house animals that are doing fine in the wild. If a species is threatened because of mankind, then I agree that we should do everything in our power to stop the threat. Good examples of dedicated species survival efforts that have helped species come out from the brink of extinction include; the black-footed ferrets, the red wolves, the Przewalski’s wild horse, and the California condors. However, certain species have not been so fortunate, their reintroduction programs have failed for different reasons. Examples of such species include the Andean condor, the western lowland gorilla, the giant panda and the snow leopard. Of 145 reintroduction programs carried out by zoos in the last century, only 16 truly succeeded in restoring wild animal populations to the wild. Nonetheless, zoos are continuing to make efforts to help endangered species in every way they can.” https://wildwelfare.org

There is enough scientific evidence to suggest zoos do play a critical role and have a great potential for conserving endangered species. More work needs to be done looking at the reasons as to why these animals are endangered and what can be done locally to stop a further reduction in the species.


Zoos began in the 1500s as private menageries owned by ancient Egyptian kings, the Chinese and the Romans. They were later transformed into public institutions in the 1700s. The number of zoos and aquariums around the world today is estimated to be anywhere between 7,000 and 16,000. A small percentage fall under effective protective legislation and guiding principles from a zoo membership association. With this in mind, are we meeting the needs of these animals in captivity? If there are going to be enclosures, then at the very least, the enclosures should be plentiful and stimulating.

Primates have very specialised needs. Their nutrition is complicated and an environment and social structure that enables them to thrive is very difficult to replicate in captivity, even by people who know what they are doing. We don’t want to see animals simply coping with the environment they’re in, but rather thriving in it.”

Is it really possible to move to a new location, adapt to a different way of life and be able to exhibit the same physical and mental state as before? Probably not. One thing to remember is that the vast majority of the animals in a zoo, were likely born in the zoo. To take an animal from the wild and place it in an enclosure is entirely different to taking animals from an enclosure and placing them in the wild. Just like us, animals are all totally unique. What works for one, may not work for another. However, we know that successful conservation is more than just meeting the basic needs of a species.

“Conservation programs should not be seen as an ‘emergency room treatment’ they should not be resorted to when there are only ten individuals left in the wild but much earlier than that. Secondly, all captive breeding programs should ideally be carried out in the country of species’ origin, making sure to engage the local communities as well. For most zoos, the biggest challenge is prioritizing animals to be saved because very often there are too many animals in need of help and very little room and resources available with zoos. This forces zoos to make bitter choices at times. For example, American zoos are soon planning to drop the ion-tailed macaques even though there are only 4,000 left in the wild in the tropical rainforests of India.” https://wildwelfare.org


So what does happen to those babies involved in a breeding program? "Zoos are part of an international community running co-operative breeding programmes. Breeding is carefully managed to control numbers and to prevent inbreeding. The aim is to ensure as much genetic variation in the captive population as possible and this is achieved with the aid of a studbook. There will be a species co-ordinator that decides which animals will be paired for breeding and asks the zoos that hold them to transfer the animals. No money changes hands, it is primarily to save wildlife." https://www.zsl.org


Captive breeding programs for release into the wild have a low success rate, as released animals are commonly less capable of hunting or foraging for food, which leads to starvation, possibly because the young animals spent the critical learning period in captivity. Released animals often display more risk-taking behavior and fail to avoid predators. Saying this, there are successful examples such as the Przewalski’s horse mentioned previously. The horse species was recovered from the brink of extinction by a captive breeding program and was successfully reintroduced in the 1990s to the Mongolia. Now there are more than 750 wild roaming Przewalski’s horses today.

Personally as a zoo visitor, I don’t agree with large, roaming animals in drastically small spaces and would rather support field conservation in those instances. Smaller zoos with less land mass should focus on housing smaller, threatened species ensuring there is ample space for those. There should be a limited number of tickets available each day to reduce stress or intimidation. Visitors should be quiet and respectful of the animals, unless of course the species is of the social variety and is comfortable around the human species.

We are more aware of our damage to the planet than ever before, people all over the world realise the destruction we have caused to the habitats of numerous species. It’s now that people can make a difference and support conservation efforts. “Groups who believe all zoos should be closed have not spent the time I have out in the wild. They haven’t seen the threats destroying chimpanzee habitat; they don’t understand what it’s like to watch a chimp struggle, wounded and lame from a wire snare. But I do.” says Primatologist, Jane Goodall.

The other fundamental aspect concerning zoos is funding but I’m going to stop that there. What are your views? How do you feel when you visit a zoo? Would you rather see zoos closed? How would you change the current situation?

FACT: Did you know there were once nine species of human walking the Earth 300,000 years ago?


Primary source: https://wildwelfare.org/the-conservation-mission-of-zoos-nabila-aziz/

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