Do we really need zoos and aquariums in today's world?

baby touches a deer at the zoo
© K Martinko

A new Ripley’s Aquarium opened last fall in Toronto. When I took my kids to see it, we were all impressed by the size and diversity of tanks filled with fascinating creatures – some from our local Great Lakes ecosystem and many from the tropics. But when I stood in front of one tank, watching a huge purplish octopus rise and fall, twisting and unfurling its body repeatedly, I was hit by the tremendous injustice of it all. “Those are extremely intelligent animals,” my husband commented, as we watched the octopus’ mesmerizing movements. “It must be going crazy in there.”

I left the aquarium that day with a growing sense of doubt. As fun as it was to gawk at strange fish for a few hours, something didn’t sit quite right with me. We weren’t there for educational purposes because, let’s be honest, how much does one truly learn and retain while chasing kids through a crowded aquarium? Instead, the animals provided entertainment that was proportional to how ‘cool’ or ‘cute’ they were; and I don’t think that entertainment is a good enough reason to justify a life of captivity, regardless of how intelligent (or not) an animal may be.

Is there still a place for zoos and aquariums in today’s world?

I’m not so sure anymore. Thanks to amazing cameras, we can now watch documentaries and see pictures that provide a very good glimpse into animals’ lives in the wild. People travel more than ever; they go snorkeling around coral reefs, hiking through bird-filled rainforests, or even on rare African safaris. There are opportunities to see animals in their native habitats that never existed in the past. No longer are we a nineteenth-century European audience, visiting a ‘menagerie of exotic wild beasts’ on display in barred pagodas. Back then people had never seen anything like it before in their lives. We don’t have that excuse anymore.

Zoos are cruel places in many ways, not the havens of safety that we in North America like to think they are. This was made clear by the killings of Marius the giraffe and two lion cubs at the Copenhagen Zoo this past winter. I’ve since learned that European zoos often kill animals to control population size because they choose not to put captive animals on contraception, which is what North American zoos do. Why the two different methods? Bengt Holst, director of conservation at the Copenhagen Zoo, explains in the Globe and Mail:

“We’d rather [the animals] have as natural behaviour as possible. We have already taken away their predatory and anti-predatory behaviours. If we take away their parenting behaviour, they have not much left.”

Either way, it’s a pathetic and substandard existence for any animal to spend its life in captivity. As much as my kids enjoy seeing real animals up close, I don’t want a belief in the work that zoos do to create apathy in their own sense of responsibility toward protecting animals and conserving natural habitats.

I’m aware that the issues are far more complex, and I don’t claim to provide a comprehensive assessment of whether or not zoos should exist, but it’s definitely something worth thinking about.

Tags: Animal Rights | Animals | Animal Welfare