How Animal Rights Activists View Zoos Keeping Endangered Species

Young pandas eating bamboo in zoo
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According to the Endangered Species Act, the definition of an endangered species is “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Zoos are widely regarded as guardians of endangered species, so why do animal rights activists claim the zoos are abusive and cruel?

Endangered Species and Animal Rights

Endangered species are an environmental issue, but not necessarily an animal rights issue.

From an environmental perspective, a blue whale is more deserving of protection than a cow because blue whales are endangered and the loss of a single blue whale may impact the survivability of the species. The ecosystem is a network of interdependent species, and when a species becomes extinct, the loss of that species in the ecosystem could threaten other species. But from an animal rights standpoint, a blue whale is no more or less deserving of life and liberty than a cow because both are sentient individuals. Blue whales should be protected because they are sentient beings, and not solely because the species is endangered.

Animal Activists Oppose Keeping Endangered Species in Zoos

Individual animals have sentience and therefore have rights. However, the whole species has no sentience, so a species has no rights. Keeping endangered animals in zoos infringes on those individuals’ rights to freedom. Infringing the rights of individuals because it benefits the species is wrong because a species is not an entity with its own rights.

Additionally, removing breeding individuals from the wild population further endangers the wild population.

Endangered plants are kept similarly in captivity, but these programs are not controversial because plants are widely believed not to be sentient. Endangered plants have no desire to roam and frequently thrive in captivity, unlike their animal counterparts. Furthermore, plant seeds can be kept in storage for hundreds of years into the future, for the purpose of “release” back into the wild if their natural habitat ever recovers.

Zoo Breeding Programs

Even if a zoo operates a breeding program for an endangered species, those programs do not excuse the infringement on the rights of the individual animals to be free. The individual animals are suffering in captivity for the good of the species—but again a species is an entity that does not suffer or have rights.

Zoo breeding programs produce the many baby animals that attract the public, but this leads to surplus animals. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of zoo breeding programs do not release individuals back into the wild. Instead, the individuals are destined to live their lives in captivity. Some are even sold to circuses, to canned hunting facilities (fenced in areas), or for​ slaughter.

In 2008, an emaciated Asian elephant named Ned was confiscated from circus trainer Lance Ramos and transferred to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Asian elephants are endangered, and Ned had been born at Busch Gardens, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But neither the endangered status nor the zoo's accreditation stopped Busch Gardens from selling Ned to a circus.

Zoo Breeding Programs and Loss of Wild Habitat

Many species are endangered because of loss of habitat. As human beings continue to multiply, and urban communities continue to expand, we destroy wild habitat. Many environmentalists and animal advocates believe that habitat protection is the best way to protect endangered species.

If a zoo operates a breeding program for an endangered species while there are insufficient habitats for that species in the wild, there is no hope that releasing individuals will replenish the wild population. The programs are creating a situation where small breeding colonies will exist in captivity without any benefit to the wild populations, which will continue to dwindle until extinction. Despite the small populations in zoos, the species has been effectively removed from the ecosystem, which defeats the purpose of protecting endangered species from an environmental standpoint.

Zoos v. Extinction

Extinction is a tragedy. It is a tragedy from an environmental standpoint because other species may suffer and because it may indicate an environmental problem such as loss of wild habitat or climate change. It is also a tragedy from an animal rights standpoint because it means that sentient individuals probably suffered and died untimely deaths.

However, from an animal rights standpoint, extinction in the wild is not an excuse to continue keeping individuals in captivity. As explained above, the survival of the species does not justify the loss of freedom for the individuals in captivity.


  • Armstrong, Susan J., and Richard G. Botzler (eds). "The Animal Ethics Reader," 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • Bostock, Stephen St. C. "Zoos and Animal Rights." London: Routledge, 2003. 
  • Norton, Bryan G., Michael Hutchins, Elizabeth F. Stevens, and Terry L. Maple (eds). "Ethics on the Ark: Zoos, Animal Welfare, and Wildlife Conservation." New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

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