Zoo Ethics

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When the Grey Squirrel Met the Siberian Tiger

Watching a Siberian tiger kill a grey squirrel for a half-hour proved
to be one of my most enlightening experiences at a zoo. It was a
weekday; I was alone, not even an employee passed by. The tiger
pounced on the squirrel, flipped it into the air like a juggler's
ball, pinned it and rolled it. A short reprieve from this unlikely
encounter and the bloodied, half-crushed squirrel attempted an escape,
dragging itself across the grass; the tiger watched curiously, let it
go a few feet then pounced again. My whole self suffered over the
squirrel's pain and torture while marveling in the same instance at
the tiger's power, the ease with which it knocked the rodent along the
ground. Here in an institution where nature is faked was a relatively
truthful half-hour: nature's brutality, grace, ugliness, awe, beauty,
and tragedy were reveled. I never could conclude whether the Asian
terror was just playing or if it simply lacked the knowledge (as has
been proven with many captive cats) to finish off the squirrel. Either
way, it took a long time for the rodent to die.

At 28 years of age I have spent countless hours in well over twenty
zoos spanning four continents. I present this fact as the main
expertise I posses in writing an essay analyzing contemporary zoos and
their visitors. That is to say, this is not an exploratory essay of a
professional zoologist or biologist (or even a science major), rather
this is one zoo-goers and environmental reporter's view of the current
state of zoos and, more importantly and rarely discussed, some general
ideas that could transform the zoo's place in our society. This is my
hope. Due to the desire to avoid a dissuadable length, I will not
evaluate zoos separately (though of course they vary widely in
quality), but rather sketch a general impression.

The True Purpose of Zoos

Think about it: the zoological park—in which living beings are
subjected to strict confinement, where they must live a life, no
matter the size and 'naturalness' of the cage, wholly different from
the natural one to which they are suited, where their instincts are
dulled, tamed, and corrupted: eating involves no hunting or foraging
and sexual relations are interfered with and closely monitored—allows
such seemingly needless suffering to fellow creatures that we, as
ethical (hopefully) animals, must not only supply a very good reason
for this subjection, but also achieve it.

Zoos have a long history. China claims the first (as it does with most
public institutions), but Egypt, Greece, and Rome all possessed zoos
of a kind. However our contemporary zoos are direct descendants of
Europe's first public zoos (replacing royal menageries meant only for
the aristocratic class). A product of the European Enlightenment, late
18th Century zoos were built with the purpose to harbor animals for
scientific purposes and public education. These were noble ideas, but
it would be two-hundred years before zoos began to consider the health
and sanity of its inmates. At the same time, circa 1960s and 70s, zoos
began to rethink their general purpose. It was quite clear at this
point that the earth was on the verge of a global extinction, called
the Holocene Mass Extinction, and only strong efforts by scientists
and societies at large could save the vast biodiversity of our planet.
Contemporary zoological parks have added stipulations regarding
species health and well-being, while embracing the idea that they must
focus on conservation efforts worldwide and environmental education
locally. This is a purpose that makes sense. In fact this is the only
reason to allow such unnatural captivity: the zoo should be a local
Conservation Center, focusing wholly on saving (or reinstating)
species in the wild and on educating the public on the importance of
conservation and biodiversity. AZA (the accrediting Association of
Zoos and Aquariums) exists to make this happen, and there are many
quality conservation programs going in and coming out of most zoos. My
skepticism lies not so much with zoo's conservation programs, but with
their effectiveness as educators.

Zoo: The Educational Institution?

It appears that most zoos believe the animals themselves are
sufficient education: somehow by seeing a bear in a cage one will be
environmentally enlightened. Yet what do captive animals—lacking
context—teach one about the natural world and its importance? The zoo
is an artificial 'wilderness'; it is man-made and man-managed. There
is no connection between a pen and an ecosystem. A visitor can look
through the glass and see an insect, a snake, a reptile and 'learn'
nothing more than: they are boring, because they just sit there. In
the same manner polar bears appear as playful, cute, and hardly
menacing, though they can kill a two-hundred pound seal (or human)
with one hit from the paw. Finally, it's difficult to wrap one's head
around an animal being endangered when its three feet from you.
Without context—without quality information in a wide variety of
forms—zoos only teach us illusions regarding nature and conservation,
yet many zoos still believe that the caged animal will say it all. If
this were true then according to my experience the main prey of
Siberian Tigers would be the North American Gray Squirrels.

Zoos have tried—a little—to incorporate education into the premier
attraction. Some zoos are satisfied with a including fascinating fact
about each subject: 'the chameleon can look in two directions at
once!' or 'the kangaroo is the world's largest marsupial!' It's like
if you went to see an exhibit on Van Gogh and all it said was 'he shot
himself in the stomach!' Most zoos, however, have informative signs
regarding the animal itself, including habitat, feeding, mating,
nominal behavior etc. Even when zoos offer more information, they
expound upon the subject as though it lives in a vacuum: zoos rarely
explain an animal's place in its ecosystem. Better information on this
level would allow people to find more respect for animals (or plants)
they usually ignore and avoid—reptiles, snakes, amphibians, insects,
arachnids—and to gain new insight into the so-called charismatic
species. A wide assortment of such information would help people
understand why every part of an ecosystem is vital.

Conservation and Education

Since zoos embraced conservation, most include a display regarding the
species' conservation status. Some are even enlightened enough to
include the reasons behind the animal's endangerment. But even this
proves hardly sufficient: when a visitor reads about logging in
Sumatra or the bush-meat problem in Congo, what can they really do but
shrug their shoulders in wonder and drop a quarter in a donation bin?
Zoos need to take these conservation issues and make them applicable.
If they want to stop logging in Borneo to save the orangutans, why
doesn't the zoo provide a list of tropical woods to avoid purchasing?
In addition, why don't they highlight that the rainforest isn't being
cut for Borneo's needs, but western consumption? To tackle the
bush-meant trade, zoos could address the larger issue of poverty in
Africa. American policy can have a large effect on this issue. These
are merely two examples of how to make wildlife conservation
meaningful to the average visitor. The zoo, as a conservation center,
must make visitors aware of their responsibility in fixing these
global problems. For in the end it is lack of funds, awareness, and
will that continually allows our world to be ravaged in unsustainable
and wasteful ways.

To truly reach visitors, zoos should employ a variety of new
educational strategies: signs in front of a cage are simply not
enough. For example, I find it odd that science and art museums have
continuously rotating exhibits, but zoos do not. Why not include such
exhibits exploring a particular species, a famous wildlife expedition,
or the state of our earth? Imagine an exhibit on birds of paradise,
the journeys and writings of Peter Matthiesen, or the recent
extinction of the Baiji. Quality and detailed exhibits may make some
visitors excited by biology and conservation who are otherwise
dispassionate to animals in cages. Displaying exhibits on conservation
issues would kill two birds with one stone—excuse the completely
inappropriate adage. Such exhibits could cover major topics like human
population, rainforest deforestation, or global warming. And if zoos
are serious about shaping minds regarding conservation they should be
pursuing honest and effective information: the presentation should not
wipe away the complexities of these issues nor avoid our
responsibility in making the difference. In the end, as I have
related, conservation information must include concrete steps that the
visitor can do to make a difference.

A theatre that would play quality nature and conservation programs
would be a perfect place for tired visitors to take a respite and
learn something new. With amazing programming such as the recent
Planet Earth—including its follow-up episodes on conservation—and
David Attenborough's or National Geographic's wonderful documentaries,
it seems odd to me that zoos have not thought of this as a novel way
to provide both entertainment and education. However, if the programs
that are played have no interest in conservation and science, but
merely display 'funny' or 'dangerous' animals to entertain than they
are not worthy of what should be zoo's higher place in society.

While quality education may be lacking at most zoos, they are still
doing great things in the conservation world. The Bronx Zoo, arguably
one of the best zoos in the world, is run by the Wildlife Conservation
Society which currently has 660 field projects running around the
world. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) admirably bring
zoos and conservation programs together around the country. But this
leaves me with a question: why are these conservation initiatives not
proclaimed? Why don't zoo visitors see information first-hand what
their local zoo (or zoos across the world) are working on? I'm not
talking about just a little plaque and a few words, but an in-depth
description of the project and its goals. Let the visitor know that
the zoo does not exist solely for their needs, but as a research
institute and base for overseas conservation. Allow them to comprehend
that animals are not mere entertainment for humans, but a vital part
of ecosystems around the world that the makes our earth as wondrous
(and effective) as it is.

The Green Zoo?

Currently, most zoos are standing contradictions. They use tremendous
amounts of dirty power and water daily, both for guests and animals.
Zoo cafes serve largely unhealthy and purely unethical foods. One
minute you could be walking through a rainforest exhibit and the next
drinking coffee or eating chocolate, both of which are grown in
tropical countries. Or you might have just read about the devastating
impact of climate change on amphibians worldwide and then have a
hamburger or hotdog for lunch (according to the UN livestock is
responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gases released into the
atmosphere—5 percent more than global transportation). Munch on some
chips while watching orangutans and despairing of their plight without
even realizing the threat to them and innumerable other Asian species
is in your mouth—palm oil (which can appear in products ranging from
snack foods to cosmetics and shampoo). Palm oil has ravaged forests
across south-east Asia over the last few decades, especially in
Indonesia (which lost 24 percent of its forest in just fifteen years)
and Malaysia (6.6 percent). Or shop in the gift store and buy
something—pretty much anything—and you'll be supporting China's
industrial and booming economy, which is run almost entirely on carbon
emitting coal.

Imagine if the zoo put its ethics where its mouth is: power could be
generated entirely from sustainable sources; water could be very
carefully consumed, reused after treatment, and collected whenever it
rains; the zoo restaurant could be filled with local foods; carrying
chocolate and coffee that is both shade-grown and fair-trade (with
explanations as to the importance of these distinctions) and offering
a good selection of vegetarian meals. In addition it could make a
point of carrying foods that either do not contain palm oil or carry
eco-certified palm oil. The gift shop could sell materials that are
only ethically and sustainably produced. Instead of gifts from Chinese
sweat shops or Indonesian rainforests, we could be buying alpaca
scarves from co-operatives in Peru or hand-carved animals from
recycled wood in Kenya. If a zoo cannot live by the standards it
attempts to teach than our gluttonous society is perhaps beyond the
point of help.

Obviously, many of these suggestions and ideas are dependent on funds.
I am no economist but I imagine making a zoo 'green' would be
expensive, but I also believe public benefactors and the government
would quickly shore up funds for a 'green' zoo, and then tout that
sustainability as an example to the public.

An Example of One Zoo's Incongruent Decision

Despite continuous opportunities for zoos to improve upon their
mission statement of education and conservation, some of their
decisions simply boggle the mind. In 2000 the Minnesota Zoo—the state
in which I grew up—decided to add a new attraction: a giant barn with
lots of domesticated animals. In what way does this meet goals of
wildlife conservation and education? Here is the description from the
website: "The objective of the Wells Fargo Family Farm is to create a
place for Minnesota Zoo visitors to become part of a community of
people, plants and animals striving to maintain balance with nature."
That's all well and good, but these are not endangered species! There
are a few rare breeds in the barn, but a domestic breed—genetically
managed by and for man—is not an endangered species. These are not
wild species: they have no habitat, no prey, no ecosystem—so why are
they taking up zoo's money and resources? The barn, as well, features
a unique exhibit: cloned farm animals. I almost have no words for
this, for in whose devious mind does a cloned domestic breed of cattle
inspire conservation?

This decision is odd for another reason. Minnesota already has several
places one can go for this exact experience. Numerous small working
farms incorporate educational programs for children and adult
visitors. The decision by the zoo to spend 4.5 million dollars—yes,
4.5 million—on this farm complex (when it could have been using the
money for overseas conservation, breeding programs, or any set of
educational activities) is a direct threat to small family-farms that
gain a lot of their livelihood from visitors.

This giant barn illustrates a final disturbing trend in zoos recently.
You may have noticed the barn's evocative title: Wells Fargo Family
Farm. I wonder if all the tellers at Wells Fargo came and did a
barn-raising? Hardly, instead Wells Fargo shelled out 4.5 million
dollars to build the barn. But why didn't any board members turn
around and say that the money would be much better spent on something,
say, conservational? And does anyone remember those days when
companies would donate money without requiring their logo to appear

Visiting zoos now is like walking through a set of commercials: 3M,
Cargill Target, Wal-mart, Verizon, the list goes on. Even more ironic
is the dubious, if not atrocious, environmental records of many of
these corporations. Even on the Minnesota Zoo website, Wells Fargo has
made its mark: just under an adorable picture of a girl feeding a calf
with a bottle appears a direct link to Wells Fargo's. Such branding
de-legitimizes zoos, as though these animals could (or should) be
'owned' by corporations. I don't know how we reached a point where
this must be said, but aren't we overwhelmed with enough
advertisements than to add them into a public institution like a zoo?
I look forward to the day when the library shelf sports an ad for
Mountain Dew, the judge's bench proclaims Home Depot, and the church
pew has Hallmark carved into its wood. Not only has the Minnesota Zoo
strayed from conservation to build this fake monstrosity, but they
sold themselves to a big, big bank. And, of course, at the end of any
strange decision process—such as the one that led to a big barn
plastered with Wells Fargo—lie clues, i.e. one of the board members of
the zoo is the VP of Human Resources at Wells Fargo.

Where could the Minnesota Zoo have better spent 4.5 million? The
options makes the mind reel: updating old exhibits, additional
educational facilities, creating a new exhibit on a particularly
threatened ecosystem, or how about a program that brings lower-income
children and families to the zoo who can't afford the general
admission price of $14.00.

A Zoo is Not a Movie

Often, zoos are viewed by adults as a place for children, as though
adults are too 'old' to learn anything from encountering other
species. Zoos are also rarely thought of as a place of science or
serious conservation. Visitors view zoos as a form of entertainment,
something akin to a fluff movie, and most zoos have bought into that.
Yet for the sake of the future, zoos need to rise above their
self-belief and their public-perception that they are a carnival,
something akin to a Disney movie or a theme park (like the ridiculous
Disney's Animal Kingdom, in which the meld between theme park and zoo
becomes so indistinguishable that animals are merely a backdrop to
rides or confused with movie characters).

While our cultural fixation on entertainment and distraction is bad
enough, it is a terrible thing when zoos place themselves in this
category. To do so only perpetuates the idea that other species exist
solely for our amusement and use (or abuse). Animals in zoos are not
Disney characters; they do not speak English and tell funny jokes.
Animals are true and real because they are not us. These species are
not our slaves or property. We have no claim (moral or otherwise) for
mastery over them. Yet, it was the expansion of this mostly-western
philosophy of human dominance over pretty much everything that allowed
previous generations to purposefully (or just lazily) bring species to
the brink. One thinks of the American settlers who languidly shot
bison from moving trains, killing at least 60 million animals (though
they had an even more dubious reason added to boredom for this
slaughter—our government wanted bison extinct to starve out Native
Americans) or when the same Americans dropped the original population
of two billion Passenger Pigeons to zero. The birds were ruthlessly
hunted to provide low-quality meat to society's slaves, poor, and
domestic animals.

Uniquely, we are a species that often destroys something for the sake
of destruction or a desire to feel powerful. When I was a child I used
to torture ants with a liquid blend of pesticides, toothpaste, whole
milk, window cleaner, etc. I would watch them squirm and die for
hours. I always felt bad when I did it, yet I still went ahead. This
is the place where the view of life as entertainment leads us.

If one seeks pure entertainment, there are many other options than a
zoo. This is not to say that one can't be entertained at a zoo, rather
that such an experience should be complimented by education, awe,
respect, and enlightenment. These are living and breathing beings, not
pixels or stuffed bears. While western cultural humans may have a
tradition of believing itself vastly superior to all other forms of
life, seeing the breadth of a polar bear, the social organization of
an ant colony, the unruffled beauty of an eagle, the gaze of a
mountain gorilla, the deadliness of a copperhead should be an avenue
to question such beliefs, not reinforce them.

Zoo's Effectiveness: Analysis of a Study

In 2007 AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) published the findings
of a survey that addresses many of the issues I have explored thus
far. This survey, three years in the making, interviewed visitors from
a total of twelve zoos and aquariums. They asked questions regarding
educational experiences, conservation, and the place of zoos in society.

AZA, an extremely respectful and noble organization, view their
findings as proof that "visits to accredited zoos and aquariums prompt
individuals to reconsider their role in environmental problems and
conservation action, and to see themselves as part of the solution." I
am not surprised by their findings. Zoos do produce a lot of good. The
problem however is that instead of looking at their findings and
seeing the gaps for improvement, the conclusions of the paper state
that all is well and good. They're playing Pollyanna.

Allow me to state why. First, when they state that visiting zoos and
aquariums causes reconsideration of environmental problems and
conservation actions in the visitor and the belief that we—humans—are
apart of the solution, they really mean that 54 percent of visitors
affirmed this. Fifty-four percent isn't bad, but it's hardly good. If
we state that zoos are educational facilities and that their main
focus is public education regarding conservation issues then how do
these zoos seriously feel about failing 46 percent of the populace?
While AZA sees this as a positive percentage, I only see it as proof
that zoos are not doing enough—near enough—to change minds. I wish the
AZA had followed up this question by asking visitors to then list the
concrete steps they learned to lessen their impact on the environment.

Another curious finding from AZA's assessment was the results of a
test given to adults to see if their knowledge of ecological concepts
improved by visiting the zoo. Only 10 percent of visitors were found
to have better knowledge of ecology after visiting the zoo. AZA states
that this is because zoos underestimated the knowledge of the
visitors. If this is the case, should they not be rushing to provide
more and better information? If the visitors have graduated from
Ecology 101, shouldn't zoos step it up to Ecology 201? After all, the
more knowledge our populace has regarding ecology the better informed
they will be in tackling complex issues like mass extinction and
climate change. For decades, zoos have sufficed with the basics: name,
habitat, a few sentences about behavior. Regarding conservation
information it is more even pathetic. Inadequate information is not
enough anymore, and this study proves that clearly. People are ready
(and they must) come face-to-face with complex issues like climate
change, bio-fuels, the Holocene mass extinction, poverty, and
conservation, but why just focus on the problems without solutions?
You want to cut your carbon foot-print: eat less red meat, buy less
stuff, eat local foods, turn down your thermostat, and purchase a
vehicle that gets at least 45 miles-per-gallon. If I can list a few
big things in one sentence, you'd think a zoo could do a lot more than

Ineffective Zoos Are Immoral

Snow leopard
When confronted with a caged animal, let us say the beautiful snow
leopard, my brain sometimes flashes to Edmund Dantes from The Count of
Monte Cristo, falsely imprisoned for fourteen years (incidentally
about the lifespan of a snow leopard) that lead to madness and a
desperate escape. Just because these are not humans in prison, does
not mean that animals in the zoo do not 'feel' their confinement. Have
you ever seen a polar bear pace back and forth, back and forth? That
is called stereotypic behavior and has been compared to an insane
man's ticks. Gorillas will pound on glass walls (and occasionally
escape). Tigers (who in the wild may have a territory of over 50
square miles) patrol the same small acre incessantly. Primates may
appear listless and withdrawn or overtly active from stimulants to
keep zoo-goers happy. An eagle may have nothing more to do all than
sit on a single perch and defecate (most zoo birds no longer have the
ability to fly, something that would instantly doom them in their
natural habitat). No matter how much someone wants to dismiss the
'intelligence' or 'awareness' of these animals (and this is becoming
increasingly difficult with new scientific studies), one cannot argue
against the fact that they are living a life to which they are not at
evolved. These are not tame animals; it took humans centuries, perhaps
millennia, to turn the now extinct aurochs into the fatter, duller,
blanker cattle we see on farms today: animals so far from their
ancestors that they can only survive in managed environments. Putting
wild species in a managed environment is akin to a sane man locked in
a madhouse.

If wild animals are not allowed to strike awe in the visitor and to
educate them about what decisions they (or their governments) make
that affect their wild relatives than their incarceration is not
merely reasonless, but criminal. These animals are ambassadors for
wilderness, for a bio-diverse earth, for the planet as it is (or even
as it was). This is not a role they have chosen, but one we have
forced upon them. Zoos have a moral obligation to achieve the most
good out of this sad state of affairs.

Final Thoughts

An animal is worth more than a masterwork of art or an archeological
treasure, simply because it lives. It breathes, it eats, it sleeps, it
thinks, one day it will die; its true nature is impenetrable, because
we can only view it through our own prejudices and limitations as humans.

I realize at times I probably sound terribly dour and that my ideas
would suck all the fun out of any zoo experience, making it dim and
serious. I am quite aware of this personal stuffiness: my wife likes
to say that I am a 'zoo snob'; I don't deny the possibility. But I do
not mean that a zoo experience should not be enjoyable. Experiencing
the zoo should never become any less fun than it already is, rather it
should be given the added dimensions of awe and education, of respect
and a higher purpose to save the vastness of life on this planet, and
in turn save ourselves.

For me, I am a quiet zoo-goer. It is almost a spiritual experience for
me. I stand before an animal—unique and beautiful—and I undergo a
sense of meaning and rejuvenation. It is a strange thing to experience
such emotions while the source of them is locked in a cage, but there
it is. I understand those who can find no joy in a zoo and those who
see zoos as cruel (inherently they are), and I would stand and protest
with them, if not for the fact that all other species are in the midst
of a devastating ecological crisis, and it may only be these caged
ambassadors who make people wake-up and act. But the institution has
responsibilities that should no longer be overlooked. Remember the
next time you visit the zoo, to stare an animal in the face and to
know that the only reason this animal is where it is… You.

You and me and all of us are the reason these animals sits behind
glass or bars; we are reason only a fraction of their habitat remains;
we are the reason they have been driven to almost nothing; and may
very well—sooner than we can imagine—be extinct and gone, forever
flung from living. What right do we have to this? And what right do
zoos have to exist, if not to show us our illusion of mastery, our
waste of creation, and our responsibility to make it right—as right as
it can be? The zoo—if only it lived up to its purpose—could play a
leading role in the preservation of creation, the saving of life. I
hope it will take up its mantle, and leave-by the many immaturities
that still plague it.

This is the first article in a series on zoos and ex-situ conservation.


Jeremy Leon Hance, mongabay.com
October 6, 2008

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