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Zoos don't need to justify their existence

African bush elephants at San Diego Safari Park

African bush elephants at San Diego Safari Park

Zoos are frequently demonized in modern media and pop culture.

At worst, they are seen as cruel and degrading prisons for wildlife, where animals are abused and tormented for the sake of 'entertainment'.

At best, they are viewed as a necessary evil to keep endangered animals from going extinct, both as an "Ark" directly breeding animals, and as a fundraiser giving money to conservation work in the natural habitats of those animals, as well as giving the public direct contact with animals they would most likely never see alive.

But more and more, we hear phrases from zoo workers themselves, like;

"In a perfect world, zoos would not exist"

"It's not enough to keep animals in exhibits just for people to look at. There has to be a higher purpose." (Actual quote)

My question is: Why?

No one is demanding a higher purpose for us to keep dogs, cats, horses, cattle, pigs, rats, rabbits, even 'exotic' and non-domestic animals like snakes, parrots and aquarium fish.

As long as it's a 'typical' species owned as a pet, it seems it needs no justification (excluding livestock for food and clothing as that is an obvious 'higher purpose', even though not everyone likes it).

If someone wants to own any of those animals 'ust to look at it', almost no one will argue that there needs to be a 'higher purpose'.

"You can't just own a pet snake. You need to donate money to snake conservation, or you're a terrible human being!"

"You can't just walk your dog and rub its belly for your own enjoyment. You have to give to dog shelters, educate people on dogs and raise awareness of the hardships dogs face, or you're a hypocrite."

I have never heard anyone say anything even remotely like this.

Turn of the 20th century, polar bears at Belle Island Zoo.

Turn of the 20th century, polar bears at Belle Island Zoo.

There seems to be a common conception among the general public that zoos are still the bare 'prison cells' of the late 19th century to early 20th century, like the polar bear cage above.

Back then, the zoo owners and keepers were not trying to be cruel, they simply needed the enclosures to be practical and easy to clean, for the sake of the animals' hygiene and health.

No doubt they were ignorant about their animals' needs, compared to today, but they were not purposely cruel.

Bars look very bad to us, simply for being bars, bringing the mind to prisons. Bars were for keeping both animals and people safe, but they have in later decades been replaced by things like moats and glass, to make the zoo guests feel more comfortable looking at the animals (sometimes actually endangering animals and guests, when it makes it easier for guests to get inside the enclosure).

Still, no doubt, zoos have vastly improved in the past century, as much as (if not more than) our fields of modern healthcare and technology. Today's world is nothing like 1910, and the same is true for zoos.

The animal experts that work for zoos today, know so much more about diets, healthcare, enrichment, adequate enclosure size, material, and simply put, each species' needs to live a healthy and fulfilled life in an artificial environment.

Photos like these give the public the impression that these animals spend their entire lives in small, bare, prison-like enclosures.

Photos like these give the public the impression that these animals spend their entire lives in small, bare, prison-like enclosures.

...while in fact, they spend most of their time in large habitats like these, and the small enclosures are just night quarters for care and safety, just like a dog crate, a horse stall, or a child's bedroom.

...while in fact, they spend most of their time in large habitats like these, and the small enclosures are just night quarters for care and safety, just like a dog crate, a horse stall, or a child's bedroom.

"We don't lock people in unless they're criminals", some say.

First, I don't know any modern zoo that resembles any prison I've ever seen.

Second, we lock our pets in. We lock children in. Many animals can be roughly compared to a two year old child, in awareness and understanding of our world. Would you let a two year-old roam the streets at night, free to come and go as he wished? Of course not. He would get himself badly hurt or killed. Add to that a two year old that is potentially very dangerous to the public, like a lion or elephant.

This is something not many seem to consider, but pet owners have absolutely no business criticizing zoos. Or people who eat meat, or consume products that exploit or harm animals in any way (this includes vegans, as it is simply impossible to live in modern society and avoid engaging in industries that exploit or harm animals).

As a pet owner, whether your pet is a dog, cat, rabbit, budgie, goldfish, ferret, snake, or anything else, you are confining that animal. You are giving it an 'unnatural' existence. Exotic species like budgies and snakes recently came from the wild, and have barely changed - if at all - from their wild ancestors. It is impossible to replicate their natural habitat in a home.

If it is a domestic animal, like a dog or a rabbit, the only way it has changed from its wild ancestors, is being less afraid, more amenable to handling, making it easier to have loose in the house (dogs and cats), and their appearance being changed slightly.

It is still the same animal, with the same needs as its wild ancestors.

If you own pets like this rabbit, you have no ground whatsoever on which to criticize modern zoos.

If you own pets like this rabbit, you have no ground whatsoever on which to criticize modern zoos.

And even if you live in a mansion where your little toy poodle has the run of the house - that is a confined animal in an unnatural existence.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, at all.

I'm sure that little toy poodle gets plenty of exercise, company, great food and fresh water, and its mind is properly stimulated. I'm sure that little dog would rather live there, warm and comfortable with a roof over its head, than out in the forest, at the mercy of the elements and its own hunting skills.

I'm sure a snake has an easier life in a terrarium, its environment always controlled to the perfect temperature and humidity, and never having to go hungry or thirsty, let alone worry about being eaten itself.

Pets, when cared for by good owners who truly take the time to find out how to best care for their animals, have in general very good lives. Better than they would in the wild, or a 'natural' existence.

The same is true for zoos.

The animals don't have an endless wilderness to roam - because they don't need to.

Animals only need enough space to stimulate them physically and mentally, and get 'personal space' from other animals, if there are many of them, to avoid conflict.

They only roam vast areas in the wild to find enough food, and for some, to avoid predators.

In the wild, they have to struggle to find food, starve if they can't, fight for mates, fight with or live under constant stress from fleeing from predators or rivals, be exposed to nature and its elements, have to fight off disease and parasites, and almost always die young.

In modern zoos, they always have the perfect diet prescribed by experts of the species, readily available. They never have to risk bodily injury just to find food or mate. They never have to worry about being hunted. They never have to worry about finding a safe place to rest, or dying from exposure. They never have to worry about parasites.

If they get sick, a team of top veterinarians and animal care staff who have trained all their adult lives for this exact purpose, are right there to help comfort and heal the animal.

And when some zoo animals die young, it is either due to congenital conditions that no one could help, wherever the animal lived, or it was euthanized. Killed quickly and painlessly.

Killer whale at SeaWorld San Diego

Killer whale at SeaWorld San Diego

Why would someone need to justify that?

Keeping animals in the equivalent of 5-star hotels, free for a lifetime, is not something you should lower yourself to have to 'justify'.

The claim is that "zoos need to exist only to save animals from extinction. If wildlife was completely safe, zoos would be pointless".

It is true that zoos play an important role in conservation. It is true that if you have the power, like the money zoos are making, and the outreach they have through their guests, it is moral and right of you to do something to help.

A zoo that did nothing but exist, would not necessarily be very 'noble'.

But the point of this article is that they don't have to. It is not an automatic obligation, anymore than you as a dog owner are obliged to give to dog shelters, just because you have extra money, or educate people on the street petting your dog, about dogs. And that if you didn't do this, you would have no right to keep a dog 'imprisoned'.

Maybe you just want to have a dog?

And maybe someone just wants to have their animal collection, and let paying visitors come and look at it?

That is how zoos started. Wealthy and powerful people have kept exotic animal menageries for thousands of years. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that the public zoo was created, where the public was allowed to view these menageries, of course for a fee which helps pay for the upkeep of the animals.

What zoos are doing, when they try to justify themselves, is telling the public "our critics are completely right. Everything they say about zoos being 'horrible animal prisons', is right. We wish zoos didn't exist, but we are a necessary evil. Please just let us exist a little while longer, then we will go away, when we no longer need to abuse animals for conservation."

That is what one hears, when these zoo workers are essentially apologizing for their work existing.

As long as zoos aren't doing anything to harm wildlife, by removing animals from the wild without giving anything back to the wild populations, or by mistreating the animals in their care, they don't have to justify a thing.