How About You?

 Seth Victor

I am in San Diego, CA, a legendary city named after majestic sea creatures. I’ve enjoyed some of the great sights, but I would have been remiss not to visit the “World Famous” San Diego Zoo. I did so with some hesitation (and with a certain singer in my head). I was previously under the impression that the San Diego Zoo was more like a wildlife safari, where the people are in the cage moving in the environment. I was disappointed to find out that it is not. The Wild Animal Park of which I was thinking is a totally different place. The zoo is a rather nice zoo. It emphasises its conservation of endangered and threatened species. Zoos, however, are a contentious issue for many in the animal rights world. The question is whether animal exploitation is acceptable when the purpose is to bring the animals closer to humans. That’s a simplistic way of phrasing it, since circuses also bring animals closer to people, but are not something to celebrate. Yet many view the boredom and enclosed lives of animals in zoos just as poorly, arguing that media sources such as documentaries bring animals to life in a way that does not cause them suffering. 

I’m very torn on the issue. On the one hand, I see the similarities between zoos and circuses. Animals are captive in both, and the motivation behind the original zoos of the Victorian age was to display the “great beasts” of the “Dark Continent” and beyond for spectacle. Certainly there are a number of zoos that do not keep their animals in excellent conditions, and most zoos in the United States cannot provide any where near the range that any of the animals enjoy in the wild. Also, modern recording equipment seen in Life and Planet Earth can bring high definition footage into living rooms in dynamic fashion without interfering with an animal’s life.

On the other hand, animals in zoos do not need the same ranges that they do in the wild if survival is not at issue. Food is provided, as is shelter, and all natural predators are removed. Are the animals bored? I believe that despite the toys that are provided them, many are. But think of it this way. If you were given the option of living in an apartment with one or two weight machines, or maybe a book, and all of your dietary and medical needs were met, or you were out on the plains left to make your own weapons and tools and told to survive a la “The Most Dangerous Game,” which would you choose? Maybe we’d all like to live with adventure, but I don’t know. The narrator in The Life of Pi offers an interesting take on this dilemma, writing “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

I am in favor of zoos, at least if they are done the right way. I think zoos are useful in educating children and adults about exotic animals. I think this because that is how I developed my appreciation for animals that I would never see in the United States. If the rainforests are gone, we are going to be in a lot of trouble, but I care about those forests not because of the effect on people, but because I want the creatures in them to exist. I don’t know that a wildlife documentary would have fostered that same appreciation in me. Good zoos like the San Diego Zoo also provide plenty of education on the variety of animals they house, and increase awareness about other parts of the world.

Seeing animals in person also reminds me why I fight for them, and why they are so important to me. They don’t need to do anything. They exist, and have as much as a right as I do to be here. I believe that all animals across the globe have this right, and as seeing is believing, zoos help me believe. It is my hope that the boredom and stagnation endured by a few will help kindle the passions in people to preserve the freedom of many. Or is that kind of thinking the sort of “ends justify the means” approach that is behind so much environmental and animal destruction?

8 Responses

  1. I disagree with you, although I can see where you’re coming from on some points. I think that what it comes down to is that zoos are money making enterprises, and as such, will never truly put the animals’ interests first. It’s not that the people running zoos are bad, or don’t care, but the mighty dollar always prevails.

    For example, elephants do terribly in zoos. They suffer from diabetes, arthritis, and premature death, among other things. In the wild they would range for miles, and even the best and biggest zoo enclosures can’t provide that. It’s not about boredom, it’s about failing to let animals thrive, instead of merely survive. But zoos are almost never willing to give up elephants because they draw in crowds. And big crowds equal big dollars.

    It is important to try to cultivate a sense of empathy for non-human animals, but I think zoos end up perpetuating the view of animals as the Other. Despite the rationalizations about conserving species or educating the public, ultimately zoos are about OUR enjoyment, at the expense of the animals’ well-being.

    And as a final note, I have to add that your thought experiment about whether we humans would prefer the apartment or the plains is more than a little ridiculous. People reading this blog are unlikely to be able to survive on our own in the wild, but animals in the wild do just fine on their own, provided we humans don’t interfere too much. And even more importantly, those animals in zoos were never given a choice.

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment, Claire. I totally agree with many of your points, hence my division on the issue. I just want to breifly respond:

    First, I know the comparison between what someone reading this would do versus captured animals’ choices is unfair. Obviously it isn’t a real scenario, but it is just what you said it is, a thought experiment. What is more important, survival for a more or less given period of time, or risking survival for “living?” I personally would choose the latter.

    Second, I agree that most zoos are in it for the money. But what of the zoos, such as San Diego, that assert that there animals are all rescued, or preserving endangered species, and that do try to reintroduce to the wild when possible?

    And as a last question, would you then agree that children or impressionable adults can gain an appreciation for wild animals without seeing them in person?

  3. I’m sorry, but I have to strongly disagree with both Seth and Claire. Zoos are NOT “in it for the money”. Yes, they do make a profit, but that is by necessity. Almost all of the money made by zoos is used for salaries, animal food, and improving animal exhibits. No one is getting rich in the zoo business! Almost all employees working for zoos are vastly underpaid, but they choose to work there for the love of the animals they care for.

    Secondly, elephants do not do poorly in (most) zoos. That is extremist propaganda. If you factor in the lifespans of the elephants who are killed by poachers, elephants on average life longer in zoos. Great new natural, multi-acre elephant exhibits are springing up all over the nation — in Los Angeles, Dallas, North Carolina, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Washington, and elsewhere.

    The next time you see a buffalo (bison), thank the American zoos. Without them, the buffalo would already be extinct.

    Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos

  4. Thanks Allen. I don’t have the financial sheets in front of me, so I should be careful what I write. I was acknowledging that zoos do need to have attractive exhibits to bring in visitors. But as you point out, making money does not have to be independent of good care.

  5. America’s biggest and “best” zoos are one thing. Take those out of the mix and how many are left? Hundreds? There are plenty of zoos and menageries where animals still languish in cement cells for human entertainment. Trying to sell ALL zoos because one believes that there are SOME “good” zoos is ridiculous (not that you were attempting to do this, Seth).

    I agree with Claire that your attempted analogy (apartment vs. wild plains) doesn’t work. A better attempt, perhaps, would be the prison system. Would you give up your freedom (with all its uncertainties) in exchange for an impoverished life in a prison cell where all your needs are met? Most humans (given the choice) would say no.d After all, we consider prison to be a punishment. Why should it be any different for wild animals? But I commend you for broaching and grappling with the question at all, since zoos are a sacred cow for so many.

    Mr. Nyhuis is in the business of promoting zoos. Just google “elephants in zoos” and see what you get…. there seem to be a great many propagandizing “extremists” (his word) out there. Here’s just one item, from Time mag:,8599,1203076,00.html

    Finally, he gives zoos perhaps a bit too much credit for saving bison from extinction. Twenty-some wild bison escaped the mass extermination of the late 1800s–they hid out in Yellowstone’s remote Pelican Valley. In May 1984 Grover Cleveland signed the first federal law protecting them. Their number was still perilously low in the early 1900s, so the herd was augmented with animals from private herds in MT and TX. A journalist, Harold Baynes, began drumming up support for them, which led to formation of the American Bison Society, whose organizational meeting (1905) was held at the New York Zoological Park. A few years later, 15 bison from the NY Zoological Society’s herd were sent to OK to form the first captive federal herd.

    So while zoos had a hand in establishing federal reserves, the fact remains that Yellowstone is the only place on Earth where wild bison have survived continuously since prehistoric times.

  6. You all make great points that all contain truth, I believe.
    Having grown up in San Diego, with Zoorama on TV, which showed kids every week what was new and cool at the zoo, I cannot bring myself to trash the San Diego Zoo, though I too have ethical issues with any zoo.
    But the fact remains, as Mr. Nyhuis points out, the “wild” is rapidly disappearing. That point was driven home to me last night in PBS’ special on the cheetah orphans in Kenya, where in the end, in order to assure the remaining one’s survival, they had to keep him in a preserve, or risk his getting killed by a goat or cattle farmer.
    We purists who would rather see wonderful wild creatures living only in their original habitat cannot change this tragic reality.
    The San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park has contributed mightily to the preservation and propagation of species. Take the panda, for instance; SD is, I believe, the only zoo to have fostered FIVE panda births.
    We live in precarious times for wildlife survival. Zoos help, like it or not.

  7. My experience has been that many modern zoos are really sanctuaries (which include breeding programs) for animals that may otherwise become extinct.

  8. Allen Nyhuis is a scoundrel, ignore the son of a bitch.

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