The Case Against Captivity

Marissa O’Connor

Zoos across the nation love to boast about their conservation efforts to save species and market themselves as the 5-star Caribbean island resorts of the animal world. The average person would agree with the notion that captivity means longer lifespans for animals since there are no predators, around-the-clock medical care, and nutritional meals provided. While this may be the case for some smaller, more prey vulnerable species, this is not the case for many keystone species; species that should be a priority for conservation. Marine mammals, elephants, giant pandas, and cheetahs are examples of keystone species that are notoriously difficult to establish effective husbandry for in captivity. Consequentially, these species are the most popular animals that zoos can house and are therefore likely the most miserable.

Marine mammal species, notably dolphins and whales, are species that are especially unsuitable for captivity. Marine mammals often swim up to hundreds of nautical miles a day and have unique, sensitive family structures. The natural environment of marine mammals can never be mimicked in a captive setting and deprives the mammals of the environment they need to be healthy, subsequently, captive marine mammals often show signs of psychological and physical trauma. Killer whales in captivity are infamous for their dorsal fin collapse, which is experienced by all captive male orcas and many females. In the wild, however, dorsal fin collapse is only seen in about one percent of killer whales. Moreover, many marine mammals rely on sonar to communicate and navigate their surroundings. Due to their extremely limited environment, these marine mammals are forced into a perpetual motion of endless circles around their tanks. The human equivalent is, quite literally, solitary confinement.

Moreover, while dolphins and whales are subjected to a life of solitary confinement, aquariums are aware of another ocean behemoth unsuitable for captivity. Despite repeated efforts across the planet, aquariums have never been able to successfully house an adult great white shark. In 2004, the Monterey Bay Aquarium managed to sustain a 4-foot great white shark for a mere 198 days, the longest in record. Before this stint, the longest a great white shark was able to survive in an aquarium was only 16 days. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, until recently, was unable to curve their appetite for displaying a great white shark, and many other aquariums still have “great white exhibition programs”. Knowing the captive stints will likely cause the shark to die, these futile attempts to house great white sharks seek to satisfy human curiosity only, instead of species preservation.

Marine mammals are not the only species to suffer in captivity, elephants are also afflicted. A study published in 2008 in Science Magazine reported that their data suggests that female elephant’s health and overall well-being are so compromised in captivity their lifespans are less than half the median life span of protected populations in Africa and Asia. More specifically, Asian elephant calves are especially compromised and have an unusually high infant mortality rate. In captive African elephants, the median life span was 17 years, in the wild, it is 56. For captive Asian zoo elephants, the median was 19 years, in wild it was almost 42.

Like many other wildlife species, the giant panda’s population has been decreasing due to habitat loss and deforestation. Being such a charismatic animal, conservation efforts had no issue devoting vast resources to preserving the population. Giant pandas are often used as the face of conservation, and the World Wildlife Fund sports the giant panda as their mascot. The captive breeding programs have very low success rates, however, and while captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild have helped numerous other species, this is not the case for the giant panda. Conservationists devoted to the giant pandas frequently recognize that captive breeding of pandas will not be successful in saving the species from extinction. Similar to the great white shark, zoos are reluctant to come to the conclusion they are not successful in conserving the giant panda. Some zookeepers have resorted to extreme lengths to restore the natural instincts they stripped from the panda by showing them footage of other pandas mating, and by forced breeding.

Like many other wildlife species, the giant panda’s population has been decreasing due to habitat loss and deforestation. Being such a charismatic animal, conservation efforts had no issue devoting vast resources to preserving the population. Giant pandas are often used as the face of conservation, and the World Wildlife Fund sports the giant panda as their mascot. The captive breeding programs have very low success rates, however, and while captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild have helped numerous other species, this is not the case for the giant panda. Conservationists devoted to the giant pandas frequently recognize that captive breeding of pandas will not be successful in saving the species from extinction. Similar to the great white shark, zoos are reluctant to come to the conclusion they are not successful in conserving the giant panda. Some zookeepers have resorted to extreme lengths to restore the natural instincts they stripped from the panda by showing them footage of other pandas mating, and by forced breeding.

Aside from their notoriety for being difficult to keep in captivity, all of these species are lucrative for zoos to keep on display as conservation efforts, successful or not, attract large amounts of tourists. The reluctance of zoos to end unsuccessful conservation programs directly negates their goal of conservation and causes continuous harm to these species. The case for captivity is usually focused on the improved longevity of lifespans, but what good are longer lifespans if the animal is suffering? Extending the lifespan of a species while depriving it of everything else is not conservation, it is cruelty.

One Response

  1. Hope it is OK to post this here. My hope is that it might be of interest to some visitors to the blog. Zoospeak is a collection of poems and photographs by the Scottish poet, Gordon Meade, and the Canadian photographer and animal activist, Jo-Anne McArthur, that looks at the experiences of animals in captivity throughout the world. It was published in 2020 by Enthusiastic Press in London.

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