Pitiful Prisons: The Reality of Zoos

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Zoos evolved at a time when travel for most people was impractical. Nowadays, wildlife watchers can travel to Africa, Australia, or Costa Rica for photo safaris or even stay at home and catch nature documentaries on television or view live Internet video feeds, which can capture animals’ natural behavior, something that is rarely, if ever, seen in zoos.

There is no excuse for keeping intelligent social animals in cages for our fleeting distraction and amusement. Habitat loss and other dangers of the wild are not prevented by confining animals to cramped conditions and depriving them of everything that is natural and important to them.

Caged and Crazed

Most zoo exhibits provide animals with few, if any, opportunities to express natural behavior or make choices in their daily lives. Animals are often prevented from doing most of the things that are natural and important to them, such as running, roaming, flying, climbing, foraging, choosing a partner, and being with others of their own kind. They are closely confined, lack privacy, and have extremely limited opportunities for mental stimulation or physical exercise. These conditions often result in abnormal and self-destructive behavior, also known as “zoochosis.”

Wide-ranging animals such as bears and big cats pace incessantly. Primates and birds mutilate themselves, and chimpanzees and gorillas become overly aggressive. Hooved animals lick and chew on fences and make strange lip, neck, and tongue movements. Giraffes twist their necks, bending their heads back and forth repeatedly. Elephants bob their heads and sway from side to side.

When Cute Little Babies Grow Up

Baby animals in zoos are crowd pleasers, but breeding programs—under the guise of species preservation—inevitably result in a surplus of less “cute” adult animals. Zoos routinely trade, loan, sell, or barter adult animals they no longer want.

The exotic-pet trade has become saturated with tigers and other big cats because of the zoo industry’s reckless disposal of exotic animals. Other animals are simply sold for slaughter. Each year, when baby animals who are exhibited in the Minnesota Zoo’s farm display grow up and lose their appeal, the zoo sends them to livestock auctions, where many are ultimately sent to slaughter.

Not a single U.S. zoo has a policy of providing the animals who are born at its facilities with lifetime care, and many zoos breed species knowing in advance that the offspring—especially males—will be difficult to place when they mature.

Danger Behind Bars

By their very nature, zoos leave animals vulnerable to a variety of dangers from which they have no defense or opportunity to escape. Animals in zoos from coast to coast have been poisoned, left to starve, deprived of veterinary care, and burned to death in fires. Many have died after eating coins, plastic bags, and other items thrown into their cages. Animals have been beaten, bludgeoned, and stolen by people who were able to gain access to their exhibits.

A bear starved to death at the Toledo Zoo after zoo officials locked her up to hibernate without food or water—not knowing that her species doesn’t hibernate. At the Niabi Zoo in Illinois, a 3-month-old lion cub was euthanized after his spinal cord had been crushed by a falling exhibit door. A kangaroo who was struck by a train running through the exhibit at the Cleveland Zoo was so severely injured that she had to be euthanized—she was at least the fifth animal to be struck by the train.

In the event of natural disasters such as floods, wildfires, and hurricanes, animals are often left to fend for themselves. When wildfires broke out near the Los Angeles Zoo, officials admitted that they had no evacuation plan. And during Hurricane Katrina, most of the 6,000 aquatic animals at a New Orleans aquarium perished when the power failed and employees were forced to vacate the premises.

What You Can Do

Instead of going to the zoo, you can learn about animals by watching nature documentaries or observing animals in their own natural habitats instead. Zoos will be forced to stop breeding and capturing more animals from the wild if their financial support disappears, so the most important way to help animals who are imprisoned in zoos is simply to avoid zoos and urge everyone you know to do the same.