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Zoos: Good or bad?

Penguins left… gorillas right. Excuse me, but what the hell are penguins doing within walking distance of gorillas?! The simple answer is that they’re in a zoo, but the deeper question is one that has troubled me for a while.

I don’t remember a defining point in my childhood where my love of nature began. I do however, remember zoos. Losing my helium-filled animal balloons, beating off the crazed geese in the petting yard, and waiting in vain for big cats to emerge from their concrete lairs. But most of all, I remember the excitement. More than two decades later I stand outside the entrance to the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri, and a slightly altered adult excitement does battle with a looming dread in my mind. I haven’t been to a traditional zoo since very young, and the naivety of childhood is not the dense curtain that it was then. But zoos are not places of quiet to resolve inner conflicts, a current of kids sweeps me through the sliding doors and I’m in.

Zoos are places where people can have wild experiences without leaving their city.

Zoos are places where people can have wild experiences without leaving their city.

As one does when confronted by an impossible number of options, we try to take in everything, doing a random dance from one exhibit to the next, our direction dictated mainly by the desire to avoid the groups of shrieking children. I’m glad to note that my fascination is still there, and I stare at the weird and wonderful creatures from almost every environment on the planet in incredulity. I’m learning things.

An uncomfortable looking jaguar (left) evokes much excitement among a young group of boys (right).

An uncomfortable looking jaguar (left) evokes much excitement among a young group of boys (right).

But there is another very real emotion, deep sadness. A bateleur, the elegant tightrope walker of African skies, confined to a cage. The first of a number of beleaguered looking creatures far from their natural environments. Sure, keepers have made an effort with the artificial environments that support these animals, but I’m not fooled. Not all animals have a trivial “eat, sleep, reproduce” vacuum of a brain, and I would say that behaviour is a fairly accurate gauge of the mental state of a creature. And I see no behaviour that indicates that any of these animals are in a healthy frame of mind. There just isn’t enough space. Sure, many of these creatures were probably born in captivity, but how does that make it a healthier environment for them? I have had the privilege of seeing many of these same animals in the wild, and it is like observing a different species. That to me is evidence enough that much is not right here. And this is one of the top zoos in one of the most developed countries in the world.

Kids press up against the glass, fascinated by the behaviour of chimpanzees (left), while seeing caged gorillas has an impact on me, it is almost like watching caged people (right).

Kids press up against the glass, fascinated by the behaviour of chimpanzees (left), while seeing caged gorillas has an impact on me, it is almost like watching caged people (right).

On the flip side, no one can deny that zoos do good, and I don’t believe that there is anything malicious about them. They engage in research, preserve biodiversity (genetic and species) that may be threatened or at times even extinct in the wild, and they provide much needed funding for research and conservation projects across the world. However, in my opinion, all of these should be achievable in other ways. But there is one thing that zoos provide that can’t be easily found elsewhere. Inspiration, and fascination, for kids. As I walk around I can’t help but smile. There are children here, lots of them, and their enthusiasm is infectious. A kid that can barely walk waddles past, I hear him demanding “Lions, I want to see the lions!”. This is it, this is what zoos are about. In my mind there is no doubt that animals live severely compromised and unhealthy lives in zoos across the world. The bigger question is whether this is worth the experience that these kids have. Clearly there is excitement, but is it fleeting or do these kids grow up to have a positive influence on our planet because of what they have seen at a zoo? I can’t answer this, and I don’t know that anyone can. But if it is true, then it’s a very big deal. Kids are falling further and further into lives devoid of contact with nature. Maybe zoos are the only thing that can give them tangible proof that nature does exist out there, and that it is worth protecting. I do hope so, because otherwise it’s an arguably cruel source of human entertainment. And so I find myself at the exit, having carefully avoided the goose pen, with more questions than I arrived with.

monkeys at the zoo

Are painted leaves good enough?

Jeremy Goss

I’m a simple guy and know what makes me happiest - time spent in wild natural places, preferably with awesome rocks, amazing clouds and my camera. After a number of years in the eco-tourism industry in Botswana and a backpacking stint around eastern Europe and Asia, I recently completed my MSc in conservation biology. My belief is that human population expansion, the root cause of the majority of our conservation problems, will eventually peak and reverse. My goal in life is to try to make sure we still have as many natural places as possible left at that time. See a portfolio of my photographic work or like my Facebook page for more constant updates from wherever I happen to be.

  • Nikki Elliott

    Jeremy, a very well written piece and I felt your sadness, but mostly the sadness and frustration of the animals. I do not believe that zoos provide funding for research and conservation projects. I will only believe it when I see it in their financial statements. Zoos, like circuses, no longer have a place in a civilised society. In this day and age, surely, sentience can no longer be denied? Born in captivity does not mean that they no longer have natural instincts. Pet cats have been domesticated for 8000 years, and still roam and hunt – instinct! I agree with you – the vast majority of zoos are concrete prisons and the animals are locked up in hopelessly inadequate cages with no regard for their natural instincts, or the complex social or anti-social behaviour and interaction with their own, and other species in the wild. Just looking at the picture of that poor stressed jaguar – in totally unnatural surrounds and with no way to escape and hide, as it would in the wild – just breaks my heart. If children need contact with nature, take them for a hike, or let them feed the ducks and geese on a lake in a park somewhere. Leave our wildlife where they belong – in the wild – or at the very least in a reserve. Away from gawking children who can see them and learn about the REAL animal (not the locked up prisoner) via a myriad of television channels, or incredible and educational wildlife films, the internet or books! No animal should have to pay with their lives for a few minutes of fun for children or adults – ever. I say close down all zoos. If animals need to be studied or observed, or preserved, do it in their natural environment, not the environment we impose on them – they can never be what they were born to be in a concrete prison. Zoos are nothing but cruel institutions – a reflection of man’s perverse need to dominate and make money – no matter the ultimate price paid by the animals.

    • Jeremy Goss

      Thanks Nikki. I couldn’t agree more about people getting their kids out for proper contact with nature, but that takes a responsible parent for a start! What I saw at the zoo was mainly school groups, my guess is that many of those kids have parents who couldn’t care less how much interaction that child has with ‘real’ nature. I do think that seeing a live animal has the potential to make a big impact on a kid, but watching an elephant rocking back and forward in a corner made me realise that for a start zoos need to be much more responsible in picking which live animals they keep. Rudi makes the point that often zoos will take in large mammals that were living in worse conditions elsewhere (e.g. a circus), but beyond that I think that zoos need to move away from creatures that cannot lead healthy lives in captivity.

      • mary SAM Smith

        Rocking Elephants? Well Jeremy some of these elephants were probably rescued from private abusive owners and had developed neurotic behaviors before. Some elephants even in the wild like to sway back and forth. I recommend that you do more research on particulars before posting assumptions. I am curious…What “zoo” was it that you visited?

        • Jeremy Goss

          Hi Mary, good to have the opposing views of someone who has worked at a zoo. The following is with due respect, but I must respond to some of your more barbed comments.

          Firstly, just as you recommend that I do more research, I ask that you read the article carefully before making strong comments. You will read in the very first paragraph that I was visiting St Louis zoo in Missouri. I would also ask that you please check your research. The black rhino is most certainly not extinct in the wild. The WESTERN black rhino was “officially” declared extinct last week, and it is another conservation tragedy. I can’t find any evidence of western black rhino still alive in zoos, although I would have been excited if I had!

          On the education side, I am not ashamed to have none in animal behaviour, but I feel that an MSc in conservation biology and 7+ years living in wilderness areas and observing wild animals at least allows me to voice my opinion on their behaviour. I am not declaring it as gospel, this is a blog.

          On elephant behaviour, yes maybe they had been rescued, and that would be great. But maybe they hadn’t. I didn’t assume either, I just saw an animal in a less than healthy mental state. By comparing this repetitive rocking to wild elephant behaviour, I hope that you are not suggesting that stereotypic behaviour is indicative of a healthy individual?

          From reading your comments though, I can see that we both believe in the importance of conserving the natural world. I salute the work that zoos do in endangered species breeding and education. But give the animals space, and if you can’t give them the space and social interaction that they need then don’t keep them.

    • mary SAM Smith

      Uhmmm not sure which “Zoos” you are referring to but most with todays regulations are excellent ARKS. I have been a part of and witness to many endangered species release programs that have contributed to species propagation in the wild. It is the diminishing environment that is the cruelty of man. Most accredited facilities today have a great interest in preserving specie in the wild. We took on orphaned elephants after poachers killed their mom. The sanctuaries were full. Tell me Nikki…What is your solution?

  • Linda Warren

    I’m against caging animals + hate circuses . Some zoos have more natural surroundings + breeding programs to help repopulate the wild . The educational benefits help to involve people in conservation efforts . I disagree with using marine mammals like killer whales + belugas for entertainment . We’ve learned a great deal from keeping them in captivity but at what cost ? We should be turning our efforts to conserving habitat + clearing our oceans of pollution + trash ( plastics ) responsible for killing and / or injuring so many creatures .

    • Jeremy Goss

      Thanks for the comment Linda. I think that it is how zoos operate that is important. And specifically, where you keep what species. There are many species that have natural habitats and social needs that can be compatible with zoos (frogs, small mammals etc). However, these species aren’t usually the ones that attract the visitors and so it’s not easy to get zoos to give up their ‘star’ species, which are usually the ones least suited to captivity. Your last point is the most important, what is the point of an animal in a zoo if there is nowhere left for it in the wild? To me a captive population does not constitute the survival of a species unless there is somewhere to reintroduce it to.

  • Ida Jones

    This is interesting! I wrote a blog post very similar a few months ago, and returned to the issue with after hearing about Durrell Wildlife Park which I believe is what all zoos should be like.

    http://www.wildida.com/1/post/2013/08/my-struggle-with-zoos-part-two-a-zoo-that-is-good-for-wildlife.html

    Having said that I really struggle with zoos with the same mind process – it is good and educational but is it worth the stress and harm caused to animals? Overall I think not.

    • Jeremy Goss

      Hi Ida, I read your post with interest! Thank-you. We clearly have similar internal conflicts about the importance of zoos. If all zoos operated according to very high standards (as you think about the Durrell Wildlife Park) then I think they would be less controversial. Less focus on large charismatic wildlife, which are very poorly suited to zoos, and more time spent tackling real conservation challenges faced by endangered species in the wild.

    • mary SAM Smith

      Well then is it better that they suffer death a starvation in the wild?

  • Guest

    I visited Antwerp Zoo when I was 5 and I have one vivid memory of that visit: Looking at a 15 square meter cage with a wolf in it. The wolf was continuously running the same circle, down to the point that his path was already centimetres deeper than the rest of the cage floor. I remember that, minutes I entered the zoo, I started crying. I hardly knew what a wolf was, and neurotic behaviour was not something I would possibly have been able to fathom, but I felt the unhappiness of that animal.
    I know do voluntary work in a wildlife rescue centre and travel to Africa as much as I can to see wild animals in their proper environment.
    I don’t go to zoos. Yes, they may contribute by sponsoring conservation projects, but isn’t that a travesty? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that money (a lot of it tax-money) directly in conservation, or indeed (referring to what your profile says about your belief re human population expansion) in educating people, urging them to practice sound birth control and to provide them with the mean to do so?
    Do we need zoos to entice children to love and respect animals? I doubt it. How can a place that is the exact opposite of being respectful to a wild animal, be a good start for that?
    The rescue centre that I work at needs zoos, occassionally, because they – every now and then – will take on wild exotic animals seized from circusses or individual owners, that cannot be put back in their natural environment. Zoos offer a sanctuary that is not as bad as where these animals came from. So yes, for the time being we need zoos, if only to host animals that we, human beings, were treating even worse than simply locking them up for life.

    • mary SAM Smith

      Zoos have come a long way since you were 5

  • Rudi Strubbe

    I visited Antwerp Zoo when I was 5 and I have one vivid memory of that
    visit: Looking at a 15 square meter cage with a wolf in it. The wolf was
    continuously running the same circle, down to the point that his path
    was already centimetres deeper than the rest of the cage floor. I
    remember that, minutes after I entered the zoo, I started crying. I hardly
    knew what a wolf was, and neurotic behaviour was not something I would
    possibly have been able to fathom, but I felt the unhappiness of that
    animal.
    I know do voluntary work in a wildlife rescue centre and
    travel to Africa as much as I can to see wild animals in their proper
    environment.
    I don’t go to zoos. Yes, they may contribute by
    sponsoring conservation projects, but isn’t that a travesty? Wouldn’t it
    be better to spend that money (a lot of it tax-money) directly in
    conservation, or indeed (referring to what your profile says about your
    belief re human population expansion) in educating people, urging them
    to practice sound birth control and to provide them with the mean to do
    so?
    Do we need zoos to entice children to love and respect animals? I
    doubt it. How can a place that is the exact opposite of being
    respectful to a wild animal, be a good start for that?
    The rescue
    centre that I work at needs zoos, occassionally, because they – every
    now and then – will take on wild exotic animals seized from circusses or
    individual owners, that cannot be put back in their natural
    environment. Zoos offer a sanctuary that is not as bad as where these
    animals came from. So yes, for the time being we need zoos, if only to
    host animals that we, human beings, were treating even worse than simply
    locking them up for life.

    • Jeremy Goss

      Thanks for the comment Rudi. Your childhood story of the Antwerp Zoo is interesting because it is so different to what I saw of children during my recent zoo visit. I’m not sure how many children have that sort of empathy so young. I think that love and respect for nature and animals comes with time, and begins with interest. So I don’t think that starting at zoos defines anyone’s long term relationship with animals, but they may provide the spark needed. But as you say, I don’t understand how anyone with any sort of connection with other life forms can enjoy seeing them caged.

      On the conservation funding side, I would actually love to know how much of zoos’ costs are government subsidised and how much comes from entrance fees, etc. If it is tax-money then yes, I think that there would be a very strong case for spending that money elsewhere, but if it comes mainly from public spending at zoos then I don’t think that money would be going into conservation otherwise.

      Wouldn’t it be nice if we had less need for zoos in the future as opposed to more?!

    • Ana Cruz

      Agree with you, of course a living creature is to be free but ins’t or aren’t the zoos a way to protect species in danger? It can be a hope yes so I guess!

      • Rudi Strubbe

        Hello Ana,
        The conservation of species seems indeed a strong argument. But there are some question marks here:
        1. To what extent do zoos effectively get involved in conservation effort and to what extent is it a mere façade? Is thee a genuine drive to preserve or a commercial drive to keep and breed with rare species?
        2. Most of the animals that are part of the so called conservation efforts of zoos will never leave the zoo if not to go and breed at another zoo. The descendants of these animals will do no different. So if tomorrow the black rhino vanishes from the wild, we may still have black rhino in zoos. But what’s the point? Those remaining rhinos will be relics in a museum, every generation even less fit to live a natural life than the preceding generation. It boils down to keeping alive in eternal boredom an animal that resembles the animal you could once admire in the African bush. Isn’t that the ultimate cruelty?

        This being said, there are zoos that work hard in terms of true conservation. Zoos that do work in the filed and that are involved in releasing animals back into the wild. If this cannot be achieved without the zoo displaying wild animals in cages, then that is a sad fact, but a fact it is. So we may have to live with zoos a bit longer, but let’s invest efforts then in identifying those zoos that do contribute and in setting up stringent rules such that not any animal can be held in a zoo (no elephants!) and that those poor creatures that are needed to entice zoo-visitors to spend money that will be used in conservation, are kept in the best conceivable circumstances. And let’s hope that some day human beings will be able to recognise that they have no right to jail another species for the fun of it…

        • Ana Cruz

          Hi Rudy, thank you for your argument, I am absolutely agree with you, as I said “all living creatures on earth have born to be free and NOT closed in cages” but Rudy, how to find the solution to keep them free on their natural habitat without being disturbed by the most dangerous predator???!!! Believe me, as a deeply Nature and Animal lover as I am, I feel hurted with all of what’s going around with the endangered species, I feel as if I were them …… so where the solution to keep them save?! where the solution to STOP this destrution?! We are “to small” Rudy, and when there are some “bigs” in place to fight against the animal rights or animals defence or even Nature protection, their are enjailed or even killed by “governments”, what is really a sadness, we should be more in this battle but how?!

          • Rudi Strubbe

            Hi Ana, That is the most difficult question in the world … I try to live the words of William the Taciturn: “You don’t need hope to try, nor success to persevere”. We should not be afraid to speak up, again and again and again … If you look around you, you will see that there are others speaking up as well. You will find out that there are many more who feel the same way about trophy hunters, ivory collectors and pseudo-healers prescribing rhino horn. Look at what is happening in China, where the Chinese are speaking up against cruelty to animals. We won’t save every single lion from being shot, but we may save many to come. We may be too late for some species, but we will help creating a better world for others. Some day, mankind will live up to the promise of being kind, but it is up to us to kick it off…
            Let’s not be blind: the wild is not heaven. The lion not shot by the human psychopath today may get killed by buffalo tomorrow. But that is what nature is all about. We have banned nature from within our cities, within our lives. We should ban ourselves from wanting to be more than harmless spectators to nature.
            That is me, that is my philosophy. That is what I preach.

          • mary SAM Smith

            My though on burning ivory and other pseudohealers is that it only increases its value. I think it ought to be just given away. …This makes it much less valuable

        • mary SAM Smith

          I am offended at your reference as a Zoo to jail. Yes there are facilities that should not be open but most (accredited) Zoos have great facilities for their inhabitants. unfortunately it is are an evil necessity due to environmental decline and pollution. I really don’t like all this negative feedback without better research. Elephants in captivity or extinct? The Black Rhino is now only alive in Captivity. Due to human ignorance and hunting they will no longer be safe in the wild so do we just let them all die? Untill we get rid of evil poaching and ignorance, they are better off captive. Most zoos try to maintain genetic records to keep the gene pool strong enough to continue propagation.
          We did that with the wolf in America. Their populations have increased tremendously much to the dislike of the famers. Hopefully, other species can be re-introduced thru careful selection in a well managed Zoo program

          • Rudi Strubbe

            Mary Sam Smith, where do I begin?

            I refer to zoos as jails by lack of anything else coming close. But you are right, there is a difference – the inmates in a true jail are at least supposed to have done something terrible to get life imprisonment, animals in a zoo thank that treatment to our lust for entertainment. Name me one reason that justifies incarceration of one who is innocent… How would you feel being the kept rather than the keeper?

            You make it sound as if zoos alone have stopped a number of species from going extinct, which is far away from the truth. Black rhinos are – fortunately still alive outside zoos. You can argue to what extent life in a reserve is akin to living in the wild or not, but if the territory is sufficiently large, then I would argue that at the very least it is far from resembling a zoo. It cannot be denied that some zoos do play a part in conservation efforts. Others are mainly interested in breeding animals that sell well, such as cheetahs, not for release in the wild, but to sell to private zoos etc. The practices they use are those of the canned hunting industry, i.e. taking away cubs (telling visitors the poor creatures were rejected by the mother) such that the cubs become very used to human interaction and the mother is immediately ready again for a new litter…

            I saw in one of your reactions to another contribution that you claim “rocking” elephants were probably rescued from “private abusive owners”. That could be the case, but the insinuation that “genuine” zoo elephants do not develop neurotic behaviour is a lie. That is why in some civilised countries, keeping elephants in zoos has been prohibited.

            Zoos are an evil that we do to other creatures, who deserve to be free. That there are zoos who do contribute to conservation of wildlife is good, but given the terrible impact we, humans, have on our environment, conservation is a duty that should not be a side-effect of the abuse that goes on in zoos.

            What I particularly dislike is the argument that there is an evil world outside (that we can do nothing about) which makes it fortunate for wildlife that there are zoos. Zoos have long been part of that cruel world and still are, to the extent that capture from the wild is still happening. And how could the worse evil make the lesser (?) evil good? Fact is that we are a cruel species and we ought to be using our tremendous brain-power to curb our cruelty, greed and unstoppable urge to procreate, rather than to seek relief in looking at caged animals.

            Zoos help us to re-allocate abused circus-animals. The rescue centre that I work with does collaborate with some zoos that we trust for the re-homing of circus-animals etc. That is because there is no perfect solution for animals born in captivity and if a decent zoo offers conditions that are acceptable, we gladly use their help in improving that animal’s situation. It doesn’t work for every animal and certainly not for every zoo, but somethings we achieve an excellent outcome. But it doesn’t take away the fact that zoos are a place of cruelty. We need those few good zoos, because there is nothing else. Because there are plenty of animals still worse off in circuses and private collections. Because, here again, reducing the suffering is at least one thing we can do.

            Regards

            RS

          • mary SAM Smith

            Where in the world are you located Rudi? I am sorry that you have had such a bad experience with the Zoological facilities you refer to . I know there are bad captive conditions out there but most are not horrible. Here in the U.S. we have extreme regulations to provide proper care and space for animals in any captive situation. it is impossible to keep up with every facility of course but the effort is always at work.
            Yes, It is unfortunate that we have to cage animals to keep them from harm by humans! Educating the youth is the only way to extend an opportunity for the future of species. One of the main priorities of accredited facilities. I don’t know of any “accredited” facility that sells animals to the public or private sector here in the U.S. Most of us who work in the modern Zoological environment love the animals we care for. We provide them with aa normal environment as possible. We try to give them normal/natural stimuli as they would have in the wild. Some endangered species are often kept out of public view. Often native animals are returned to the wild. Animals that are raised in captivity don’t know anything different Rudi. They don’t have reasoning abilities like humans. Most are content to eat, sleep, breed, and poop.
            I feel like I am hearing the words of someone form 50 yrs ago when things” were” barbaric in the zoo industry. Most facilities have regulations to abide by and have come along way since then. Really odd that you prefer their death/extinction instead of captivity in an effort to restore populations in the wild. A Catch 22 I guess, Damned both ways and it is a shame. You definitely have a narrowed perspective on the overall vision that most Zoos have.
            I don’t know where you get your information, but last week the Black Rhino was declared extinct in the wild. If it were not for the current captive populations, they would be gone entirely. If their environment would become safe, perhaps they can be re-introduced. I had a friend who worked the last 30 yrs trying to establish wild programs To his defeat, the ignorance of poachers, money, and the like, won this war for the moment.
            Tell ya what Rudi, you get rid of all those idiots killing the creatures in the wild and destroying their habitat, then zoos will put the animals back where they belong. Working together on this effort would be the most logical process. With all due respect Please don’t categorize all facilities as bad. There are some very legitimate fantastic facilities and keepers who want the best future and preferably freedom for the animals in their charge.

          • Rudi Strubbe

            Mary SAM Smith,

            I live in Belgium and I work close to one of the world’s oldest zoos. I actually have a right to go there for lunch if I like, but I’ve given up trying that. By the time I get to the restaurant, my hunger has gone. I’m sure thought that this zoo ranks amongst the “good” ones. They spend a lot of effort in conservation and they are proud of the enrichment they offer some of the animals. but the 19th century cages that are still in use for some of the big cats make me go ballistic up to the point of wanting to shout some sense and decency into the heads of the keepers!

            Mind you, that is not the zoo that is selling to private zoos etc.(at least not to my knowledge).

            You make it sound all very reasonable, and yet, in expressing the needs of captive animals, I sense a level of disrespect so typical at zoos: “Most are content to eat, sleep, breed, and poop” so why bother, hugh? Actually, same could be said about most people standing outside the cages, gaping at the animals… And it is true, they have never known anything else because we, humans had them bred and born in a situation that was intended to deprive them of the life they should have had.To you it seems normal that you have e.g. a cheetah that will never run full speed till exhaustion, a handful of elephants that will never have the sensation of walking 30 km behind the matriarch to find fresh grass and water, nor the fun of the whole lot of them playing around in the mud. To me, that is cruelty…

            By the way, you should get your facts right. The species declared extinct was the Western Black Rhino, a subspecies predominantly resident (used to be) in and around Cameroon. The black rhino population is threatened, but they are still around. I don’t know if there are many Western Black rhinos in zoos but if there are, it would be refreshing to learn about concrete plans to re-introduce the species in a safe (against man) but wild environment. Without such concrete plans at hand, the whole “conservation-blabla” is just that, hot air spilled to lure the animal-loving spectator.

            This brings me to the last point, where you suggest that “you get rid of all those idiots killing the creatures in the wild and
            destroying their habitat, then zoos will put the animals back where they belong”. I surely wish I could meet that target from my end. I am quite convinced though that even if all gun-slinging idiots were eradicated from the bush, I’d find zoos incapable or unwilling or both to meet their part of the deal …

            Actually, I’d rather put my money (and I am doing a lot of that, believe me) in protecting the animals still roaming in the wild and a lot of energy in fighting everything and everyone that wants those animals dead against their walls, dead in some mysterious potion or imprisoned for the fun of it. And as for the gun-slinging idiots, you do realise that the majority of those come from the US, don’t you?
            Cheers
            RS

          • mary SAM Smith

            I wish you both (Jeremy too) could visit the Fossil Rim Wildlife facility in Glenrose, Texas. I think if you saw this place, you might have a different perspective on advanced Zoological Institutions. The Animals there are provided with thousands of acreage to roam. Also the San Diego Wild Animal Park is one of the better facilities. Both are leading many endangered propagation programs. I have empathy and I too wish all could be free. I have been involved in many successful release programs. My statements about “most” animal’s goals in life are just a realistic point of view.

          • Jeremy Goss

            Now that sounds like the sort out place that all zoos should aim to be! I have been referring to the ones that fall far short of institutions such as you describe, and I would be very interested to visit places that do that sort of work. One day.

            I think that our biggest problem in debating zoos here is that we are comparing apples with oranges. We all have a different picture in our mind of what a zoo is. But there is no such thing as a typical zoo, they range hugely. So at the risk of sounding like a cliched peacemaker, we may all be right. That’s my final say, thanks for the thoughts..

  • des

    Most zoos are sad sad places.

    • sinjo

      how?

  • Kari Underhill

    Great article Jeremy, congrats! There is no replacement for wild, as we know.

    • Jeremy Goss

      Thanks Kari!

  • Jill Robinson

    I grew up in the Serengeti but have moved to Canada. In an effort to get my Grandkids interested in Wildlife, I took them to African Lion Safari Park last summer and then to the Toronto Zoo this summer. The first was probably between a zoo and a very small sanctuary. The lions didn’t really have a large enough space (but more than a zoo) and couldn’t really get away from humans. The Cheetah could hide – and did. The zoo was actually quite nice – but the elephant – well thank goodness they are now in a sanctuary in California. The single hippo was a sad sight, swimming in circles in a very small pond. All in all – the kids didn’t react the way I expected, it was just a day out for them. Next year we will take them back to Africa to see the real world of wildlife – there is nothing quite like it and I miss it. Africa is in my soul.

    • Jeremy Goss

      It’s true, when you see an animal outside of it’s environment you lose all the context of it’s existence. A lion roar heard from within a zoo is just not the same thing as a lion roar heard in the bush. Maybe your grandkids picked up on this, what a privilege to be able to bring them to see the real thing!

    • mary SAM Smith

      That Sanctuary you refer to in California has a lot of illness etc…
      it would have been better for them to go to the one in Florida. You know nobody ever complains about the domestic animals such as horses who are kept in a 12×12 stall on the circuit runs and develop neurotic behaviors. You guys are looking for miracles in humanity that just aren’t going to happen until people are introduced to and have empathy for the animals enough to stop the madness in environmental destruction/overpopulation. We will still have to manage it

    • mary SAM Smith

      Children don’t remember or appreciate too much until they are pass the age of 6 LOL

      • sinjo

        are you sure about that?

  • Sam

    I don’t think that anybody who has a passion for wildlife and conservation ‘like’ zoos, and I certainly think that many zoos (particularly ones outside of the Western world) are quite terrible. To say that they don’t have a place in the modern world is wrong though, especially as we continue to destroy habitats. There have been a number of success stories with saving species from the brink of extinction and releasing them back into the wild (the Arabian Oryx, for instance) that just would not have been possible without such facilities. Zoos provide us with the opportunity to research behaviours and physiology that can be applied to conservation efforts in the wild, provide us with the the samples needed for a ‘frozen zoo’, and-most importantly- provide education about conservation issues the next generation. Zoos are a poor substitute for all the changes that need to be made (i.e. stricter hunting laws, eradication of poaching, human population control etc) but they provide a good fall back until we can see the change that the world needs.

    GOOD zoos- with a focus on education, research and conservation- have a place in our world more than ever.

    It’s also worth noting that very few zoos (I know of none of the top of my head) receive money from the government- they are almost always self funded and rely on donations.

    • Jeremy Goss

      Thanks Sam. Two important things you’ve got there. Firstly, I would completely agree that a GOOD zoo can be an incredibly important tool for conservation and particularly education. But how many zoos would qualify as good? I think that if more zoos stuck to a strict set of standards then there would be far fewer people against them.

      The second thing is about zoo funding. If you are right, then the money that zoos are putting into conservation would not be getting there otherwise, and this is hugely valuable to an ‘industry’ (for want of a better word) that is severely underfunded.

  • Sandy

    I hear a lot of negative comments about zoos. I believe that zoos and keepers do the best that they can. I agree to a degree that some zoos don’t have the proper space or conditions for certain animals, but maybe it’s the best they could do at that moment. Who knows, it may even be a temporary holding spot until they’re moved. No one actually knows what’s going on with or in the zoo unless you work there. As for the visiting nature and animals, most people don’t have the money or the means to travel to Africa to see lions in the wild, or Alaska to see polar bears, or Russia to see tigers. A lot of these animals are critically endangered and maybe zoos are the only way to really save them. With poachers and other trophy hunters out there, we’ll lose these wonderful creatures forever. I can’t imagine not having a zoo or being able to go to a zoo. It’s an experience that some people will never get to have. For me, no, I don’t like to see them caged up, but I can say that I’d rather see them safe in a zoo than out being hunted and killed. At least with a zoo, there’s somewhere to go to see animals you may not otherwise see. I had rather see them in a zoo than to see them extinct. That’s all.

  • Sandy

    I will also say that, yes, I’d prefer to see them in the wild. I’d love to see them released to the wild, but it just may not be possible for some to be released. We don’t know what’s going on or why these decisions are made exactly. We should just hope for the best and not make assumptions about things we don’t truly know all the details about.

    • Jeremy Goss

      Thanks for the comment Sandy. What you say is true, and I wrote this with a very real appreciation that I have not spent any time in the inner workings of a zoo. I wanted to convey my personal feelings based on my experiences with some of these animals in their natural environments. But I do believe that we need to question everything that we see in the world, because the world is built by humans, and humans are amazing but very flawed animals..

      • mary SAM Smith

        I don’t think you should have written such an opinionated article until you studied both sides of the story! That is not good journalism

  • Jan Koedam

    In my opinion we face a dilemma that needs very careful consideration before judging on. During my life I have visited hundreds if not thousands of zoos and at the same time I tried to spend as much time in and on nature as possible. In no way one was substitute for the other. Obviously, one easily recognizes that there are bad and better zoos and the example referred to here, the Antwerp Zoo, would not qualify as a better one in my opinion. I think it is very important in this discussion to make sure you make a decsion or have an opinion based on the principle of a zoo rather than on any particular example, be it good or bad. To be able to make an opinion one has to understand the main purpose of a zoo and decide whether that validates their existence. It would take too much time and place for a complete dissertation on the purpose of zoos, but in my opinion their main purpose is education. I’m well aware that most zoos advertise their existence in terms of conservation and reintroduction but the truth is that one does not really need a zoo for that. The role of education, in my opinion, cannot easily be taken by other entities. It is true that one can educate people/children through TV, school and textbooks, but in the last decades we have come to learn that one understands best when one is presented with live examples. This is the main reason why education at schools and universities is no longer typical and classical with a one/way directed education of teacher towards scholar, but much more with interaction. So, ideally one should be confronted with or even engulfed by nature/wildlife personally, but I think we all realize that it is impossible for most people to regularly visit the African Savannah or the Tropical rainforests. It would even be desastrous for these ecosystems if we all would visit them all of a sudden! Luckily I have been fortunate enough to visit many beautiful places all over the earth and I have seen spectacular wildlife, but in all honesty, the next thing that comes (a little bit, I have to be honest,) close to that is seeing animals in zoos and to be able to see them in real life and to be able to smell them and almost touch them. If done in a respectful and responsible way, these animals become ambassadors for their species. Naturally, one may challenge my position in this, but I feel strenghtened by both the earlier enthusiasm and awe from children that was earlier described as well as personal experiences here. Maybe just as a finalising anecdote: I once visited the inside Gorilla enclosure of a German zoo. The dominant silverback was leaning towards the wall about 3 meter from the glass wall that separated him from a rather annoying father from a family that was clearly trying to impress his kids by making a fool of the silverback by gestures and sounds. Until…… the silverback jumbed towards the window and banged on it with full force in a display of non-acceptance of the behaviour. The man scared so much that he jumped at least a meter in the sky and ran backwards faling over a small barrier. Afterwards he mumbled never to have realized that they were so big, strong and fast. He had seen many nature documentaries, but never did he realize the true force and power this animal was capable of. It also shows, by the way, that there is an awfull lot of education needed as unfortunately this is in no way uncommon behaviour at zoos. My point here: not TV but the real life experience wil bring both the respect and love for animals in most of the population and it is clear that mankind has a tendency to only protect what he loves, respects and feels close to him. So, one can only protect what one really loves and understands and in y opinion Zoos can and should play a major role in this. That does not mean however, that there is not an enormous lot to be improved. As of yet I still have to visit the zoo that I feel relatively comfortably with in its entirity. Therefore, I hope that ongoing improvements will continue to ensure that zoos can truly serve as a portal towards protection of species and habitats as the truth is and will remain that there is no substitute for animals in their true natural environment!

    • Jeremy Goss

      Lots of thought in this Jan! I agree with you that you need to define whether you are debating the principle of zoos, or specific examples of them. But how do we define a zoo? At what point does a zoo become a wildlife park, then a wildlife ‘estate’, then a fenced in reserve? In all examples the animals are essentially caged and captive, and so the principle is exactly the same. However, what does differ hugely is the conditions that the animals are held captive under, and the big one here for me is the size of the enclosure. Maybe it’s time for some worldwide standards (maybe there are already??) on what animals can and can’t be kept in a zoo, and what their minimal requirements are in terms of space and ‘social’ interaction with other animals of their species.

      • mary SAM Smith

        Jeremy this has/is an ongoing discussion in the “Zoo World” always trying to improve standards, but there is only so much money and so much space.

      • Jan Koedam

        For me it is at first about the principle as only once one agrees on the acceptance of a zoo in principle one can start about prerequisites and/or conditions under which once could accept a zoo. If the main task for a zoo is education about wildlife, in my opinion a zoo should strive for enclosures that do as much justice to the animals as is reasonably possible whilst not loosing the educational aspect. With this I mean that it is of no use to keep animals in really huge enclosures that go beyond the currently known wildlife parks and estates. If thechance or really seeing an animal becomes too small, the public will stop visiting. Here in holland we have a wildlife park that keeps a number of endangered Eurasian species like wisent and pater David deer. The enclosures are natural and very functional but also so big that often animals are not to be seen at all. Visit numbers of the park are quite low with many comments on the fact that there are no animals to be seen. This again shows the compromise one is confronted with in designing a “good” zoo! By now I have visited hundreds of different zoos all over EUrope and The States and unfortunately I cannot say I saw the perfect one or even one that came close. Where in Europe space is often an issue, in the US (in my opinion) the entertainment factor is downplaying the main purpose of zoos. On the spcies to be kept we are facing other dilemma’s that may be tough to deal with. It will be very difficult to commercialise a zoo without a number of key species that will attract the Audience needed. Without lions, tigers, elephant en giraffe a zoo will face tough times unfortunately. One odd contradiction I always find the birds of prey aviaries. Until the sixties birds of prey and owls were kept in small cages where they could hardly spread their wings. Recently huge aviaries were created in which these animals (to some extend) could even fly. However, this hardly ever occurs! Why? These animals are build to gather prey with the least effort possible. If food is presented by staff, there is hardly any reason to fly and as a consequence they just keep sitting on their rocks and branches. It just proves that it is really extremely complicated to create the real optimal zoo and I’m afraid we will need to accept this and strive for reasonable solutions while knowing we actually “sacrifice” some animal individuals for the sake of so much needed education that will benefit the entire species/population.

  • Tanya

    Excellent discussion on a very difficult subject. I too am deeply conflicted. One suggestion I’ve heard would be for zoos to be places for injured animals that cannot survive in the wild. Particularly if the animals were injured or orphaned due to human behavior this could be the “teachable moment”.

    • Jeremy Goss

      It’s a good suggestion, to make zoos more like rehabilitation centres where the main goal is to rehabilitate and release animals back into the wild, but where an animal cannot be released then it can be kept in humane and healthy conditions for the education of many of those people who will never see it in the wild..

      • mary SAM Smith

        Well guys most Zoos are like that. But we are going to have to put efforts into cleaning up the “wilds” before most can inhabit it again

  • Ana Cruz

    Well, all living creatures on earth born to be free on their respectives habitat, but actualy, Zoos keeping animals “closed” can help saving a lot of species in danger maybe is one of a “positive” way to protect what Human is destroing! So I guess!

  • Robyn Hartley

    Well written Jeremy – sentiments that I struggle with every day working in the conservation field and trying to figure out what measures we can go to to “preserve” nature without removing all that is natural about it.

    • Jeremy Goss

      Thanks Robyn, I think that’s something we are going to have to think about more and more. The more I think and learn about conservation, the more I discover paradoxes that challenge my previously firm beliefs.. Nothing simple about it!

  • mary SAM Smith

    Jeremy, I can sympathize with your concerns here, but if it were not for your exposure to animals in a Zoo while you were young, you might not have these same interests or concerns. The Zoo is an excellent educational tool. Most keepers feel the same as you. Unfortunately, the entertainment aspects have become an evil necessity in providing revenue for the care of these magnificent animals. Most accredited facilities have made tremendous efforts to expand enclosures to provide more natural boundaries. As a former Zoo employee and Keeper, I am proud of the many species that have been saved from the extinction list thru captive well managed breeding programs in the zoo. I see an accredited institution as a modern day ARK. Educating people who have no respect for or knowledge of nature is the only way to develop a concern for our environment and better understanding of the animals that inhabit it. The natural environment for many captive animals has been destroyed or damaged so that there is no other choice.

  • mary SAM Smith

    oh yeah…That jaguar in the picture ? Uncomfortable? He looks like he is snoozing to me. That look on his face appears the same as my house cat while he is laying in the chair. If that Jaguar was so upset, I guarantee you he would have his back to all and his head tucked or he would be hiding in the bushes…Now what kind of animal behavior educational background do you have?

  • lydia

    i like zoo bacuse they egicat use and we can can see a lot of animals we don’t see every day . but I don’t like zoo because they hurt animals by killing them and people throw things at the animals . and burr beer on the animals.

  • zooperson

    The only thing they throw at the animals is food and they do not kill the animals unless the animal is going to harm a human. Let that harambe stuff go.

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