The Truth About Zoos – Are They Cruel?

Humanity’s relationship with animals is complex, constantly evolving and often unjust. For centuries, people have collected animals as a symbol of power and prestige, often for royal collections or public viewing within zoos. In recent history, zoos have come to represent popular tourist attractions as well as being valuable centres of education, scientific research and conservation. But just how ethical are zoos?


The Truth About Zoos – Are They Cruel?

Guest Post by Danae Kopanidis


Zoos provide a unique and exciting experience for visitors; a place to explore a plethora of animals and learn about them in a safe and secure environment. However, very few zoos are able to offer the enrichment, habitat and sensory stimulation that animals require.

This begs the question; are zoos still necessary today or have they become obsolete attractions that merely treat animals as commodities?

The world’s first zoo was established in Vienna, Austria in 1752. Since then, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) has reported that there are over 10,000 zoos worldwide. The Oxford Dictionary defines a zoo as “an establishment, which maintains a collection of wild animals, typically in a park or gardens, for study, conservation, or display to the public”. To speculate whether zoos are cruel, we need to explore two avenues; first, the role that zoos play in species conservation; and second, whether zoos are a viable habitat for all animals.


A Case Study in Zoo Conservation


Inhabiting the vast lands of South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Kenya, the black rhinoceros’ population has declined by an estimated 97.6% since 1960. According to figures published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) there are between 5,042 and 5,455 black rhinos, leaving the species critically endangered. The species has been brutally maimed and callously killed via illegal poaching, attributed to the demand for rhino horn in Chinese medicine.

Australian zoos are playing a monumental part in stabilising the black and white rhino population. While illegal rhino poaching is still rife in Africa, the Australian Rhino Project has committed to rescuing the endangered species in partnership with local zoos, in an attempt to prevent extinction. The project entails flying 80 African rhinos (over the next four years) 11,000 kms from South Africa to Australia – costing $70,000 per rhino – to establish an ‘insurance population’ and ensure the survival of the species.

The first six rhinos are expected to land on Australian soil in August this year. The objective of the project is to settle these rhinos into selected Australian zoos and establish a breeding herd of black and white rhinos, with the final aim being to reintroduce the herd back into Africa once the threat of poaching is eliminated. Such an example certainly illustrates how zoos can play a pivotal role in animal conservation and without the cooperation of Australian zoos, The Australian Rhino Project has predicted that wild rhinos will be extinct by 2024.


Is Captivity the Answer?


While zoos may be a viable habitat to conserve the endangered rhino, other species have merely perished within cages (See our article on cruellest zoos in the world, here).

The vast majority of animal species in zoos are not on the endangered list, and the ones that are endangered, will generally never be rehabilitated to their natural habitat. It is important to remember that zoos exist primarily for profit and offer little education in the way of animal behaviour. Even though most modern zoos make efforts to replicate an animals’ natural environment, most captive animals are unable to live in the way that they would naturally in the wild, and the behaviour that they exhibit in captivity is much different from their behaviour in the wild.

Another example of the tremendously harmful impact that captive environments can have on animals is the case of the orca (killer whale).

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 documentary Blackfish, propelled the issues surrounding orcas living and being bred in captivity into the spotlight. The documentary centred on the life of Tilikum the orca, who has lived in captivity 33 years at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. The documentary was a platform that brought to light how detrimental living in captivity is for the species. The orca, a mammal known for its intelligence and social nature in the wild, has been exploited by SeaWorld as a revenue raiser.

Orcas living in aquariums suffer psychological damage and their life expectancy, quality of life and fertility is greatly reduced. The size of an orca enclosure at SeaWorld has been compared to a human living out their life in a bathtub.

PETA established the SeaWorld of Hurt campaign against SeaWorld, which to date has been very successful. As an outcome of both PETa’s campaign and the Blackfish documentary, SeaWorld’s share prices plummeted, attendance and revenue dramatically nose-dived, and SeaWorld was forced to announce they would end their captive breeding program.

Profit-driven claims that aquariums are good for orcas is evidently false and malicious; living in captivity does not come anywhere close to mimicking a natural habitat for orcas. Other marine animals in captivity such as performing dolphins and seals are also likely to suffer a similar fate.

Are zoos and captive animal environments then facilitators or inhibitors of animal welfare? The question is indeed one that deserves consideration on an individual basis that recognises the diverse and differing needs of different species.

How You Can Help


1.) Boycott SeaWorld

2.) Donate to conservation projects that support wildlife in the wild (see our list of carefully selected partner charities here)

3.) Notify organisations (such as My Green World) and media outlets of unethical or cruel zoo practices

4.) Download our charity backed mobile game app, World of the Wild (click here to download)

5.) Sign up for our newsletter here

Talk to your friends. Ask them why they are visiting the zoo. Share your information and make a conscientious and informed decision on whether or not you will visit these centres.




One thought on “The Truth About Zoos – Are They Cruel?”

  1. Instead of going to the zoo, you can learn about animals by watching nature documentaries or observing the animals in their own natural habitats instead.

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