I was vegan for a long time before I made my mind up about zoos. And that’s the case for a lot of other vegans I know. Here’s why.
Why I loved zoos
Animals are so darn wonderful. Practically everyone loves to observe animals up close, and those experiences can be some of the most memorable, funniest, or most profound moments of our lives. As a kid I loved to go to the zoo, which was a magical and wonderful place to me. I remember the creatures I met there so fondly that they feel like old friends. (Big shout out to you, beloved Mr. tawny frogmouth!)
But even back then, I sensed inklings of something going on below this surface of wonder and merriment. When I finally got to go to Sea World — which I had been anticipating with every ounce of longing in my kid-sized heart — there were people standing outside the windows holding signs and chanting. Sometimes at the zoo, animals would do something strange, or repetitive, or look really sad. When new animals arrived, I wondered where they had come from, and where the animals who lived in the exhibit before them had gone. When the movie “Free Willy” came out, it seemed pretty obvious to side with the kid trying to free Willy, rather than the park owners who had detained him to use for profit.
These notions trickled in at the edges of my awareness, but with all my being I wanted to believe that zoos were a good thing, because I so enjoyed going there and getting to see the animals. If I found out that zoos were bad, would I have to give up seeing the animals? That would be horrible. So whenever there were plaques at the zoo talking about the zoo’s conservation efforts, or a species they were helping save from extinction, I clung to these narratives tightly, because they gave me a justification to ignore the problems I had seen.
Some issues with zoos
So, when I decided to take an active role in assessing the effects of my choices on other beings, I tabled the zoo question for a long time. I worked my way through other things first, from dairy, to eggs, to leather, to animal testing, before I finally decided to confront this issue.
It was an extremely difficult issue for me personally, which is why I kept putting it off for so long. So if someone is considering making more animal-friendly choices, but could never imagine giving up zoos, I’d encourage that person to go ahead and do what feels approachable, and not to worry about the zoo thing. This isn’t all-or-nothing, and every single choice that someone makes in their life to reduce harm helps.
But, I still owe you an answer to the question. Certainly not everyone ‘ends up’ where I ended up on this issue, regardless of whether they’re vegan or non-vegan; however, I can talk a bit about what I learned and how I decided to move forward.
Raising the bar
As a society, we’ve been consistently raising the bar over time with regard to the treatment of captive animals. For the most part, zoos have replaced their cement pens with more enriching environments. And many of the animal entertainments that were commonplace in my childhood are now considered inhumane. Major circuses are retiring their elephants, and Sea World is ending its orca shows. Several of the ways in which the zoos I visited as a kid “used” animals are no longer considered ok: I remember taking an elephant ride at the zoo (not cool anymore) and swimming with captive dolphins (not cool anymore, either).
While I had a great time participating in those experiences back then, I also didn’t know that I was contributing to the stress of — and potentially harming — the animals that I had come there to visit. As a kid, you’re taught that it’s appropriate to interact with different animals in different ways: dogs are ok to keep in homes and to touch. Great blue herons live in the wild, and you should be careful not to get too close and scare them. Elephants are ok to keep in zoos, and you can ride around on them if you want.
After learning more about the impacts of captivity on animals in zoos, I, and to some extent society at large, have revisited many of these narratives about what is “ok” to do to animals for human entertainment.
The money problem
Zoos are, first and foremost, businesses who are seeking to expand their operations and increase revenues.
Certainly, often times this goal can dovetail with good treatment of captive animals. After all, if problems occur with the animals, then the zoo may get bad press and lose money.
But when you have a business where animals are kept for human entertainment and are the main source of earnings for the company, no matter how meticulous the organization is about animal welfare, the profitability of an animal will always be a component of their choices. Marius the giraffe was a recent particularly unwelcome reminder of this, but the trading of “surplus” or unprofitable animals into poorer circumstances (and even sometimes killing them) is a common practice for zoos and is approved by the international zoo ethics body, as discussed below. Zoos have expertly employed “happywashing” to downplay this and other questionable aspects of their operations.
Zoos want us to think that their animals are happy, and better off living at the zoo, because there are dire financial consequences when the tide of public opinion starts to turn.
To help perpetuate the happiness narrative, zoos are big-time “happywashers” (a phenomenon discussed elsewhere on this wiki). There are a few different vectors along which this happywashing plays out:
Many people who are concerned about the well-being of animals in zoos will intentionally choose to only frequent zoos that are accredited by the AZA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA has a set of standards that institutions must meet in order to be accredited, including stipulations about zoos’ habitats and the health and nutrition of their animals. In the US, of the 2,400 "animal exhibitors" licensed by the Department of Agriculture, only 212 of them are members of the AZA. So it is a pretty elite group, in the scheme of things.
However, the AZA is an organization created by zoos, for zoos — and as you can imagine, relying upon an industry to police itself can leave a lot to be desired.
While zoos are technically “not-for-profit” organizations, that doesn’t mean they’re bare-bones operations that can barely rub two pennies together. For instance, the San Diego Zoo is one of the richest charities in the region: it has more than $545 million in total assets, the CEO makes about a million bucks a year, and they shelled out $7.1 million in one year alone for their fundraising campaign. Make no mistake — most zoos who can pass AZA accreditation are big-time, slick businesses, who are very concerned about their margins and continuing to increase revenue. (More info here.)
The AZA has been around since 1924, but AZA-accredited zoos continued to support poaching by purchasing endangered species from the wild up until the 1970s, when Congress decided to institute reforms to combat poaching. As a result, there are now rules against buying endangered animals, which AZA zoos have extended to non-endangered species as well. While this has helped with poaching, it still creates a pretty creepy dynamic among zoos. Basically, rather than buying the animals, instead zoos will breed them and pass them around, kind of like baseball cards. Cute baby animals are extremely valuable, whereas zoos will often try to get rid of older, less “interesting” animals that don’t draw as many visitors. If a zoo needs to get rid of an animal to free up room/resources for a new exhibit, they’ll send it away to some other zoo. And if an animal is too genetically similar to existing zoo ‘stock’ to be valuable for breeding, then it will often be killed, like Marius the giraffe was. For a look into the mechanics of this animal bartering/exhanging economy, check out this podcast. The vast majority of this breeding, trading, and culling is done with animals who are not endangered, for the purpose of making the zoos more money (more on that below).
In short: the warm fuzzies that people would hope for from a non-profit or an AZA accreditation don’t necessarily line up with the reality. Sea World was AZA-accredited when Blackfish came out and shocked the world, and it remains accredited by the AZA to this day. If you weren’t a fan of what you saw in Blackfish, you shouldn’t take AZA accreditation as a reliable indicator of animal welfare.
Marketing materials for zoos will make a big fuss about their conservation efforts, but in fact conservation typically makes up just a tiny slice of a zoo’s resources and expenditures. Most AZA-accredited zoos only spend about 3% of their budgets on conservation efforts (with most unaccredited zoos spending nothing at all). And from a reintroduction perspective: in the last hundred years, only 16 of 145 animal reintroduction programs worldwide ever actually restored any animal populations to the wild, and of those, most were carried out by government agencies, not zoos. (More info here.) For instance, if you’re a fan of the cute pictures of cuddly piles of baby pandas being bred in captivity, sadly the reality is far more problematic.
Previously I had felt like my admission fee to the zoo was basically akin to contributing to a conservation organization. But in reality I would’ve gotten much more bang for my conservation buck by donating directly to a dedicated conservation organization, or visiting a facility that was more devoted to conservation than zoos are, rather than relying on my money to trickle down through an institution whose resources are predominantly used for other purposes.
Zoos are often billed as important resources for endangered species. However, this is misleading. The endangered species being bred in captivity and traded among zoos are typically unreleasable into the wild (see here and here). So if you’re concerned about dwindling wild populations of endangered species, zoos are not likely to provide the solution. At best, they could someday serve as elaborate museums for some remaining individuals of a species, after all their cohort have died in the wild.
Accordingly, many people argue that our resources would be better spent protecting these species in their native habitat, rather than spending large sums on fancy zoos:
When London Zoo spent £5.3 million on a new gorilla enclosure, the chief consultant to the UN Great Ape Survival Project said he was uneasy at the mismatch between lavish spending at zoos and the scarcity of resources available for conserving threatened species in the wild. “Five million pounds for three gorillas when national parks are seeing that number killed every day for want of some Land Rovers and trained men and anti-poaching patrols. It must be very frustrating for the warden of a national park to see”. [More info.]
Endangered species only account for a tiny sliver of zoo breeding, and the vast majority of breeding is aimed at increasing or sustaining the number of captive zoo animals (for the bartering economy discussed above), not helping animals in the wild. If you’re concerned about endangered species, there are many more direct and effective ways to contribute to their protection, including: supporting wildlife refuges and land conservation programs, making the area around your home friendly to wildlife, and avoiding overconsumption. (More info here.) Another everyday thing we can do is to stop buying products that contain palm oil, whose cultivation is currently threatening the habitat of a vast number of endangered species.
Zoos aren’t evil, just problematic
But I certainly don’t believe that zoos are 100% bad, or that none of their programs are beneficial.
I don’t think that zoos have to go away completely, but I do think that they need to evolve. Just as zoos have upgraded their cement pens, and have eliminated the more invasive entertainments like elephant rides and trained orca shows, I hope they continue to bow to increasing public pressure about the welfare of their animals. Zoos of today are unrecognizable compared to the zoos of the twentieth century, and I think it’s possible that zoos of the future will evolve into a new, better form as well.
We’ve seen precedents for how industries that rely on animals as revenue sources can make positive changes: recently California passed a bill mandating that pet stores can only sell rescue cats and dogs, in the face of mounting public sentiment in favor of adopting pets rather than buying them from puppy or kitty mills.
Zoos could certainly undergo a similar pivot in the face of public pressure about animal welfare. They could focus more on programs that bring people into contact with wild nature in a low-impact manner, or decide to display only rescued non-releasable animals, rather than continuing to breed exotic animals to be kept in captivity. Many organizations are already doing this today, as discussed in the Alternatives section below.
I think many of us are reluctant about being critical of zoos because we don’t want to deprive today’s children of the magical experiences that we had at zoos as children ourselves.
I understand this impulse, but I also think that it can be shortsighted. While I did love going to Sea World as a kid, now that I understand more about the nature of breeding captive orcas, disrupting pod relations, and the physical and psychological impacts of tank living, I am heartbroken that I ever begged my parents to buy us passes to go. I wish I could turn back time, in the impossible hope that a few fewer dollars from us might've encouraged Sea World to change its practices earlier. While I did love the animals I met in captivity, I also fell just as deeply in love with the animals I met in the forest or backyard, who were not held captive for human entertainment. I would give anything to go back and have a redo, seeing animals only in nature or at organizations like those discussed below — and saving the experience of seeing more exotic animals for activities like watching Planet Earth, rather than forcibly detaining individuals from those exotic species in my hometown.
I would certainly never argue against the value of instilling a love and respect for animals in children. But as somebody who regrets every childhood step she set in a zoo, I hope folks will consider the fact that there may be better choices they can make for their children.
State and national parks
State and national parks are amazing places to encounter wildlife, and to support preserving our wild lands and the plants and animals who live there. Of course, just hiking around you’re not guaranteed to have a close-up interaction with wildlife, but sometimes that makes for even more special encounters when they do happen, like the time I happened upon a luna moth who had just hatched from its chrysalis, or a family of foxes with five little kits tumbling around, or a couple river otters standing on their tippy-toes to scope me out.
Currently the state park closest to me is working to acquire more land, both to help combat problems with habitat fragmentation, and also to protect several endangered species that only live in specific coves. Odds are, there are state- and federally-protected lands in your area that are engaged in similar projects. There are lots of great ways to help them in their efforts: if you have money you can spare, donations are obviously welcome. Or if you have time you can spare, parks are eager for volunteers to work in their visitor center or help with manual labor maintaining park lands. If you don’t have much of either to spare, you can take a moment to talk about the importance of the park and its programs to your friends, family, or on social media.
For folks who are really focused on having a guaranteed interaction, there are some options, too. On a recent trip to Florida we stopped by Homosassa Springs, a state park with a nature walk featuring an amazing array of wildlife. All of the animals on display were, sadly, non-releasable, but this is a good option for folks who do want a guaranteed up-close encounter with wild animals. Each animal’s informational sign talked about the species, but also about why the animal was non-releasable, and what people could do in their everyday lives to help wild populations of this animal. While captivity isn’t an ideal home for most animals — in particular the gray fox was exhibiting some really pronounced zoochosis — if they can’t be re-released due to human-caused injury or habituation, then at least we can try to give them the best life possible, and let them be animal “ambassadors” to help educate people and teach folks how to prevent more of their kind from becoming non-releasable.
On the other hand, on that same trip we also visited Three Sisters Springs and walked around its protected wetlands. We saw such an amazing array of wild birds, without ever straying from the half-mile-long trail, that the experience was very similar to walking around the boardwalk at Homosassa — except none of these creatures were captive. Among others, we saw ibis, cormorants, ahingas, limpkins, yellow-crowned night herons, kingfishers, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, little blue herons, osprey, egrets, gallinules, and red-shouldered hawks. If we had limited ourselves to only going to places where we were ‘guaranteed’ to see a captive animal, we really would’ve missed out.
Rescue, conservation, and rehabilitation organizations
While most state and federal parks are heavily involved in conservation programs, there may also be other organizations in your area dedicated to conservation and animal rehabilitation.
These local organizations provide a great opportunity to learn about native species specific to your region, and what we can do to help (and not hurt!) them. And often times these organizations provide up-close encounters with the animals, which can help scratch that zoo ‘itch.’
The folks who work for these organizations are also great resources to ask specific questions about what actions you can take in your area, such as which native plants you can use in your yard to help imperiled species, or for tips that may have never occurred to you, like when I learned that I shouldn’t build cairns because it is dangerous to local salamanders. A couple great orgs in my area are Wings to Soar and Reflection Riding — check out what’s in your neck of the woods!
TV & film
As discussed above, I’m trying to move away from the attitude of demanding that a lion should be brought to my town to live in captivity for my entertainment. But still, I do love to see and learn about lions, and other exotic species!
However, I also find that watching animals in their native habitats, interacting with their families, their predators, and their prey, is so much more educational and enriching than watching them isolated in an exhibit. Luckily there are now amazing documentaries (Planet Earth! Life! Winged Migration!) that give us breathtaking looks into the lives of these creatures. And frankly, I’d much rather watch a giraffe live her life on her own terms, and learn about her that way, than to make her live in a pen forever for my enjoyment.
Every walk is a safari
A major issue that has contributed to the perpetuation of zoo culture is my sense of entitlement that I should be able to see a live lion in my own town, dammit, regardless of whether I live several continents away from any lion’s native home. The emphasis on certain “big ticket” animals like lions, polar bears, giraffes, tigers, and elephants results in excessive captive breeding of these species, and perpetuates expectations that the same cohort of popular non-native species should live out their lives in exhibits in both Minneapolis and Orlando, regardless of whether these are good or healthy places for them to live.
Often lost in this fixation on importing specific exotic species is an awe of and respect for our native species. We teach kids to be excited about seeing a lion, but not about seeing a groundhog. This is a dangerous attitude, because the place where we’re often best equipped to help save imperiled species is in our own local area.
So one small step we can each take is to start building an interest in the creatures in our own neighborhoods. Even in downtown urban areas, it’s amazing what wild dramas are constantly unfolding around us, once we start paying attention. Previously one-dimensionally cute animals like squirrels, or “gross” animals like pigeons, become complicated and fascinating beasts once we observe them and learn more about them. One of my favorite resources for this is Unseen City, a book written by a father who wanted to be able to answer his daughter’s questions about the plants and animals in their urban neighborhood, which ended up leading him to do a deep-dive into the fascinating natural phenomena that were constantly playing out right under their noses.
Yeah, lions are fun to look at, but so are the beautiful flocks of goldfinches who arrive each spring to eat the buds off the red maples on my street. And what could be higher drama than the battle royale between two snapping turtles in the pond at our city park, which felt like a terrifying glimpse into the Jurassic era? If we can get out of the habit of being elitist and speciesist about what animals count as being “worth” looking at, we’ll be better capable of appreciating the nature that’s right in front of us, and more galvanized to help protect our local species and ecosystems.