Zoos: An Ethical Dilemma

Elephant in zoo

Please let me be free.

I have mixed feelings about zoos, and it was with a certain amount of anxiety that I recently visited the San Diego Zoo with my husband and two young children. On the one hand, I enjoy watching my children squeal with delight as they spot their favorite animals. After all, animals are fascinating, and I remember as a child just watching squirrels as they ran around, dug for nuts and generally reveled in all their squirrelly manicness. The squirrels were being themselves in their normal, natural environment. They were free to do as they pleased and follow their natural instincts. And therein lies the rub…zoos aren’t natural. So on the other hand, how do you enjoy the zoo when it comes at the expense of the animals? To try to make more sense of this, I made a pro and con list. Here it is.


1. Zoos sustain species, especially ones that are threatened. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, zoos will probably play a more active role in assuring the preservation and survival of the most affected species. Animals that are hunted by poachers, especially tigers and rhinos, are able to survive due to zoos.

2. They provide an educational opportunity for people to see animals they normally wouldn’t be able to see. I don’t foresee going to Madgascar any time soon, so being able to see a lemur is pretty cool.

3. If the zoo is a well-run organization, it also includes conservation aspects, such as visits to local schools to teach about the environment and animals, outreach programs to help protect endangered species and so on. Obviously, these are positive aspects.


1. Zoos seem cruel in that they place human desires above animal needs. We’ve captured and enclosed these animals for our human amusement and enjoyment. When you see an elephant, which in the wild travels hundreds of miles a year, enclosed in a pen (even a spacious one), it is depressing. Elephants, especially, seem despondent in zoos and spend time swaying back and forth–not a sign of a cheery life. Monkeys are used to swinging through the jungles/forests. Does swinging in a much smaller area take away from their joy? I would imagine so. So, does human desire to look at these animals outweigh their mental and emotional health? Is that fair?

2. They are unnatural. Animals are not in their native, natural habitats. Even exemplary zoos such as the San Diego Zoo that try to recreate habitat can’t come close. That’s because animals spend their days being animals–hunting, avoiding being hunted, mating, marking territory and so on. Put a pride of lions in a pen and feed them. It’s not natural. What happens to the lions’ instincts to hunt, chase, and patrol? They can’t just go away. Does the lion attempt to do all those activities in a severely limited area with no natural prey in sight? That can’t be healthy; in fact, it must be maddening. What about polar bears that are used to swimming in oceans? Swimming in a pool must feel so limiting and confining. On our recent visit, we saw one polar bear repeatedly walk back and forth from one spot to the other. Why? Obviously, I don’t know for sure, but I fear it was boredom or frustration.

3. Do they break apart families, herds, prides, troops, and so on? The zoo animals come from somewhere. How are they procured? Are these animals taken forcibly from their families and habitats?

For all the good that zoos do, I still can’t help feeling uncomfortable when I’m visiting one. Even as I try to intellectually justify visiting a zoo, I find that I feel inherently wrong for being there. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe this is just my hang up.

How do you feel about zoos?

One thought on “Zoos: An Ethical Dilemma

  1. mylifewithbpd says:

    Most Zoo’s these days use captive breeding programs for their collection, for the most part wild collection is not used much unless a species is at high risk, such as the California Condor in the 80’s when all wild specimens were collected to save the species. Without the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoo’s, that species would now be extinct. If you haven’t already visit http://www.sandiegozooglobal.org which is the research arm of the San Diego Zoo.


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