Morality of Zoos

A new British study has found that many animals, particularly Polar bears, lions, tigers, and cheetahs suffer in captivity because they require large expanses to roam that no zoo could possibly afford them. Setting aside concerns about validity of the study for a moment to address the broader question; if in fact these animals are suffering is it moral to keep them in zoos anyway?

This question has been tackled in GD before, but given the new information I thought I’d throw it out there again.

Have you read “Life of Pi”, by chance? As a work of fiction, it is by no means an authoritative citation, but it did advance an argument I found convincing.

Animals in the wild are very definitely stressed at regular intervals, from hunger, predation and disease. As long as the environment is appropriate, then which animal would turn up its nose at disease/predator free board with regular meals? There are many instances of animals escaping only to return to their enclosures, or of doors being left open and the animal not even leaving.

Now, if stress is measured in terms of infant mortality and “pacing” then perhaps, yes, polar bears and the like might be better off unkept. However, I would be interested to compare the mortality rate to their wild counterparts, and how much “pacing” they do in the wild.

“if in fact these animals are suffering is it moral to keep them in zoos anyway?”
Only if their suffering in captivity is significantly higher than in the open. The natural world is not some kind of a paradise but a brutal contest of the survival of the fittest. Zoo animals probably get a better diet than wild animals and also medical attention. That has to balanced against the suffering caused by the lack of freedom if in fact such a thing exists for animals born and bred in captivity.

I know zoo life isn’t always the best life for animals, but in a lot of cases these days it’s the only life in which they stand a good chance of existing.

If it’s a choice between letting all the animals out to risk extinction or keeping some in zoos and working to breed them and hopefully be able to one day return a larger population to the wild, I see nothing immoral in it.

i.e., would you rather be “imprisoned” in a life-boat, or free to enjoy the luxuries of the cruise ship named Titanic?


Zoos are inherently immoral and cruel.
Paradoxically, some species would have become extinct years ago had they not been kept alive in captivity.

Raising the question:
Is there any real reason to maintain a life form on the planet if it is to live devoid of any of its natural habitat or quality of life?
Is that moral?

The thing is we’re talking about animals not people. I don’t there is a tiger out in the wild think to itself, “gee, this survival of the fittest business is really starting to get me down, what I wouldn’t do to retire in Florida already.” Furthermore can a Tiger really prefer a slab of cold meat and grain mush twice a day and a zookeepers gloved arm with a sample cup to hunting wild antelope and chasing tiger tail? (Pardon the pun)

Animals survive and thrive in the wild because it’s what their instincts lead them to do. If our encroachment on their territory is threatening their existence and we want to rectify the problem we should be building preserves to protect them from poachers and developers not exporting them to the Bronx to slowly go nuts in a steel and concrete cell while we gawk at them.

In my opinion and thus this is not definite fact Zoos are cruel and yet as Isablle points out without Zoos some animals would be extinct, if we can find a way to save the rainforests, travel instantaneously and stop all poachers, Zoos will be obselete and not needed but if anyone can see that in the near future they must be very optomisitc.

Basically i think zoos are cruel and yet at some points a necessary to keep certain species alive.

An unfortunate but necessary evil…

What BigDaiv said… I agree that my post was silly, in that I applied human knowledge to an issue about animals… But since we do have knowledge of such things as extinction, I have to stand by the “lifeboat” metaphor.

Zoos are the best way (that we know of) to preserve some of the most endangered animals.

They’re also useful as educational tools…


While it’s true that being in a zoo isn’t the best environment for those animals to be in, I think you’re all missing the point. The purpose of a zoo is not purely entertainment–keeping these critters in cages for us to “gawk at” as cainxinth put it–or just to “preserve” animals that should have gone extinct, they’re to promote education and recognition of these animals’ plight in the wild, and thus to escalate the efforts to conserve and protect habitat and lessen human pressure on the few remaining wild tigers, or what have you. And yes, to preserve endangered animals, and attempt to restore wild populations through breeding programs.
Most people do not have any concept of these animals as “real” outside of what they’ve seen on the Discovery channel or photos in coffee table books. Joe Schmoe and his family decide to go to the zoo one day instead of the movies or the mall, and there they learn about wild animals, see them living and breathing, and learn about habitat desctruction and extinction and how if we don’t take measures to change our habits now, the only “wild” animals left will be the ones in the zoo. Very few people would argue that keeping a polar bear in a zoo is preferable to keeping them alive in the wild–but one is a means to the other.
How many pandas would still exist in the wild if they didn’t get such recognition by the public as they do now?
Also, Isabelle these are not dinosaurs or sabre-toothed tigers. These are not animals that would have naturally gone extinct through evolutionary changes and natural processes, animals that had their chance and nature selected them for extinction–these are animals who have been pressured by humans’ destruction of habitat and gross misuse of the planet. I say it’s only our duty and moral obligation to do what we can to rectify the situation. If keeping a couple tigers or pandas or lemurs in captivity helps promote public education and conservancy, thus helping to preserve wild populations, through protection of habitat, then great. It’s immoral not to.

Oh. I see you’ve done this before. You got some excellent answers in that thread, and nothing that your “new” study says is new at all. What, exactly are you trying to prove? That zoos are bad? Obviously none of those very well founded explanations and answers (particularly by Dr.One-L that were provided last year made any difference, so why are you asking the question again? You’ll just get the same answers.
Nothing about that study is new, or interesting. Animals exibiting stereotypic behaviors? Check. So does my friend’s pet horse. He cribs. I managed a pet store for a couple years, you wouldn’t believe the number of psittacine parrots in captivity that feather pluck, chew their tails, scream incessantly, in other words, exibit stereotypic behaviors.
This just annoys me. You’re not asking for information, or sparking debate, you’re just looking for support in some hypocritical crusade. Keeping those animals in captivity helps preserve wild populations. I’d say that’s a bigger benefit than the beef cattle that are kept thousands to a feed lot and fed stale chewing gum, which you fully support.
I’m sorry if this comes off as caustic, but it just seems silly to me.

I can understand the need to preserve endangered species, but what about animals which aren’t endangered, like polar bears?

On a documentary, I saw a polar bear stretch himself out on the ice in the middle of a blizzard. The commentator said that polar bears are so well insulated, that they can over heat even in freezing temperatures.

I immediately thought of a polar bear I once saw in a zoo. It was a hot day, so hot that I, a hairless, low-fat human, was swealtering. How did that poor bear feel?

To me, keeping a polar bear in anything but a refrigerated pen is cruel.

I do believe that polar bears in captivity generally lose a lot of their insulating fat layer. And while their pens aren’t necessarily as cold as a freezer, I think there are measures taken to keep it in such a way that the bear could cool himself off if he needed to, such as jumping in water. This is what I remember of reading about polar bears in captivity a few years back, so I might be entirely wrong, but I’m not sure.

Three cheers for MixieArmadillo - that’s another example of the common sense and research I come to the SDMB for.

Three cheers.
Incidentally, many captive polar bears come in out of the cold. This indicates they don’t mind a cozy indoor den when they can get it.

I’ve had the impression that most animals in reputable zoos were born in captivity or rescued from the wild(injury), exotic pet dealers and naive pet owners. Is this wrong??? I guess I have always seen zoos as places or refuge rather than prisons, not that I’m not much of a zoo fanatic in the first place though.

Also, I second j.c.…great response mixie

takes a bow

I’ll be here all week, folks :smiley:

Recently the Detroit Zoo (of which I’ve been a member for about 5 years) opened a new polar bear habitat. For years, the Detroit Zoo has been considered the place for polar bears. Several of their bears were sent from other zoos that couldn’t care for them properly.

The new habitat includes a huge, very cold pool of water (you can go under and walk through a tunnel). Anyway, even during the summer, the bears tend to wander around the habitat as much as swim so I figure the heat isn’t bothering them too much.

Joke for MixieArmadillo -so there’s an old old old New Yorker cartoon. A flock of penguins is hanging around on the ice, and one of them is wearing a tweed jacket and an ascot and smoking. He says, “I just got tired of being so damned formal all the time.”

The problem with animals is, we only know what they do. We don’t know what they want to do until they have the opportunity to do it. Just think of all those hundreds of years when dogs were longing for yellow tennis balls, and we didn’t have any to throw for them. We had no idea!

I agree with Mixie.

I don’t like the idea of zoos, but I view them as a necessary evil. I am happy to sacrifice the liberty of a few animals, to increase education, research, etc for the purpose of saving the larger wild populations.

Same as scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, or 4WDing on marked trails in National Parks (both of which I do). Yes, divers impact the reef to some degree and 4WDrivers may damage parts of the National Park. The alternative: shutting it off completely, and then nobody cares if it disappears, except a few hippies and a few scientists.

Let people see the beauty of the reef, let people enjoy the outdoors, and let people marvel at the chance to see exotic animals up close (all within reason and with restrictions, of course) and you’ll see a large majority of those people interested in preserving this beauty, even making sacrifices to do so.