Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


Why zoos are in crisis 

Dec. 15, 2009 Margaret Wente The Globe and Mail

Three weeks ago, Tara, the matriarch of the fast-dwindling elephant herd at the Toronto Zoo, was found dying in her enclosure. Staff tried to get her back on her feet, but she never got up. She was 41.

Zoo-raised elephants don't do very well. They're prone to arthritis, lameness, tuberculosis, herpes, infanticide, behavioural disturbances, obesity and infertility. They die younger than wild elephants, and are not self-sustaining in captivity. “Bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impairs their viability,” says Georgia Mason, an expert on animal behaviour at the University of Guelph.

At the Edmonton Valley Zoo, activists are demanding that the lone remaining elephant, Lucy, be sent somewhere she can have company. Her companion, Samantha, was shipped off to a breeding program in 2007. Elephants are highly social and suffer in isolation. Lucy also has arthritis and respiratory problems.

The Calgary Zoo has problems too. Accidents, illness and human error have recently killed off a capybara (a type of large rodent), 41 cownose rays, two baby elephants, a hippopotamus and some gorillas. Although the director says these incidents are unrelated, outside experts have been called in to investigate.

The trouble with zoos is as old as zoos themselves. What's good for the box office isn't always good for the animals. In the age of Animal Planet and heightened awareness over animal welfare, it's time to ask: What are zoos good for any more?

The first public zoo was at Paris's Jardin des Plantes, founded in 1793. In the early days, zoos aimed to have as many specimens as possible, because there was no other way for ordinary people to see them. Until 50 years ago, most zoos were menageries, with many species crammed into small spaces. The science of animal behaviour changed that.

Now, zoos are designed to show animals in something resembling their natural habitat. They developed agendas to promote conservation and protect endangered species. They set up international programs to breed captive lions, tigers and elephants, so they wouldn't have to take replacements from the wild. They also got incredibly expensive to run.

“We created these monsters, and so where do we find the operating money?” asks Peter Karsten, who ran the Calgary Zoo in the 1970s and '80s.

All zoos rely on public subsidies, and all face increasing competition for the public's dollars. They are caught between warring philosophies and factions. On one side are business types, many zookeepers and, in Toronto's case, city councillors, who believe elephants, tigers and borrowed Chinese pandas are essential to attract crowds and revenue. On the other side are scientists and animal activists who point out that despite our best efforts, certain species probably will never thrive in zoos.

“Why would you build a zoo in a northern climate to exhibit tropical animals?” asks Mr. Karsten. When he ran the Calgary Zoo, he got rid of the costly and out-of-place tigers, baboons and elephants in order to focus on cold-climate and native species, which were also cheaper to maintain. After he left, the exotica were brought back. In 2004, an infant elephant was rejected by her mother and died of an overwhelming infection; in 2007, another elephant died of a serious virus.

The Toronto Zoo has also faced turmoil at the top. Its board is dominated by city councillors, who are not known for their animal expertise or their fiscal prudence. (They have refused the city's request for across-the-board budget cuts.) Board chair Raymond Cho says he's determined to rebuild the elephant exhibit, which is now down to three elderly females.

Mr. Karsten doesn't think that's such a good idea. “Values change,” he says. “The bar is higher now, and the public is more informed.” We now know that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling, and that the emotional attachments they form with one another may rival our own. They don't belong in zoos any more than we do.

December 9, 2016 What’s killing the animals at the Calgary Zoo?

Comment: Many consider zoos to be prisons for animals and as society’s attitudes evolve, the ethical debate has intensified, with more and more people calling for the closure of these exhibits. Animal welfare and exploitation is a hot topic nowadays. It certainly doesn’t seem to be in the best interests of the animals to be held captive and news stories like this has the public staying away and demanding politicians take a leadership role on this issue. 

Facts About Zoos - Animal Liberation Front

Zoos often claim that they are "arks" which can preserve species whose habitat has been destroyed, or which were wiped out in the wild for other reasons (such as hunting).  They suggest that they can maintain the species in captivity until the cause of the creature's extirpation is remedied, and then successfully re-introduce the animals to the wild, resulting in a healthy, self-sustaining population.  While many zoos claim to be concerned for the general well-being of the animals who live within their confines, zoos remain little more than prisons for those who have committed no crime except that of being of the wrong species. Zoos tell us and our children that it is acceptable to keep animals in captivity, leading lives of boredom in settings that bear almost no resemblance to their natural homes.  But modern zoos tell us that all this is important for the preservation of species.  Zoos often defend their existence against challenges from the Animal Rights movement on these grounds. 

There are several problems with this argument, however.  First, the number of animals required to maintain a viable gene pool can be quite high, and is never known for certain.  If the captive gene pool is too small, then inbreeding can result in increased susceptibility to disease, birth defects, and mutations; the species can be so weakened that it would never be viable in the wild.

Some species, like marine mammals, many bird species and so on, are extremely difficult to breed in captivity.  Pandas, which have been the sustained focus of captive breeding efforts for several decades in zoos around the world, are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.  With such species, the zoos, by taking animals from the wild to supply their breeding programs, constitute a net drain on wild populations.

The whole concept of habitat restoration is mired in serious difficulties.  Animals threatened by poaching (elephants, rhinos, pandas, bears and more) will never be safe in the wild as long as firearms, material needs, and a willingness to consume animal parts coincide.  Species threatened by chemical contamination (such as bird species vulnerable to pesticides and lead shot) will not be candidates for release until we stop using the offending substances, and enough time has passed for the toxins to be processed out of the environment.  Since heavy metals and some pesticides are both persistent and bio-accumulative, this could mean decades or centuries before it is safe to re-introduce the animals.

Even if these problems can be overcome, there are still difficulties with the process of re-introduction.  Problems such as human imprinting, the need to teach animals to fly, hunt, build dens, and raise their young are serious obstacles, and must be solved individually for each species.  There is a small limit to the number of species the global network of zoos can preserve under even the most optimistic assumptions.  Profound constraints are imposed by the lack of space in zoos, their limited financial resources, and the requirement that viable gene pools of each species be preserved.  Few zoos, for instance, ever keep more than two individuals of large mammal species.  The need to  preserve scores or hundreds of a particular species would be beyond the resources of even the largest zoos, and even the whole world zoo community would be hard-pressed to preserve even a few dozen species in this manner.

Contrast this with the efficiency of large habitat preserves, which can maintain viable populations of whole complexes of species with minimal human intervention.  Large preserves maintain every species in the ecosystem in a predominantly self-sufficient manner, while keeping the creatures in the natural habitat unmolested.  If the financial resources (both government and charitable), and the biological expertise currently consumed by zoos, were redirected to habitat preservation and management, we would have far fewer worries about habitat restoration or preserving species whose habitat is gone.

Choosing zoos as a means for species preservation, in addition to being expensive and of dubious effectiveness, has serious ethical problems.  Keeping animals in zoos harms them, by denying them freedom of movement and association, which is important to social animals, and frustrates many of their natural behavioral patterns, leaving them at best bored, and at worst seriously neurotic. 

Zoos, like any other business, are designed to make a profit.  With money as their first priority, it is not uncommon for zoos to sacrifice the welfare of individual animals to save financial resources.  Animals who "misbehave" at the zoo are often "encouraged" to behave through the use of violence.  The life of boredom and purposeless existence which goes along with captivity often causes the animals to engage in abnormal and self-destructive behaviors called "zoochosis".  The animals are closely confined, lack privacy, and have little opportunity for mental or physical exercise.  Symptoms of zoochosis include nervous pacing, head rocking, and self-mutilation. 

In captivity, it is almost impossible to meet the animals' natural needs.  For example, birds' wings may be clipped to prevent flying and animals who would naturally live in large herds or family groups (such as elephants) are kept either in pairs or alone. A problem most zoos encounter is the existence of "surplus" animals.  To free up space for "cuter" - and therefore more profitable - animals, many zoos sell surplus animals to dealers who ultimately sell the animals to laboratories for experiments.

While most zoos claim to educate the public about endangered species, the vast majority of animals in zoos are not endangered, nor are they being rehabilitated for release into the wild.  If we truly want to help animals in the wild, we must preserve their habitats and combat the reasons humans kill them.  Keeping animals behind bars for the sake of our entertainment is not the solution.

Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos  

By: Derrick Jensen (2007) 

Editorial Reviews: Booklist 

To counter most books being written about zoos that present zoos favorably, never questioning their very existence, activist Jenkins and photographer Karen Tweedy-Holmes produce their examination of what zoos are and what their effect is on their animal inmates and the human animals who observe them. Jensen writes in a deliberately polemical style, challenging the reader with language that is in turn sarcastic and poetic but always urgent and angry. A zoo is a nightmare taking shape in concrete and steel. Tweedy-Holmes' photos, in stark black and white, are views of animals in obvious incarceration--bars or mesh often obscure the view; cement-formed pools, rocks, ledges, or walls predominate; doors, walls, and buildings hint at unnatural enclosures; and the animals are all obviously captive. Captions give the species and where they are found in the wild, though not which zoo is illustrated (a photographer's note at the end lists them). A good choice for presenting the other side in the moral debate about zoos. Nancy Bent
Copyright © American Library Association.  


"This sensitive and thought-provoking volume by ecological activist and author Jensen (A Language Older Than Words) and photographer Tweedy-Holmes raises more questions than it answers but compels nonetheless. Are we our brother's keeper? And, if so, just who (or what) is our brother? The book is not about conditions in which animals are held captive; instead, it explores the question of why animals are held captive at all as Jensen examines the who, what, and why of animal captivity, balancing the historical facts with his own strong personal experiences and beliefs. There is little tolerance for differing views, and in this aspect, this work fits the publisher's aim of "creating unique voices on behalf of those who are unseen, ignored or disregarded by society." Its strength and objectivity comes from Tweedy-Holmes's photographs that depict animals as contained, confined, and imprisoned. Shot at some of the finest zoos in the world, these pictures do not exhibit or exploit an animal's sufferings or even display them in degrading conditions. Tweedy-Holmes simply allows viewers to form their own conclusions. A beautifully constructed if polemical work, this text is recommended for large public and academic animal rights collections." -- Library Journal

An impassioned argument for the dissolution of zoos... an intelligent, well-organized debate, written in a conversational tone that engages the reader while tackling a subject encompassing psychological, social, and environmental issues... (Jensen) writes with a conviction that leads readers to think deeply about what their own beliefs are about zoos. -- ForeWord magazine

Derrick Jensen lays bare the reality of zoos: prisons for the wild creatures whose worlds we have utterly destroyed with our 'progress'. He makes apparent the repression and alienation that zoos represent. Yet, there is the glint of the unbreakable spirit of life in each of these beautiful living beings' eyes, and Jensen infuses us with hope for something better. He gives us the courage to do whatever it takes to reclaim a wild, pure and interconnected life with the natural world. -- Andrew Hurley, drummer, Grammy-nominated rock band Fall Out Boy

Finally, someone has the courage to question zoos. Animals in zoos are not ambassadors teaching us about the natural world, they're unwilling prisoners, teaching us how we as humans seem to need to dominate every living being on the planet. This is a brave book and a much needed voice on behalf of the animals. -- Bill Maher, Comedian, Host of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher

Karen Tweedy-Holmes's photographs succeed in walking a fine line between the fine art world and the world of animal welfare. Her extraordinary images possess a complicated beauty and power, revealing the plight of the nonhuman animals trapped in human grasp. With this book, Tweedy-Holmes and Jensen join the increasing chorus of voices in support of progressive change for those who share the planet with us. -- Frank Noelker, author of Captive Beauty: Zoo Portraits by Frank Knoelker

The distinguished environmental author inveighs against zoos. These symbols of humanity's false sense of superiority over nature, Jensen argues, imprison more than they educate or protect. The accompanying photos by Karen Tweedy-Holmes provide a heartbreaking look into the reality faced by animals in many zoos... a wholesale condemnation of these false and confined `habitats.' -- UTNE.com From The Stacks

From the Publisher

This book was turned down by numerous commercial publishers. Because we have all been taught for decades--for our entire lifetimes--that zoos are good and necessary places, making a case otherwise is not a popular, or "marketable," stand. And so it falls to a small, non-profit organization to send this voice out into the world.

Although many of the animals in this book are mammals--those animals in whom, looking into their eyes, we can recognize suffering--it bears remembering that zoos hold captive all manner of species, and that each and every one of these animals suffers in his or her own unique way, even if we can't readily see it.

And, although many zoos would tell us that their "habitats" for the animals have been greatly improved throughout the years, and that some of the photos in this book are not reflective of that, know that there are zoos and aquariums from one end of this country to the other (and in other countries) with horrible conditions, holding animals who suffer tremendously. In any case, the only important question is not the quality of the conditions in which they are held captive, but whether they should be held captive at all.

For more information on the massive underground trade in "exotic" animals, we recommend the amazing book, Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species, by Alan Green, published by the Center for Public Integrity. You will never look at zoos in the same way again.

We send you our thanks for considering Thought to Exist in the Wild. We are working to distribute it widely, and to get it on the shelves of public and university libraries where inquiring minds can be presented with an alternative view of zoos.

September 30, 2013 Goodbye Toronto Zoo elephants; updates TO elephants arrive at California sanctuary

July 23, 2015 Former Toronto Zoo elephant euthanized at California sanctuary

December 22, 2015 PETA accuses Bowmanville Zoo owner of abusing Siberian tiger

June 23, 2016 Bowmanville Zoo to close after 'damage is done' by abuse allegations; charges stayed 2017

February 11, 2014 They Shoot Giraffes Don't They? Why Marius's Death Is No Surprise

Read more: Edinburgh Zoo kills rare piglets; Copenhagen Zoo executes young giraffe deemed ‘surplus’

Ringling Brothers Will Stand Trial for Elephant Abuse; Bolivia bans use of animals in circuses, UK bill stalls; CA cities take action, bullhooks banned, Ringling to end elephant acts 2018; date's moved ahead to 2016