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Why Zoos Stimulate Our Minds

Giraffe in Sydney ZooTomorrow my family is planning to make a trip to the zoo. I like zoos, but there are some things about them that always get my mind racing through ethical questions about animals and the nature of people.

I find that zoos tend to reliably provoke more thoughts in my mind than other places that can also stimulate me to think, like aquariums, museums, shopping malls, movie theaters, and parks. Before I started writing this article, in my nerdy social scientist way I dug through numerous scientific papers about topics such as whether or not people learn anything when they visit zoos, what attitudes people tend to have about zoos in general, and studies about how animals living in zoos might be negatively affected by us going to see them (especially those of us with more interest in animals). After reading and seeking more knowledge, I was only left with more questions.

So what is it that is so thought-provoking about zoos?

Obviously, I don’t have all of the answers. Maybe I speak only for myself, but here’s what I have come up with:

  • Zoos tell us how little we know about the natural world. Have you ever visited a zoo of larger size and been aware of the existence of every animal you saw? I haven’t. I always feel smaller after visiting a zoo.
  • I’m always plagued by figuring out whether or not the cruelty of caging an animal is outweighed by the potential educational and conservation benefits of displaying that animal. After looking through studies about whether or not people learn anything when they visit zoos, I’m still hopeful that zoos do achieve some good, but I’m still not sure they’re entirely worth it or effective. Scientists likewise are still conflicted about the situation, and thus there is a need for more research.
  • Seeing anything in a cage is thought-provoking. What does it say about power when an animal or person is contained? And what are our human (or inhumane) motivations for doing it? Is it always for educational reasons in zoos? Or do zoos subconsciously help us feel safer by showing us that we can “control” something wild?
  • It’s interesting to observe and ponder why some kinds of animals are more popular than others. Surprisingly, one study I read from a zoo in Brazil indicates that for this particular zoo, people are no more interested in larger mammals than in smaller mammals. The researchers also discovered that in this zoo, people were equally interested in those animals found locally (in Brazil) as they were in other animals from other parts of the world. The implications were that zoos need not necessarily have animals from exotic locales to generate interest (and lower maintenance costs might save the zoos some cash). Of course, this was just one study, and might not be generalizable to other places.
  • After viewing primates, I find it hard to understand how anyone could question evolution: primates behave so much like humans. Evolution just makes sense. And as my wife said to me, “people are always looking to find ways that animals behave like people in zoos and vice-versa.” But does evolution explain everything I wonder? The animals I see in zoos are so complex and diverse that I have a hard time believing they just resulted from evolution– was there also a higher power at work?
  • I want to learn why people are so fascinated by animals. Why are other people visiting the zoo? Do they share common reasons with me? Why is it that kids like animals so much? Is it because we are exposed to animal imagery in clothing, toys, and other items with so much saturation from as early as the time that we are born? (Everything we buy my baby daughter seems to include some kind of animal image it seems.) Or is it because we as people have an innate primeval connection to animals and nature? Is that why we are so interested in animals and would that explain why illegal animal trafficking is the third largest criminal industry worldwide?
  • Why do zookeepers decide to give some animals premium spaces that reflect their natural habitats while others are given concrete blocks? What decides the pecking order? Is it some calculation based on visitor interest or based on animal size? If the animal is larger does that make it crueler to have it in a smaller space?

Wow. My mind’s prepped for some kind of zoo visit tomorrow. What do you think? Is there anything I’ve missed or misunderstood? Do zoos get your minds racing like they do mine?

Read More about Animals, Zoos, and Ethical Questions

Action for Animals: A Day at the Zoo

You Can Save the Planet: 50 Eco Tips for Children

Peru’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Might Be Unstoppable

Photo Credit: Sir Mervs on Flickr under a Creative Commons license




10 comments
  1. Gloria

    The fact that the general public doesn’t know or care much about wildlife just breaks my heart.

    The author of the article mentions how children are saturated with imagery of animals in their early years, but I’d point out that as we get older we are given and increasing amount of anthropo-centric imagery until wild animals are basically phased out almost entirely – except for those of us who CHOOSE to maintain our interest in them. The BBC is making all of these lovely nature programs, but I’ve not seen them aired on network TV in the US (only on cable- which not everybody can afford). Why? Why don’t people have an appreciation for the world around them? They’d HONESTLY rather watch college football than “Planet Earth”? REALLY?

    It makes me die a little inside when I think about how uncurious our culture is. : (

  2. Christina Nevshehir

    Katie, why do you think zoos lack funding? I’m a lifelong Michigander, and your reasoning abilities should be higher than shortsighted self-interest defending zoos and leading not to your expressed self-interest of wishing for a wildlife ‘park.’ Check out using your education, personal well-being, and life for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tenneseee or PAWS in California. Get real in your life, the money and richness WILL follow. That goes for your entire generation, their offspring, and then the rest of the world. Chuck the status quo, evolve, do better than mine and previous generations for your offspring and the next generations. It’s still hard, but far easier than otherwise for everybody; no one consciously volunteers to be on life support.

  3. Katie

    I’m working on my degree in zoology- hope to go on to work in a zoo or something like it some day.

    I’ve often wondered about the humane-ness of zoos, as you have. I am on the side of zoos, though. As long as the animals are treated with respect, I think it’s a good thing for them to be seen by the public. I think that by seeing these animals and being made aware of them, it’s bringing them into the lives of people, how television brought the vietnam war to the people back in the US. Rather than just hearing about how, say, tamarins are on the brink of extinction, people can actually see a tamarin, and imagine that there are only a few left. Without knowing what an animal looks like or acts like, that empathy rarely exists for most people.

    I don’t imagine that animals enjoy being in cages, just as humans wouldn’t, but from what I’ve seen, most places have evolved considerably from the steel cages of the past century or so. Most animals are given somewhat of an interesting habitat, and zookeepers do try to keep them engaged. I worked as an intern at a zoo for a short while, and all the keepers were incredibly enthusiastic about making sure that animals always had different ‘enrichment’, which allowed them to think and explore even while kept in cages. Also, while not really comparable in size, you could compare an animal living in an exhibit to maybe a person who has never moved (houses) in their life, who always has seen the same things, pretty much done the same activities, gone to the same places.

    I’d love for zoos to be more like wildlife parks, but since most zoos are lacking in funds, I do think they’re doing the best they can to take care of animals.

    The St. Lou Zoo keeping animals in storage does bother me. The zoo I worked at kept some animals inside during winter, which was a little depressing, but since I live in Michigan, and it’s an incredibly small zoo, that’s really a much better option than leaving them out or even trying to move them somewhere else for winter. As long as they are kept in something that’s not just a holding cell.

  4. Jim47

    In my experience, which is hardly universal, the zoos which are poor in their treatment of their charges are that way due to a lack of public outcry. Santa Barbara’s zoo, which is pretty small as municipal zoos go, has won numerous awards for its exhibits, and it is continuously working on updating the areas where the animals are kept. It was not always so, but a large group of people got together years ago and pushed for changes. More often than not, that is all it takes. If you live in an area where the zoo has not upgraded itself recently, start some positive action towards change. Talk to the people in charge; go to City/County council meetings and make polite but pointed statements during public comment periods; write letters to the local newspapers; start a petition drive. But do your homework first! Check the Association of Zoos and Aquariums website, and others like it, for the latest list of standards; compare your zoo with these lists.

    As for PETA, I lump them in with Earth First! and other radical groups: well-meaning, but over-wrought, and extreme in their tactics. They do more harm than good, IMHO. They ignore the fact that domestic dogs and cats were bred for their current purposes; to “free” them would be to destroy them. What little good groups of this nature do is far offset by the damage they cause.

  5. cchiovitti

    Zoos are both fascinating and sad at the same time. Animals which draw bigger crowds get more money spent on nicer habitats, while animals of less public interest aren’t so fortunate. While zoos do have their place in conserving certain species for others it’s just exploitation for human benefit.

  6. Kendra Holliday

    This is one of my fav posts EVER on Green Options. WOW. Love the pic, love the questions.

    We have a pretty great zoo in St Lou but it disturbs me that there are so many live animals in basements of the zoo in “storage.” Only a portion of the animals in their collection are on display for the general public to view. Reminds me of the art museum, they have a lot of art in storage that people don’t see, but we are talking about LIVING CREATURES here.

    Also the zoo is ROTTEN for elephants, big cats and bears. I think some species thrive in captivity, but others are better off dead.

    And it COMPLETELY creeps me out that we keep apes on one side of the glass. They ARE us. One of the chimps at the St Lou Zoo has a skin condition so she is completely bald and it makes her look even more human. Pretty trippy.

  7. Melissa

    I believe that the ethical questions should exist, but I also believe that there are additions to the moral questions mentioned in this article. As with every “hot” topic, there are other things that factor in. For example, PETA, an animal rights organization, have done alot of good for the kinder treatment of animals, but in the less publicized areas of their thought, all domesticated animals should be phased out. This thought was mentioned in an article in Dog fancy, they claim that no human has the right to determine what dog should be bred. This same group brought into light the plight of the commercial kennels in Eastern Pa. now the Pa. legislature has created a bill to over regulate dog ownership as they already have some of the toughest laws for dogs in the country. Not to mention the harm it does to kennels that care for Fido. That house bill is Pa. H.B. 2525 and in its language to someone that is not directly associated, it seems like a fairly harmless bill, but take into account the political donations, and in kind services and associations of PETA wit the regulatory bodies, and who is to say? In this country i thought that we had rights, but those rights are dissipating quickly.

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