Zoological facilities have become one of the last hopes for a species’ survival. They facilitate a majority of conservation projects around the world and they raise awareness about these projects to their patrons, who financially support these conservation endeavors. Anti-zoo propaganda articles pop up left and right from sources like The Dodo, Huffington Post, and PETA, and with all of these articles floating around, there is an abundance of misinformation rooted in emotion rather than in fact. Most of the data in these articles is manipulated and misrepresents the research that has been conducted. Additionally, they often fail to provide authors, titles, journals or links of any of the studies that they get their data from. Here are five common claims of anti-zoo propaganda and explanations of why they are wrong.
1) Even under the best circumstances, zoos cannot begin to replicate natural habitats.
Anti-zoo propaganda claims that zoo animals are deprived of everything natural and important to them, including roaming, foraging, choosing a mate, and being with others of their own kind. However, based on research, animals that are managed scientifically in a zoological setting have the same opportunities as those in the wild, it is just a more structured lifestyle. Structure in a zoological setting is important for an animal’s biology and is done in time with their natural patterns, such as bringing animals into behind-the-scenes areas in the order of their social hierarchy as determined by the group and not by the trainers.
It is also important to note that adverse factors, such as pollution, disease, and habitat destruction, are eliminated from an animal’s habitat in human care. Anti-zoo propaganda uses emotional appeals to attempt to convince audiences that a natural habitat is better than a habitat in a zoological facility. They purposely fail to mention that an animal’s wild habitat is often shrinking due to deforestation, over fishing, or farming. They also fail to mention the impacts of humans and pollution. So to be fair, it could be said that in order to perfectly mimic an animal’s natural habitat, zoos would have to introduce plastic debris, dangerous forms of carbon pollution, a contaminated water source, and dangerous disease-causing pathogens. It is clear that zoos promote a great quality of life for their animals based on the research and experience that they have developed over many years.
2) Zoos teach humans that it’s acceptable to interfere with animals and keep them locked in tiny enclosures where they’re denied all control over their lives, leading to frustration and depression.
The rhetoric of anti-zoo propaganda claims that many animals in captivity exhibit self-destructive, repetitive behavior because of the inherent stress of living in managed care. These repetitive behaviors are described as symptoms of a condition known as “zoochosis.” First, the term “zoochosis” is not a legitimate or reputable scientific term. A Google Scholar search for “zoochosis” revealed only forty hits, and only one of those was an actual scientific research study (and not a very good one). It is possible for animals to develop neurosis for various reasons in both human care and in the wild, but scientists also believe that these behaviors can be learned from other animals that exhibit neurosis; therefore, it is hard to distinguish mimicry from true neurosis. Zookeepers, trainers, and veterinarians work together with animals that display these behaviors to determine if there is physiological or environmental cause, or if it is just mimicry. They will then develop a behavior modification program to provide more enrichment and more choices for the animal to help extinguish the neurosis.
To help guard against unwanted and unnatural behaviors, zoological professionals actively work to educate guests on the biology and conservation of the species. They also monitor guest interactions with the animals to prevent interference. Additionally, enclosures are designed so that animals have plenty of places to avoid human-concentrated areas. This provides animals with the freedom to move away from humans and rest, or to interact with guests.
3) It’s hard for zoos to explain the “need” to keep them trapped in unnatural conditions. That’s where the industry’s most powerful marketing tool comes into play — conservation.
Anti-zoo activists tend to refer to this as the Great ‘Conservation’ Con. They state that zoos claim to protect species from extinction, but that most animals in zoos are not endangered species. PETA cites a study published in 2013 in the journal PLOS ONE that found that only 18 percent of land animals in zoo collections are threatened or endangered. They go on to claim that of the nearly 4,000 species in human care, only 691 have this status. Misrepresentation of data is a tactic widely used by anti-zoo sympathizers. The article that they refer to is peer-reviewed primary literature – see http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0080311. The article actually concludes that zoos devote 23% of their collections to threatened species, but that the number is low due to the spatial distribution of taxa, and that additional work needs to be done to further conservation efforts in the wild. The article goes on to praise the work of the zoological community in the actions it has taken in support of conservation and claims that, though limited due to resources and the difficulty of managing some species, overall, the zoological community has collectively prevented the extinction of a number of species. PETA ignores these positive remarks, however, and uses this article to claim that zoos are not effective in their conservation efforts.
Anti-zoo propaganda claims that very little of a zoo’s revenue goes towards conservation. A 2011 study is often cited, but the authors, title, or even the journal that it was published in are never included, so there is no way to check or cite the study. The study allegedly claims that North American zoos invest less than 5% of their income in conservation. They then claim that that is an overestimation, and it is likely that only 1% of revenue is spent on conservation efforts. They hide behind this figure by stating that some zoos keep this information private, making it difficult to find out how much, if anything, they dedicate to these efforts.
Let’s not forget that caring for animals is expensive: animals in zoological settings typically eat better than we do and receive species-specific veterinary care. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums reports that its 230 accredited members contribute an average of $160 million to conservation each year, supporting over 2,500 conservation projects in over 100 countries. Many zoos and aquariums have their own conservation funds that issue grants to support local conservation projects, and facilities will often partner with universities and leading scientists in the fields of conservation, ecology, physiology, medicine, and behavior.
4) The majority of animals held in zoos are not being prepared for release into the wild. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to release captive-bred animals.
This claim is also common, but the reality is more complicated than activists make it out to be. Activists often claim that breeding programs are solely in place to produce cute baby animals which attract zoo patrons and generate revenue. They also claim that breeding programs sometimes result in a surplus of adult animals that may be “warehoused” behind the scenes or sent to shabby roadside zoos. Not only is this untrue, but the activists never acknowledge that breeding decisions take many factors into consideration, including government regulations, animal breeding history, loan contracts, habitat condition, conservation efforts, and political red tape, just to name a few. Further, for many species, it is impractical to consider releasing an animal back into a destroyed or threatened habitat. When safe habitat is secured, reintroduction may be an option, but until then, it is important for breeding programs, conservation programs, and education programs to all happen simultaneously. The releases of some captive animals can be more complicated than others. In the case of manatees, any rescue organization must have clearance from the Fish and Wildlife Commission to rescue or remove an animal from its habitat to be rehabilitated, and another approval from the Fish and Wildlife Commission must be received for that individual to be released.
5) Animals in zoos are for entertainment purposes only and breeding programs ensure that the revenue stream continues.
This statement can’t be farther from the truth. There are three major forms of zoological interaction programs that are interpreted as “entertainment” by anti-zoo groups: are animal shows, animal encounters, and behind-the-scenes tours. All three of these programs are about education, not entertainment. While they are certainly fun, they are also designed to teach guests about the animals in an engaging way and to inspire them to help species that they encounter by making small, everyday lifestyle changes, such as conserving resources, reusing, and recycling. Animal shows are essentially an open invitation for guests to watch an already-planned training session. Animal shows have caught national media attention with SeaWorld’s phase-out plan for its orca shows. While the theatrical shows are indeed choreographed to music, the animals cannot hear the frequency of the music and are simply responding to hand, audio, and light cues. While the theatrical shows will come to an end, the training sessions will continue as they are important for the animals’ physical and mental stimulation. Animal encounters are a great way for a guest to get up close to an animal, whether it is feeding a giraffe or touching a shark, which creates a connection that can inspire a guest to make simple changes in their lifestyle that help animals in the wild. Behind-the-scenes tours achieve a similar effect but through providing guests with special access to certain enclosures and with an understanding and appreciation of what animal care teams and trainer teams do on a daily basis.
Zoological facilities may very well be the last hope of survival for many species. These facilities have already contributed to many conservation success stories, and will likely contribute to many more, as they house several species which are no longer found in the wild. Hopefully, in the future, species which are extinct in the wild can repopulate their natural habitats once they are secured. Anti-zoo propaganda does nothing but impede the efforts of zoological facilities. Be a part of the solution and continue to spread the truth about these wonderful facilities.