There is a lot of talk, especially over the past few years about captivity of animals and whether it is a good or bad. With the accessibility of social media, people are quick to jump on the bandwagon of “All zoos are bad” and “free all of the animals”. However, most people do not take the time to educate themselves on the issues, the reasons for captive animals and the good these institutions do. Yes, there are poorly run zoos/aquariums/sanctuaries, but there are also those who fight to end extinction, reintroduce species on the brink of extinction, work with governments and communities to protect species and house animals during rehabilitation and recovery. These institutions are necessary and vital if we are going to have any chance of preserving our planet, saving species, recovering habitat and educating our youth about the ecosystem and its importance in our plight for survival.
So, how do you know? There are many ways to educate yourself and make the right choices. A little research goes a long way and might help to answer some questions and provide clarity to your concerns around these institutions. Every zoo and aquarium is different from each other and just because one is smaller, or older, or ends up attracting media attention, it does not mean they do not have the best interest of the species in mind. The knowledge in the animal world is constantly changing. Therefore zoos and aquariums are constantly changing. Making upgrades to better suit habitats, changing diets to better match that in the wild, or provide essential nutrients, adding new programs, bringing new animals in for the public to learn about; these changes may affect the appearance or marketing tactics of a zoo, this does not mean it is a bad place or only out to turn a profit, but how do you know? What are some things each person can do to better understand the roles of these institutions in our world and if they are worth your visit and attention?
Photo taken at San Diego Zoo by Samantha Sullivan
Here are some helpful tips. First, is the zoo a non-profit? I am constantly hearing from people who claim that zoos just exist to make a profit. Let’s stop right there. Take a look and see what their status is. If it is a non-profit, there are programs in place to benefit the animals, the community, and education. They are not there to make a profit and get rich. Many zoological institutions and aquariums are non-profit organizations. Not sure how to find this out? Just look for the institution online. If you are interested in learning more about their programs they are always found on their website, and there is a good chance there are educational brochures and/or volunteers on site that can talk to you more about different programs that particular zoo operates that supports the community, education, species reintroduction, and more.
Photo taken at Howler Monkey Sanctuary, Belize by Samantha Sullivan
This can get you started, but it is not as simple as whether or not they draw in a profit or not. Look deeper. What is their mission statement? What do they stand for? Any zoo will have on their website their mission, vision and current goals and projects. Read them, educate yourself. What do you think? Do your values align with theirs? You may be surprised at just how many zoos are out there doing the hard work to save our planet and the amazing species we share it with. Additionally, check out the educational programs that the institution offers? Are there fun and educational ways to get your children involved in nature and excited about animal welfare and conservation? Are there programs for adults to bring awareness to serious conservation issues?
Photo from Belize Zoo, Belize. Taken by Samantha Sullivan
Another way to learn about the legitimacy of a zoo or aquarium is to ensure it is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This accreditation process includes reviews and inspections that meet a certain standard of excellence that the institution must abide by. You can get a complete list of AZA accredited institutions at www.aza.org. If they are not accredited, it may be best to stay away. Another topic to consider, is the state of the enclosures where the animals live. What do the enclosures look like? Do they seem to mimic natural habitat? What about enrichment, such as treats, activities, and other items to engage the animal? What about the size of the enclosure, does it seem fitting for the animal? Keep in mind many enclosures are actually much larger than what you can see, many times the enclosure for visitors is smaller so that the visitors can have the opportunity to see the animal, but the behind the scenes area may be larger. Having a conversation with a zoo keeper or volunteer may answer some of your questions about the enclosures and the well-being of the animals.
Photo from Kansas City Zoo, Kansas City, MO. Taken by Samantha Sullivan
At the end of the day, there is no current scenario where we all win. Currently habitat destruction, poaching, human overpopulation and climate change are serious threats to the existence of the magnificent animals we share the planet with. If we are to continue to destroy their homes what are the alternatives for their survival? How can we educate people around the importance of these animals if they have no connection to them? If we discontinue captive breeding programs what will happen to species on the brink of extinction? While it is simple to say, zoos are bad and all animals should be free; the reality of “freedom” is bleak and right now the existence of zoos and aquariums may be our only hope to undo the mess we have made and restore balance back to our planet.