Zoo bashing

Earlier this week this article published in the Huffington Post on “11 things you should know before planning your next trip to the zoo.”

Articles like this really make me angry. They are written by people who have decided that zoos are awful, and only quote other people who have decided that zoos are awful. The quality of the reporting in this article is shoddy and the presentation of so-called “things you should know” is atrociously biased. So let me go through this point-by-point and address the claims.

Full disclosure: I volunteer at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and I donate financial support to a number of their programs. I receive no financial compensation from the WPZ or any other zoo, or the AZA. No one is compensating me in any way for writing this, and I don’t speak for the WPZ or the AZA. However, I have learned much about how zoos work and I believe I can contribute useful information and context to this conversation (not to mention correct many, many errors in the HuffPo article).

1. “Many zoos claim they are conserving animals, but often times, aren’t doing so at all.” Let’s just start with a little useful background. As the article notes, there are 224 institutions in North America accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). These organizations are accountable to meet strict guidelines on animal care in order to be accredited, and they are reviewed regularly to assure continued compliance. Now the words “zoo” and “aquarium” are not trademarked, so the AZA can’t prevent someone from opening up a facility and calling it one of these things, and there are over 2000 such non-accredited facilities in North America alone. They are subject to some US Department of Agriculture and OSHA regulations, and state and federal laws preventing animal cruelty, but they are far less accountable to any authority than AZA-accredited zoos. Ironically, the handful of so-called “elephant sanctuaries” in North America are not AZA-accredited; they have almost no oversight and no accountability for the quality of care that they provide.

I don’t recommend that people visit non-accredited “zoos” or “aquariums” or “wildlife parks.” Accountability and oversight matters a great deal; running one of these kinds of facilities is very difficult and organizations benefit from being part of a larger community of practice. I am sure that some of these facilities are very nice and have adequate animal care practices, but it’s impossible for you or I to know just by visiting; and if they are up to the generally-accepted standard, they should get accredited so they can be recognized as such.

From this point on, I’m not going to discuss the non-accredited zoos and just focus on the accredited ones.

Generally speaking, there are “entertainment zoos” and “conservation zoos.” Thirty years ago, they were all entertainment zoos, but in the last three decades the zoo community has moved significantly away from that towards conservation zoos where the focus is on both educating people about the importance of conservation around the world and also directly supporting and participating in some as resources allow. Not all accredited zoos have moved there yet, and some have moved farther than others, but the consensus view is that they should all be moving in that direction. And there are some zoos, like the San Diego Zoo and Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, that try to mix both together in an appropriate balance.

According to the AZA, their accredited institutions direct about $160 million annually into conservation programs spread around the globe. I can personally verify this; a couple of years ago the AZA asked me to help them to do some number-crunching on that data (on a volunteer basis) so I got to see the raw data. It’s real. Now of course it’s not spread equally across all zoos; larger ones with stronger local community support contribute more, and small zoos in economically less prosperous areas don’t. But they all want to do more. Moreover, they all want to tie the conservation activities with their own education work and their own exhibits to help “connect the dots” for people they serve in their local communities, so often when you read a zoo’s financial reports you will see their conservation and education budgets combined if they are well-conencted programs.

So the HuffPo article’s statement about “less than three percent of a zoo’s budget goes to conservation efforts” is a sweeping statement that is probably true for some, but is definitely false for others, and is highly contextual.

Further: the article’s author completely misunderstands and misrepresents Species Survival Plans (SSPs). An SSP is a cooperative captive breeding program for a specific endangered species across all the participating AZA-accredited zoos that have that species in their collection. An SSP is intended to build a sustainable, genetically diverse captive population. It has two goals: first, ensure that zoos never need to capture any more of that species from the wild for the captive population; and second, as a last resort have a large and genetically diverse enough population so that if the wild population goes extinct it could potentially get reintroduced. The first goal is indirectly related to conservation so as to avoid further depleting the wild population, and the latter is directly related — but everyone hopes it never needs to be done, it would be reliant upon the conditions that caused the extinction having changed, and it’s always a risky endeavor. There are cases of animals successfully being reintroduced where zoos have been involved, such as the California condor and Western pond turtles; and there are other projects underway such as the Partula snail. AZA zoos run over 500 SSP programs – an enormous effort in cooperative animal management.

But more to the point: the $160 million that AZA zoos spend annually on conservation is completely separate from the SSP programs. It represents work happening throughout North America and in almost every corner of the globe: tigers, cheetahs, raptors, elephants, and hundreds of other species. But the main focus of the programs isn’t on individual species; it’s on saving habitats, in cooperation with local governments, other NGO’s, farmers, ranchers, and local residents. The habitat loss is the root cause of the species decline, so it need to be the focus of the conservation efforts.

It’s simply untrue to say that these efforts are rarely successful. Many of them are making great progress. Certainly they won’t all be successful, but we know what will happen if we don’t try at all.

As for the critique of elephant care in zoos (and why this is under a bullet point about conservation, I have no idea): the Seattle Times hit-job last year was another piece of shoddy reporting that has been refuted in a number of other places so I’ll refrain from rehashing it all here. Yes, elephants are tricky to care for in captivity, and breeding them is also tricky. Some zoos keep elephants in overly small enclosures, and that needs to get fixed. But the zoo community has made enormous strides over the past two decades in that regard, so don’t indict zoos today because of what they were like 20 years ago. Elephants are extremely endangered in the wild and an SSP for them is a very worthy endeavor. Zoos don’t keep elephants just for the entertainment value; the SSP is super important, as is the educational benefit – and the benefit to our scientific knowledge about elephants – from having a well cared for captive population.

2. “On the topic of elephants, 40 percent of all African elephants in U.S. zoos are obese.”   Another case where either the author didn’t read the actual source material, or deliberately chose to ignore it because the headline was more exciting. If you read the original phys.org article, you find out that this s a story about a research effort that is about to be started, not one that’s already completed. The doctoral student conducting the study claims that obesity affects about 40 percent of the captive elephant population, though that is a very broad statement that doesn’t give us a clue at all about how severe a problem it is – are they on average 100 pounds overweight? 50 pounds? 1000 pounds? There’s a huge range. The HuffPo author also claims that it’s affecting their reproduction, but in fact that hasn’t been shown and is exactly what the researcher wants to go investigate; to quote her:

“In humans, inflammation is a common feature in the effects of obesity such as heart disease and infertility, and we know obesity leads to a chronic state of inflammation,” she said. “What we don’t know is the relationship in elephants between inflammation and obesity with abnormal reproductive function.”

Which states the exact opposite of what the author claims: at this point we have no idea what level of obesity affects elephant reproduction, if it does at all.

Now that being said, it is certainly true that obesity is frequently an issue for animals in zoos, and the keepers build programs for them to ensure that they get enough activity and the appropriate amount of food to keep them at a healthy weight. But this is further complicated that animals in zoos tend to live longer – sometimes much longer – than they would in the wild, and as such can suffer from the same kind of age-related health issues (arthritis, cataracts, organ failures) that cause them to be less active. Many of the animals in those situations do put on weight, and that may explain some of the obesity issues with elephants. Again, these situations are often complicated and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

3. “The “habitats” most zoo animals are housed in barely even resemble their natural environments.” The article makes wild, unsubstantiated statements. This is another case where we shouldn’t indict zoos today based upon what they were like 30 years ago. AZA-accredited zoos are moving as fast as they can to move their entire collection to naturalistic exhibits, and many have made huge strides. I won’t lie to you and tell you that they are all there. It costs a lot of money to build naturalistic exhibits, and more to maintain them. But it’s important not just for the animals but also for the education benefit of teaching people why we need to conserve entire habitats and not just the animals that live in them. I’m not aware of anyone who works at a zo who is happy with the non-naturalistic exhibits that remain. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that every animal that isn’t in a naturalistic exhibit in unhappy and/or unhealthy; some (certainly not all) do just fine in that kind of environment. Again, though, no one is happy with that state of affairs and people are trying to change it as fast as money can be raised.

4. “Which may help explain why many of the movements you see animals make in their enclosures are serious signs of anxiety and depression.” Stereotypical repetitive behavior is a real thing, and it’s very sad to see. But it’s another sweeping overgeneralization to say that “many of the movements you see animals make” are stereotypical repetitive behavior; that simply isn’t true. Animals that are in enclosures that are too small definitely show it, but there are many animals in zoos that never show it. And there are some that show it some of the time; I know from firsthand evidence that one of the elephants at the zoo where I volunteer tends to show this kind of behavior just before her daily bath. That doesn’t mean she’s anxious in a bad way about getting her bath; if anything she’s anxious in a good way. But she’s very smart and is anticipating something that’s going to happen soon, and she gets worked up about it. Again: repetitive stereotypical behavior is a real thing, and frequently it’s a sign that the animal is under stress. Don’t think that zoo staff don’t recognize this and don’t try to address it. They do, and as time goes by I see fewer and fewer animals displaying it.

5. “That animal you see may only appear happy because he’s on antidepressants.” Again, a complete, wild overgeneralization by the author, based upon a couple of old anecdotes. AZA-accredited zoos have an extremely high standard for veterinary care that would never allow for mass drugging of animals. I am sure there are occasional exceptions for animals that are dealing with other health related issues, but giving an animal antidepressants to compensate for an inadequate enclosure would never pass muster today in an AZA-accredited zoo. The zoo where I volunteer has an amazing vet staff that is very conservative about giving medicines to animals; this is for several reasons, not the least of which is that there isn’t much science on how individual species will be affected by the medicine. For the same reason, zoo vets try to avoid sedating animals or putting them under general anesthetic if they can perform a procedure in other ways while keeping the animal comfortable, because the effects and proper dosage of sedatives and anesthesia on the wide variety of animals found in zoos don’t have the decades of research and practice that we have for humans.

6. “Animals are often moved around different zoos, which disrupts their pack units.” Some animals do get moved between zoos. “Often” is a huge exaggeration. They are moved when the SSP requires it, and sometimes on a temporary basis when a new exhibit is being built (or rebuilt). It’s also sometimes done when two animals refuse to get along and need to be separated, or when a litter of babies all turn into adults and need more space than can be provided at the zoo. Keep in mind that not all animals live in pack units; many are solitary in the wild. Zoos work hard to keep mothers with their children at least through the period when they would stay together in the wild before separating them, and then often it’s instigated by the mother who will give not-so-subtle signs that she wants the kids to move on. When animals do get moved, it is carefully planned for months before it happens. Frequently keepers from either the sending or receiving zoo (or both) will visit the other zoo as part of the transition plan to help with consistency for the animal. And if the animal is going to be introduced to a new group, it is done extremely carefully and in stages with people watching at every step to see if there are any signs of trouble. Intelligent, strong-willed animals can’t be forced to like each other, and occasionally the match doesn’t work out; in very rare instances an animal gets hurt in the introduction process, but usually there is an intervention before it gets to that point. Often the first introduction are in side-by-side enclosures separated by caging so that the animals can have some interaction without physically being able to touch each other, and the keepers can read the signs from that to know whether to move forward. The bottom line: everyone knows that moving animals between zoos can be traumatic if not handled extremely carefully; it’s not done without a very good reason, it’s not done often to any animal, and when it’s done careful procedures are followed.

7. “And some zoos refuse to move animals who desperately need to be in a different environment.” The author lists one anecdote from Argentina – hardly a sweeping indictment. I can’t speak to the practices in Argentina, but in AZA zoos, an animal that desperately needed to be in a different environment would not go unnoticed and zoo leadership wouldn’t refuse to do something about it. There’s too much accountability for that.

8. “Some zoos don’t have the resources to properly take care of their animals.” And the author lists exactly one zoo – the National Zoo, which has a unique bizarre funding model that as part of the Smithsonian Museum system and being in the District of Columbia, in the end is decided by Congress. I will grant you that the National Zoo is not one of my favorite zoos and has clearly been the victim of severe budget cutbacks, so you should complain to Congress about it. But it’s not representative of zoos in general, and certainly not their funding. Zoo staff would rather close exhibits than keep them open and risk the welfare of the animals. And this does happen; the Woodland Park Zoo, for example, closed its popular Nocturnal House a few years back because of budget constraints. Many people miss it but it was the right thing to do. Pretty much all zoos have tight budgets, with the possible exceptions of the Bronx Zoo and the San Diego Zoo. Most zoos get a large share of their funding from local tax levies, which puts them at the whim of local economic conditions. Anyone who doesn’t support local taxes to help pay for their zoo has no right to complain about the quality of the zoo.

9. “In fact, some animals have very expensive specific diets that zookeepers hardly understand.” We should tease those apart: some animals have expensive diets, such as elephants who eat a HUGE amount of food every day. And some have very specific diets. And yes, zoos have nutritionists and horticulturalists (though I think if you knew what zoo staff get paid, you wouldn’t refer to them as “expensive”). I would take issue with the author’s description of endangered animals easily finding their food sources in the wild; more often than not, the animals are endangered because of habitat loss – their food sources are gone. But yes, zoos work hard to provide the right kinds of substitute food when native food sources can’t been provided. And this is another area where the sins from 10-20 years ago shouldn’t be used to judge zoos today. And it’s a stretch to say that zookeepers “hardly understand” the animals’ diets, though it is true that there is research ongoing both in zoos and in the wild on animal diets which is also helping us to understand what it will take to restore habitats successfully (we need to know what food sources are important to the ecosystem).

10. “The truth is, many zoo visitors aren’t interested or aware of the well-being of the animals they’re seeing.” There is nothing in the data that the author refers to that in any way justifies this claim. Visitors spent 65%-70% of their time watching the animals, and 30% of their time looking at interpretive materials. How does one take from that the conclusion that the visitors aren’t interested in or aware of the animals’ well-being??? They are spending most of their time watching the animal! Would you rather they come to the zoo and spend 80% of their time reading stuff they could read on the Internet at home, and not look at the animal at all? As for the comment about lots of people bothering the animals, the study report says exactly the opposite: “Neither group spent considerable proportions of their visit in undesirable behaviors such as hitting the glass.” The researchers estimated it was .03% of the time for children, and .01% for adults. So chalk that up as blatant misrepresentation. If you’re going to claim that something is the truth, it helps if you actually say something truthful.

11. “If you want to see wild animals, you should seek a place where you can view animals who are not caged.” (first of all, tell me how this qualifies at a “thing you should know.”) That’s a lovely sentiment for all the people who can afford to take trips to nature preserves; they’re great, and for the people who have both the means and the opportunity to do that, more power to you. But for an awful lot of people, the only way they will ever get to see these animals is in a zoo or aquarium. And even for the people who can visit a local nature preserve and are lucky enough to see native animals there, they won’t see animals from other parts of the country – let alone the world. I’ve watched people at zoos – both children and adults – make a personal connection with an animal at a zoo that inspired them to want to help with both local and international conservation efforts. That is incredibly important and zoos play a critical part in getting more people to care about animals, habitats and conservation.


Zoos are not perfect, and there is a lot more room for improvement. But let’s have a real, informed, mature conversation about them, the role they play in our society, and how we can make them better. That’s far more productive than random, poorly-researcher hit jobs.



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