Zoological parks, more commonly known as zoos, have been around since ancient times. The Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt was part of a larger complex that included a museum, an observatory, a botanical garden, and a zoo. A zoo is basically a collection of wild animals housed in permanent exhibits that are realistically landscaped to look like natural habitats. Zoos are different than circuses, where trained animals are kept in cages and taught to do special tricks, usually while being transported to a series of shows across the country. Zoos contain lions, tigers, elephants, and bears just like circuses. However, unlike circuses that keep animals purely for entertainment purposes, zoos put more emphasis on education and scientific inquiry. Nonetheless, there are people who are against all forms of animal captivity. Some zoo critics claim that zoos are basically prisons for holding animals against their will. Others complain that zoos are unnatural habitats for wild animals, believing that they actually do more harm than good by taking the animals away from their native homelands. In recent years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came under fire from animal rights activists for their exploitation of animals. The Greatest Show on Earth finally shut down in 2017. Will zoos be next?
Children and adults of all ages enjoy going to zoos because they like to see the animals. Zoos help to educate people about wild and exotic animals they otherwise would not know anything about. Zoos also have many useful benefits such as helping to conserve endangered species. Without zoos, some threatened animal species already would be extinct. Zoos also provide a home for animals that can no longer survive on their own in the wild. This includes animals that were injured and rehabilitated, or rescued from people who illegally kept them as pets. In addition, zoos are a hands-on training ground where future wildlife biologists, veterinarians, and zoologists can gain valuable experience in a controlled environment. We can only find out so much about animals in the wild, but scientists can study animals over a long period of time in zoos, without the difficulty and expense of having to journey to remote and often dangerous wilderness regions. Effectively countering the arguments against zoos, several experts have come out in favor of zoos. Dr. Betsy Dresser, formerly with the endangered species research center at the Cincinnati Zoo and whose work is featured in an article titled “Reinventing the Zoo,” is the best proponent for the vital role of zoos in science. Diane Barber, curator of amphibians at the Fort Worth Zoo, champions zoos as a venue for informing the public about animals and the environment in “Building Conservation Partnerships with Zoos.” Dr. Michael H. Robinson, director of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., expounds on the long-term value of zoos in his review of Colin Tudge’s book Last Animals at the Zoo: How Mass Extinction Can Be Stopped. The evidence provided by these professionals supports the article “Good News from Zoos,” by Margaret A. Robinson and Pam Carroll in Cricket. Therefore, zoos have been proven to be important for scientific research, education, and conservation.
Value #1: Scientific Research
The word zoo comes from zoology, which is the scientific study of animals. So it makes sense that one reason why zoos exist is for the advancement of science. Zoos allow scientists to study animals all in one place without having to travel to multiple locations around the world. Biologists, zoologists, and veterinarians can perform valuable research in zoos. Dr. Betsy Dresser is known for having made several breakthroughs in captive breeding and developing new technologies such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo transplantation, cryopreservation, and other high-tech methods of assisting in species-saving efforts (Praded, 2002). Dr. Robinson states in his review of Last Animals at the Zoo: “Zoo opponents have objected that animals bred in zoos will not be genetically viable or behaviorally wild by the time they can be returned to nature. This book establishes beyond doubt that these objections are invalid” (1). Robinson himself notes that “zoos are an important resource for all kinds of biological research–a fact that needs repeated emphasis in these days when zoos are under attack from the animal rights movement” (2). In 2002, for example, zoos in 86 countries were involved in 2,230 research projects related to conservation (Praded, 2002, p. 7). Through the study of captive animals, zoos provide an excellent opportunity for scientists to further their knowledge of wild animals.
Value #2: Public Education
In addition to scientific research and scholarly studies, zoos are a means of educating the general public. Zoos teach people about biodiversity and the importance of preserving wildlife habitats. According to Forth Worth zoo curator Diane Barber, the number of people that visit zoos each year is greater than the number of people that attend all the professional sporting events in the country combined (Barber, 2008, p. 1). That is a lot of people worth reaching with a meaningful message about animals. Barber adds, “studies show that after a visit to a zoo or aquarium, people often think about their role in environmental problems and begin to see themselves as part of the solution” (1). Moreover, young zoo visitors may be inspired to become zoologists or wildlife managers when they grow up. This will ensure that animals and their habitats will continue to be preserved for future generations. As Dresser emphasizes in the article by Joni Praded, many wild animals are in danger of dying out, and most animal endangerment is caused by a loss of habitat, usually as a result of human activity (Praded, 2002). This is where zoos come in, because people tend to care more about things they have seen with their own eyes, such as real live animals at the zoo. Animal advocates might argue that the main lesson taught by zoos is that humans have the right to imprison animals for gawking at. However, a well-designed zoo enclosure will make use of strategically-placed walls hidden behind rocks and vegetation to keep animals in bounds while giving them plenty of privacy. Besides, many animals were born in zoos and it is the only way of life they know. Also, as Robinson points out, “if zoos can provide animals with opportunities to engage in wild behaviors… the moral argument against captivity loses much of its impact (2).
Value #3: Wildlife Conservation
Some people claim that zoos can actually harm endangered species because they lower their population in the wild by “kidnapping” them out of their natural habitat, only to put them inside artificial habitats. The reality is that when it comes to saving species, zoos are the real animal advocates. Conserving endangered species is one of the main goals of modern zoos. Barber says that “AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] institutions have been directly involved in developing and implementing hundreds of recovery programs for threatened and endangered species around the globe” (1). In fact, probably their most important function is the breeding of endangered animals. If you go to the Phoenix Zoo, you will be able to see a herd of Arabian oryx. Robinson and Carroll (1991) tell about how back in 1962, the oryx was in danger of being hunted to extinction. Nine oryxes were sent to live in Phoenix, Arizona, an environment that resembles their native Saudi Arabia. Once they began to reproduce and thrive, some were sent back to their homeland. “Until these animals were returned, no live oryx had been seen on the Arabian Peninsula for years. If it hadn’t been for zoos, these lovely, graceful animals might now be extinct!” (Robinson and Carroll, 1991, p. 3). Although some people do not believe in keeping any animal in captivity, it is better to keep rare animals in a zoo than to let the animals die out. At least there is a chance that captive animals can become wild again; but once animals become extinct, they are forever lost to history. In his book review, Robinson details how Colin Tudge is devoted to the idea that habitat loss is inevitable, so zoos are the last best hope for stopping the mass extinction of many larger vertebrate species until their natural habitats are stabilized, which could take two or more centuries (Robinson, 1993, p. 1). Moreover, if a particular endangered species of animal is spread out around various parts of the world in different zoos, it increases the probability that at least one population of them will survive even if the others are wiped out due to a natural disaster or change in climate. Thus, zoos serve as caretakers and protectors of animals, sheltering them and giving them a safe place to live, where they can feel at home until someday they can be returned to the wild.
Zoos are a form of wildlife tourism, providing a green park-like setting where people can go for a nature walk in the middle of the city. But zoos do much more than simply serve as tourist attractions and nature-oriented recreational opportunities. Zoos are a win-win venture for both the animal occupants and the human visitors; contrary to circuses which are more one-sided in favor of the owners, trainers, and audience at the expense of the animals’ comfort and dignity. World-renowned zoos such as the Phoenix Zoo and the San Diego Zoo have extensive exhibits that recreate the animals’ native habitats and educate the public, helping to make visitors more environmentally aware. Zoo interns and employees receive practical hands-on training that they otherwise would not have access to. Students on school field trips learn about animals from an early age. Encouraging people to come and visit is a great way to collect admission fees which help raise the funds to pay for making interpretive exhibits, conducting scientific research, and actively working to save animals from extinction. Rare and threatened animals can live safely in zoos where they are protected from habitat loss, poachers, starvation, and predators. From this point of view, zoos are leaders in animal care and conservation.
Many people do not realize all the good that zoos do, but thanks to current environmental education efforts, more people are starting to understand their significance. All flora and fauna is part of a complex ecosystem; remove one or more of those parts and you permanently affect the ecosystem. Now imagine if all the endangered species on our planet were not saved, but actually died out like the dinosaurs did. That would mean thousands of animals missing from the world today. Earth would be really boring without the wide diversity of creatures that live here now. Not only that, the loss of these animals may have serious repercussions that we cannot begin to comprehend. It could be something like the butterfly effect and entire ecosystems might collapse. Even worse, if all the animals go extinct, what is to stop humans from going extinct? Therefore, zoos play a critical role in not only conserving animals but ultimately preserving our way of life. One could even say that zoos are like a modern version of Noah’s Ark.