It's Time to Boycott Zoos

Blackfish is a documentary which focuses on Tilikum, an orca whale held captive in SeaWorld, who went on to kill three individuals. It looks at the negative consequences (for orcas and humans) of keeping these highly intelligent, emotional and social animals in captivity for their entire life. These orcas would attack each other, as well as the trainers, which sometimes resulted in serious injury and life-threatening situations. The documentary has sparked a lot of controversy and has made many people determined never to visit the place.

I remember going to SeaWorld when I was younger and thought nothing of it. All you see is a crowd of happy people, an enthusiastic trainer and an orca whale which looked like it was having fun doing some tricks. But behind this veneer is cruelty and exploitation. Keeping an intelligent creature like Tilikum captive led to highly aggressive, violent and psychotic behaviour - wild orcas are usually non-threatening towards humans. Keeping other highly intelligent creatures, such as chimpanzees, in confinement can lead to similar neuroses and psychological dysfunctions. Although many decided to boycott SeaWorld after seeing the documentary, unfortunately SeaWorld’s profits have not been affected – they’ve actually improved. On the other hand, this is not due to an increase in attendance but an increase in ticket prices. Attendance has actually dropped, most likely due to the effect of this documentary. In the near future we may see attendance rates drop even further as this film becomes more widely circulated.

This documentary raises an important question: is it ever right to put a wild animal in captivity, in a zoo, for human entertainment? I aim to show why the apparent innocence of zoos is illusory. Zoos are institutions which remove wild animals from their natural habitat and force them to live out an unnatural life in an artificial enclosure. Such animals are usually separated from their family as well which can induce a feeling of sorrow (elephants and orcas have also been observed to experience grief at the loss of a relative). When I was younger I also remember visiting London Zoo, but again, the point of view of the animals never entered into my mind. They were just something interesting, cute and entertaining to watch. Nothing suggested that they were beaten or tortured by the employees, so what could possibly be wrong with this set up? Well, it turns out that a level of torture does exist.

The Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS) last year exposed London Zoo for carrying out the cruel practice of pinioning birds. This is an operation which involves amputating part of the bird’s wing so that it is rendered permanently flightless. Fortunately, the zoo responded with a promise to stop pinioning, which may in turn encourage other zoos to do the same. The campaign to outlaw pinioning continues to enjoy support and progress. However, as great as outlawing pinioning would be for the animal’s welfare, CAPS are still opposed to the holding of wild animals in captive zoos.

Peter Tatchell, the famous human rights and LGBT rights campaigner, has in the past demanded that London Zoo be shut down. Tatchell argues it is cruel to keep a wild animal in an enclosure, not matter how large it is. With the case of gorillas, for example, even though their enclosure has grown over time, this still does not match the size of what their natural territory would be like in the rainforest. Many exotic birds have no room to fly; camels, zebras and giraffes cannot wander as they would in the wild, and smaller animals are confined to tiny glass display cases. These animals live a life of imprisonment and constantly suffer from boredom, frustration and stress. The open plan design of the enclosures also means they can never escape the noise and attention of tourists. Another campaigner, Damian Aspinall, has similarly boycotted London Zoo. He stated that, “The fact that we have to keep animals in captivity is a sign of the abject failure of us as a species. The long-term goal should be that we do not need to keep animals in captivity…The idea that zoos should be for the education or entertainment of mankind fills me with horror.”

Regarding the point of zoos educating people, it is doubtful whether zoos do have this effect. After all, what can we learn about an animal’s natural behaviour if it is forced to live in an alien environment? Frustrating an animal’s needs, desires and preferences has no benefit to the animal or for educational purposes. Dale Jamieson is a Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy from New York University and has spoken out passionately against the zoo industry. He tackles this issue in his essay Against Zoos. Jamieson contends that any argument in favour of zoos – whether they be appeals to amusement, education, scientific research or conservation – are flawed and don’t carry much weight. In regards to research, Dale has the following to say: “…the claim that captive animals are more interesting research subjects than those in the wild is not very plausible.” Besides, very few zoos carry out research anyway.

It is also questionable whether zoos do act as a force for conservation. As Jamieson goes on to say, “…it can be argued that they [zoos] continue to remove more animals from they wild than they return.” Furthermore, after a few years in captivity an animal will diverge both behaviourally and genetically from its relatives in the wild, suggesting that the same wild animal is no longer being preserved. Zoo breeding programmes can also lead to many unwanted animals. This surplus of animals is a financial burden for the zoo and many are sold to individuals or institutions which lack the proper facilities to take care of them. In America we find that this surplus has led to the trading of exotic animals.

The philosopher Bryan Norton argues that putting a captive-bred animal in the wild is “equivalent to dropping a contemporary human being in a remote area in the 18th or 19th Century and saying, ‘Let’s see if you can make it.’” In other words, zoos do little to conserve endangered species. Zoos have a poor track record when it comes to successfully re-introducing species into the wild and producing self-sustaining wild populations. The real solution is to preserve the wild habitats in which these animals belong. Given the arguments against zoos I have outlined, it’s time that we boycotted zoos. They are a manifestation of the belief that animals can be used for human purposes. They force animals to live a life of misery for the trivial purpose of human (mainly child) amusement. If you’re thinking about making a trip to the zoo, aquarium or a marine mammal park like SeaWorld, please re-consider.

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com