Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Do zoos accomplish their goals?

Marc Bekoff's blog at Psychology Today has a post entitled Zoos and Aquariums do not accomplish what they claim to do. He brings up the issue that animals living in captivity often live compromised lives, and notes that African elephants have shorter lifespans in captivity versus the wild. He addresses a study conducted by the AZA that concluded that zoos were succeeding in their education goals, as well a study critiquing it's conclusions based on methodological issues.

There's a lot of complex issues raised in Bekoff's post that I'd like to address, but unfortunately I'm just about to head off to the AAPAs, so I don't have time. I also have not had a chance to read either of these studies, which I would like to to do. Nonetheless, since it brings up a lot of topics I'd like to tackle in the near, I'd like to outline some of the questions raised, which I hope to explore in future posts.

First, underlying Bekoff's post is the issue of whether it is ethical to keep the animals in captivity. This is an important issue in itself, and it's one I would like to examine in more detail. This, of course, is dependent on 1) the conditions of captivity (which can vary largely), 2) the health and welfare of the animals (which also will vary largely by species), and 3) the benefits of captivity (ie,in this case whether zoos are achieving their goals).

To address the health and welfare of captive animals, in my next post(s), I'd like to examine these questions in detail using two examples, African elephants and spider monkeys (surprise, surprise). While I was originally tempted to use "primates" as a broader category, there's so much variation (consider the space, enrichment, and social requirements needed for chimpanzees, vs. marmosets) that it's probably best just to focus on what I know best, and perhaps just comment how the situation may vary for other primates.

Second, Bekoff's posts is particularly addressing whether zoos are achieving their goals. While his post, and the two studies mentioned, both focus on education, I think we should also consider the other goals of zoos and aquariums: research, conservation, and, (arguably) entertainment. How important are each of these goals? And how are zoos successfully achieving these goals, or how are they falling short of them?

While I hope to address those questions in another post, for now, I'd like to raise some questions to my readers:

1) Do you believe that it is justified to keep wild animals in zoos and aquariums? Do your opinions vary based on taxa considered, or which goals are being achieved?
2) Do you feel that zoos have educated you or otherwise influence you?
3) Out of the three main zoo goals (education, conservation, research), how well do you think zoos address each of these? Are there any particular successes or shortcomings that you are aware of?
4) How does entertainment fit into these goals, and how important is this a consideration? If zoogoers go do the zoo as a recreational activity, are they get anything out of it?

I personally feel that zoos have played an important role in influencing my decision to pursue primatology, my education as a primatologist/behavioral endocrinologist, and in providing opportunities for my own research. Nonetheless, I do think the health and welfare of the animals in captivity should be a top priority, and if zoos cannot provide an adequate environment for a given taxa, we need to reconsider whether it is ethical to keep those animals in captivity. Furthermore, I think that zoos have lofty goals, but we need to critically examine how well they are achieving them, and question if they are really fulfilling their mission. But most importantly, I think that we need to examine these issues, and then, address the hard part: if they are falling short, how can this be remedied? What are the best solutions?

And on that note, I'm off to New Mexico. I'm hoping to visit the Rio Grande Zoo while I'm there, and I'll keep ruminating on these questions while I'm there.


  1. Zoos and aquariums are salvage projects at best and prisons at worst (Sea World). However, they are necessary. Many zoos provide grants to conservation projects worldwide and house rare animals that are on the short road to extinction in the wild (tigers, orangutans, etc.). Like most biologists, I saw my first exotic wild animals at a zoo (not including local fauna of course) and now I *hope* to make a living observing a set of these species (primates) in the wild. Some zoos are excellent both in terms of education and conservation (San Diego), while others are a disservice to the public and to the animals themselves (too many to name). At least these animals are not in the circus. I hate the circus.

    Good luck at the AAPAs. I'm not going this year due to prelims (almost over), but the poster on rhesus macaques looks interesting.

  2. This report might be of interest: Zookeepers In China Eat Monkey Meat

  3. uggghh just thinking about that makes me nauseous and angry. but anyway, for the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to limit consideration to American, AZA-accredited zoos.

  4. Conservation. If a species goes extinct in the wild but survives in a zoo, what has been "conserved?" If conservation in the wild is their goal, what is the point of a zoo in this regard? For conservation stuff, zoos strike me as a bit of a kludge. Maybe a desirable one; I don't know.

    Education. As a kid, I was more inspired by a nearby nature center. Learning about local ecosystems and their constituent taxa let me play naturalist (I still do). I could actually find, identify, and observe these things. Learning about, say, koalas was maybe good for trivia games – to be fair, though, that's usually what passes for education.

    Research. I'm more interested in living ecosystems than simulated ones, but I'm sure zoos are useful for a variety of topics. However, I'd keep in mind the fact that the very existence of zoos inspires inquiry into problems peculiar to zoos and best conducted at zoos. E.g., "How can we get a bunch of male gorillas to live together happily?" Justifying zoos with this sort of research is circular.

    Welfare. No clue. Haven't studied this.

    Entertainment. Beyond the PR stuff, it's irrelevant to conservation and research. It can be useful in education to an extent. I think it has more relevance to generating an income and securing public funding.

    Overall, I'm apparently ambivalent toward zoos. I don't think they're necessary, but they can be useful. Still a fun place to go every now and then.

  5. So I'm a new reader and I hope it won't creep you out to hear from someone new or anything, but I particularly admire the way you write about primatology and considering I'll be writing a term paper on this subject, I thought I'd add my two cents.

    Do I think it's ethical to keep non-human animals in captivity based on the ideology of creating future conservationists, research, and education? Yes and no.

    There are some methods of research that can only be done in captivity: intelligence testing with WGTA comes to mind.

    I'd be lying if I said I wasn't influenced by zoos and aquariums in some ways: my love for animals started that way and my adoration for primatology really grew because of an exercise in my biological anthropology class where we performed "observations" based on zoo primates.

    I think as it is now, zoos aren't able to complete them as well as they'd like--money is certainly a significant issue. However, I don't think it's an issue that can't be fixed: I think reforming the captive habitat makes a difference; it not only encourages people to get close, but also teaches about the overall ecosystem much in the way of ecotourism (see:

    Obviously, there are a lot of species we can't do that with--old world monkeys and most great apes probably wouldn't work because of their genetic closeness and the potential for zoonotic transfer, but I think maybe we'll get there if we keep making strides like the London Zoo is doing.

    I realize that's sort of a cop-out answer, but that's the best I've got. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

  6. Hi all, thanks for your feedback. This is such a complicated, but important, topic to explore. I will hopefully get to writing more posts on the subject very soon.