Amanda Repp

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Amanda Repp
Professor Kennedy
English 2-G
April 6, 1987
Why Zoos Should Be Eliminated
Zoos have come a long way from their grim beginnings. Once full of tiny cement-block
cages lined with steel bars, the larger zoos now boast simulated jungles, veldts, steppes, and rain
forests, all in an attempt to replicate the animals’ natural habitat. The attempt is admirable, but
it’s not enough. No amount of replication, no matter how convincing, is enough to make up for
denying these creatures their freedom
These cosmetic changes skirt the real issue at hand: Namely, that it is morally wrong to
keep wild animals in captivity. “A wild animal’s life is spent in finding food, avoiding enemies,
sleeping, and in mating or other family activities,” writes Peter Batten in his book, Living
Trophies. “Intelligent people are aware that deprivation of any of these fundamentals results in
irreparable damage to the individual” (1). The argument is simple: The fact that we are stronger
or smarter than animals does not give us the right to ambush and exploit them solely for the
purposes of our own entertainment
We humans take our own freedom quite seriously. Indeed, we consider liberty one of our
inalienable rights. But too many of us apparently feel no obligation to grant that same right to
animals, who because they have no defense against our sophisticated methods of capture, and
because they do not speak our language, cannot claim it for themselves.
But the right to liberty is not based on the ability to claim it, or even on the ability to
understand what it is. In his essay, “Do Animals Have a Right to Liberty?” James Rachels writes:
“Humans have a right to liberty because they have various other interests that will suffer if their
freedom is unduly restricted. The right to liberty—the right to be free of external constraints on
one’s actions—may then be seen as derived from a more basic right not to have one’s interests
needlessly harmed” (210). We do not need to look at animals in a zoo. And animals have
interests that are harmed if they are kept in captivity: They are separated from their families and
prevented from behaving according to their natural instincts by being removed from the lives
they know, which are the lives they were meant to lead.
There are those who argue that animals’ interests are not being harmed when they’re kept
in a zoo or an aquarium; that, contrary to Mr. Batten’s claim, no damage at all is being done to
the individual. Dr. Heini Hediger of the Zurich Zoo, for instance, protests “the absurdity of
attributing human qualities to animals” at all. Hediger claims: “Wild animals in the zoo rather
resemble estate owners. Far from desiring to escape and regain their freedom, they are only bent
on defending the space they inhabit and keeping it safe from invasion” (9).
But if Dr. Hediger is right, how can he explain the leopards and cheetahs I have seen
executing figure eights off the walls and floors of their cages for hours on end? I have watched
this performance countless times, spellbound by the beauty and grace of the huge cat leaping
from one wall of his cage to the floor to the opposite wall, turning in midair only to spring from
the floor to the far wall again and again. I have watched spellbound, but also horrified; it is
impossible for me to believe that this animal doesn’t want his freedom. An estate owner would
not spend his time running frantically around the perimeters of his property. This cat knows he’s
not lord of any estate. The senseless repetition of his action suggests he knows that he is caged,
and that there’s no one to defend his space against, and that there will be no intrusion—for he is
caged alone.
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Shannon Brownlee, in “First It Was ‘Save the Whales,’ Now It’s ‘Free the Dolphins,’”
also believes that there is no concrete evidence that animals in captivity are suffering or unhappy.
But she weakens her own case by describing Jackie as a dolphin who “spends the day in a
seeming stupor” and “chews on the mackerel half-heartedly” at feeding time. Clearly there is
something wrong with Jackie; this becomes apparent when Brownlee contrasts Jackie’s behavior
with that of the wild dolphins in the bay, who are “leaping, chasing fish, riding the bow waves of
boats, scrapping with each other, having sex (a favorite activity among this species).”
The author points out that although Jackie knows there is a hole in his enclosure, he has
never tried to leave. The fact that Jackie doesn’t try to escape is not necessarily an indication that
he likes it where he is. It is more likely a manifestation of a broken spirit (the most important,
and admittedly least tangible, result of keeping an animal in captivity), possessed by an animal
who either no longer remembers, or no longer cares, what his earlier days were like. Granted we
have no way of knowing what this animal is really feeling, but does that give us the right to
assume that he isn’t feeling anything?
In all fairness to Brownlee, she doesn’t go quite that far. The author allows Jackie one
emotional state: She attributes Jackie’s malaise to the fact that he’s “just bored.” But the
adjective “just” belies Brownlee’s sensitivity to Jackie’s plight. Perhaps if the author were
removed from all members of her family, as well as all other members of her species, and
prevented from engaging in the activities that most mattered to her, she would recognize Jackie’s
problems as something more than boredom. And even if Jackie were “just bored,” any human
knows that boredom can be a very depressing state. Why should we inflict that experience on
Jackie, or any other animal, just because we happen to have the means to do so?
Having registered my basic objections to zoos—that keeping any creature in captivity is a
fundamental infringement on that creature’s right to liberty and dignity—I want to take a closer
look at the zoo as an institution, in order to fairly assess its goals and how it tries to meet them.
Most zoo professionals today maintain that zoos exist for two main reasons: to educate humans
and to conserve animal species. These are both admirable goals, certainly, but “none of these
[zoo] budgets is allocated specifically for species preservation. Zoos have been established
primarily as recreational institutions and are only secondarily developing programs in
conservation, education and research” (Seal 74). The fact is, most zoos don’t have the money,
space, or equipment required to make significant contributions in these areas. The bulk of their
money goes to the upkeep of the animals and exhibits—that is, to put it crudely, to the displays.
On behalf of the education a zoo provides, a common argument is that there’s nothing
like seeing the real thing. But what you see in the zoo is not the real thing at all. Many zoo and
aquarium animals, like Jackie the dolphin, have been domesticated to the point of lethargy, in
large part because they are being exhibited alone or with only one other member of their species,
when what they are used to is traveling in groups and finding their own food, instead of being
fed. Anyone who wants to see the real thing would be better off watching some of the excellent
programming about nature and wildlife that appears on public television.
As for conservation, it is clearly a worthwhile effort, but representing zoos as being frontrunners in this field is quite misleading. It is generally acknowledged that there is a great deal of
difficulty involved in breeding zoo animals (Luoma 104). They often don’t reproduce at all—
quite possibly because of the artificial, and consequently unsettling, circumstances in which they
live. One of the most publicized instances of this problem involved the National Zoo’s
repeatedly unsuccessful attempt to mate the giant pandas Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling. After five
years, the keepers finally resorted to artificial insemination (Ehrlich 211).
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When zoo animals do mate successfully, the offspring is often weakened by inbreeding.
According to geneticists, this is because a population of 150 breeder animals is necessary in
order to “assure the more or less permanent survival of a species in captivity” (Ehrlich 211). Few
zoos have the resources to maintain populations that size. When zoos rely on smaller populations
for breeding (as many do), the species’ gene pool becomes more and more limited, “vigor and
fecundity tend to decline” (Ehrlich 212), and this can eventually lead to extinction. In other
words, we aren’t doing these animals any favors by trying to conserve them in zoos. Reserves
and preservations, which have room for the larger populations necessary for successful
conservation efforts and which can concentrate on breeding animals rather than on displaying
them, are much more suitable for these purposes.
For what purposes, then, are zoos suitable? Are they even necessary? For the time being,
they must house the many generations of animals that have been bred there, since these animals
have no place else to go. Most animals in captivity cannot go back to the wild for one of two
reasons. The first is that the creatures would be unable to survive there, since their instincts for
finding their own food and protecting themselves from predators, or even the weather, have been
greatly diminished during their time spent in captivity (Morton 155). Perhaps this is why Jackie
the dolphin chooses to remain in his enclosure.
The other reason animals can’t return to the wild is an even sadder one: In many cases,
their natural habitats are no longer there. Thanks to deforesting and clearing of land for homes,
high-ways, factories, and shopping malls—which are continually being built with no regard for
the plant and animal life around them—ecosystems are destroyed constantly, driving increasing
numbers of species from their homes. Air and water pollution and toxic waste, results of the
ever-increasing urbanization and industrialization throughout the world, are just some of the
agents of this damning change. It is this problem I wish to address in closing.
If zoos were to leave breeding programs to more appropriate organizations and to stop
collecting animals, the zoo as an institution would eventually be phased out. Animals would
cease to be exhibits and could resume being animals, and the money previously used to run zoos
could be put to much better use. Ideally it would be used to help investigate the reasons
endangered species are endangered, and why so many of the original habitats of these species
have disappeared. Most importantly, it could be used to explore how we can change our habits
and reorient our behavior, attitudes, and priorities, so we can begin to address these issues.
The problem of endangered species does not exist in a vacuum; it is a symptom of a
much greater predicament. Humankind is responsible for this predicament, and it is up to us to
recognize this before it’s too late. Saving a selected species here and there will do none of us any
good if those species can only exist in isolated, artificial environments, where they will
eventually breed themselves into extinction. The money that has been concentrated on such
efforts should be devoted instead to educating the public about the endangered planet—not just
its animals—or, like the animals, none of us will have any place to go.
Works Cited
Batten, Peter. Living Trophies. New York: Crowell, 1976.
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Brownlee, Shannon. “First It Was ‘Save the Whales,’ Now It’s ‘Free the Dolphins.’” Discover
Dec. 1986: 70-72.
Ehrlich, Paul, and Anne Ehrlich. Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance
of Species. New York: Random, 1981.
Hediger, Heini. “From Cage to Territory.” The World of Zoos; A Survey and Gazetteer. Ed. Rosl
Kirchschofer. New York: Viking, 1968. 9-20.
Luoma, Jon. “Prison or Ark?” Audubon Nov. 1982: 102-109.
Morton, Eugene S. “The Realities of Reintroducing Species to the Wild.” Animal Extinctions:
What Everyone Should Know. Ed. J. R. Hoage. National Zoological Park Symposia for
the Public Series. Washing-ton: Smithsonian Institution, 1985. 71-95.
Rachels, James. “Do Animals Have a Right to Liberty?” Animal Rights and Human Obligations.
Eds. Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1976. 205-23.
Seal, Ulysses S. “The Realities of Preserving Species in Captivity.” Animal Extinctions: What
Everyone Should Know. Ed. J. R. Hoage. National Zoological Park Symposia for the
Public Series. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1985.147-58.