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Leopard at the zoo

Ethics of Zoos

 Words & Photos by Haley Pope

Entertainment used to be the only justification we needed to cage animals. But once investigations showed that animals suffered and died from living and working conditions, public opinion changed and with it the animal entertainment industry. In response, zoos adjusted and re-framed their mission to one that focused on education, scientific research, and conservation.


Change may be on the horizon, however, because new evidence shows that animals are sentient beings, many of whom have complex inner and emotional lives.


In 2012, it was declared, “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” All mammals, birds, and other animals like octopuses, possess consciousness (“Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” 2012). The great apes, dolphins, and elephants aren’t the only ones who mourn, celebrate, and plan for the future. These traits have even been observed in fish (Balcombe 2016).


Today, few people believe that zoos are justified in keeping animals in captivity solely for entertainment. But what about for education, science, or conservation? Whether zoos successfully serve those purposes is uncertain and controversial. Because animals are sentient beings, the benefits of captivity don’t outweigh the costs.

The critically endangered Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis) pants as she paces back and forth across the length of her enclosure barely visible through the dense foliage at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I overhead visitors stating that she is always back there pacing, trying to remain out of sight of the peering human eyes.

A mother and her son feed Jumbe, the eastern black rhino (Diceros bicornis), a carrot during an animal encounter at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Black rhino at the zoo

Because animals are sentient beings, the benefits of captivity  don’t outweigh the costs. Zoos cannot be ethically justified.

A day prior to my visit, the angered western lowland gorillas had thrown large logs into the window and sent cracks running down the two-inch-thick window pane. Today though, the females here seem at least calm if not bored and lonely at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Educational Charades
Proponents often defend zoo exhibits and amusements because of their role in educating people, especially children, about animals. The Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) asserts that zoos are effective tools for education that positively change people’s attitudes toward wildlife (Falk et al. 2007).
Various researchers disagree. Some criticized the AZA study’s limitations, conflicts of interest, and assumptions (Dawson and Jensen 2011Marino et al. 2010); none found support for the claim that zoos promote long-lasting education or changes in visitors’ attitudes (Moss and Esson 2013Dawson and Jensen 2011Marino et al. 2010Ballantyne et al. 2007Reading and Miller 2007).
Do people go to zoos for educational purposes? Zoos present manufactured, self-directed learning environments: if motivated by education, people must come to zoos with the intent to learn (Moss and Esson 2013). Most don’t—they visit to be entertained. If you’ve ever visited a zoo, you know from experience that most people spend little time reading signs, especially those with a lot of text or those next to unpopular animals.

Gorilla at the zoo
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