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Chicago zoo

Zoos for None, Freedom for All

Words & Photos by Haley Pope

As we watch from above, time whirls by at the zoo condensing days, weeks, and months into mere seconds. People pour in and trickle out in a blur of movements, colors, and noises. Rain drizzles down and then evaporates. Grass ages from green to yellow to brown. The sun sets and rises on opposite sides of the park in predictable repetition.


Yet, while the hustle-and-bustle occurs outside the exhibits, time stands still on the inside. Few movements are visible. The animals follow their daily routines without joy or fail, dragging their feet along worn paths between indoors and outdoors dictated by the necessity of food and sleep. They pace the lengths of their enclosures, paw at the earth, and try to conceal themselves from the eyes of eager oglers.


With each passing sluggish day, while the world spins by around them, they sink deeper into boredom…

Zoo visitors gather around the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) enclosure watching the animals interact with one another at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago.

Colobus monkey

A black-and-white colobus monkey (Colobus guereza) grips the metal fence between him and the visitors and sits with his head drooped down as if in deep contemplation or deep discontent at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Walk through the exhibits and admire around 800,000 animals that comprise close to 6,000 species behind thick, shatterproof glass. Of those, you’ll be able to see around 1,000 endangered species.

Zoos by the Numbers


Throughout antiquity, captive animal exhibits have existed. Animals were used in public games and events or to display the wealth and power of their owner, typically a king or emperor. Think of the ancient Egyptian menageries, the gladiators of Rome, and bullfights of Spain. The first modern zoos were established in Vienna, Madrid, and Paris in the eighteenth century. Soon animal exhibits spread throughout the rest of the world and arrived in the United State in the 1870s where the first zoos were established in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Since then, the numbers of captive animals have increased alongside the growing popularity of zoos.


This year around 175 million people will visit one of the 350 zoos in the United States. They will walk through the exhibits and admire around 800,000 animals that comprise close to 6,000 species behind thick, shatterproof glass. Of those species, visitors will be able to see 1,000 endangered species. Shockingly though, these figures do not reflect animals in aquariums or roadside shows. The total number of captive animals in all exhibits is much higher, while those that are protected by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is much lower.


The AZA is a U.S.-based non-profit organization that, at the time of writing, provides accreditation to 232 institutions across 47 states. They aim to meet the “highest standards in animal care, provide a fun and educational family experience, and dedicate millions of dollars to scientific research, conservation, and education programs.” Thus, a facility accredited by the AZA must have applied to the organization and, once approved, abide by a strict code of conduct and animal welfare practices to avoid losing accreditation.


While this safeguards many animals from neglect and abuse, not all animal exhibits are accredited. This could mean facilities operate below the ethical standards of best practice for animal welfare, veterinary care, conservation, education, guest services, physical facilities, safety, or staffing, etc. In fact, the AZA website states that in the U.S. “less than 10 percent of the 2,800 wildlife exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act meet the more comprehensive standards of AZA accreditation.” In other words, the majority of captive animals in the U.S. are housed in facilities that are not kept accountable for their treatment of animals.


It may seem then that any zoo, aquarium, or animal exhibit that is accredited by the AZA is a safe choice, but that may not be the case. Regardless of accreditation, animals can still be harmed. In any exhibit, animals are prevented from behaving as they normally would in the wild, forced to live in confined spaces, and risk contracting a variety of physical and psychological ailments. Because of these injustices, many people, and I strive to convince you as well, believe zoos serve little purpose and do not benefit the animals they hold as captives.

Zoo visitors

What is the Purpose of a Zoo?


Think of the last time you visited a zoo. Why did you go? What did you see when you got there? How did you feel? Who else was at the zoo that day? In March of 2017, I visited the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago spurred by my desire to explore the ethical issues surrounding zoos.


Despite being a cold wintery afternoon, many people were at the zoo when I arrived with my camera and notepad in hand. Rounding the corner and entering through the green iron rod gates, I expected to get in line at the kiosk for a ticket. But there wasn't one. A box asking for donations stood in its place instead. Surprisingly, the zoo was free.


Noisy kids with untied shoelaces and baseball caps bounded through the park catching glimpses of the animals as they joked with one another from exhibit to exhibit. Babies whined in their strollers as mothers and fathers bent down to say, “monkey!” and point. Yet, their incomprehension was obvious. Drool ran down their plump dimpled chins as they sucked on their fingers and stared blankly at the windowpanes. Meanwhile, intimate couples linked arm-in-arm and absorbed in conversation strolled by and glanced at the animals, but their interest lay more with their companion than the zoo animals.


That particular day, the Japanese macaque and giraffe exhibits attracted a lot of attention. But many times I found myself alone gazing through the hand-smeared glass upon the bleary-eyed captives. I felt embarrassed for the popular animals as people cowered in and pressed their hands and faces against the barrier and lonely and miserable for the overlooked ones. As the sunlight waned, I wondered why these animals were here if no one was going to appreciate them.


Modern zoos are not much different from those of antiquity. They operate upon the same underlying assumptions: 1) that we have the right to keep animals in captivity for our own purposes and 2) that there are benefits obtainable only by doing so. While the benefits we claim to receive today may be different than in the 18th or 19th centuries, they are not more ethically sound.


Most people would agree that at their foundation, zoos are parks that display wild animals for entertainment. However, in the last several decades, zoos have attempted to reframe their presentation in response to criticism and changing public opinion. Today, zoos theoretically uphold the values of education, scientific research, and wildlife conservation in addition to the original goal of providing entertainment. Yet, to what extent zoos successfully serve each of those purposes is foggy and controversial. If they do serve those purposes, are we then justified in keeping animals in captivity?

Zoo visitors gather around the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) enclosure watching the animals interact with one another at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago.

Zoos theoretically uphold the values of education, scientific research, and wildlife conservation. Yet, to what extent zoos successfully serve each of those purposes is foggy and controversial.

Japanese macaque

A Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) sits faced away from the glass wall huddled in his enclosure at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, while visitors shuffle by to briefly watch them before continuing on their way.

Giraffe at the zoo

For $3 a zoo visitor purchased a bundle of lettuce and fed the reticulated giraffes (Giraffa reticulata) at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Giraffe at the zoo

Visitors look on as a lone Baringo giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschild) munches on leaves and twigs from buckets dangling from the ceiling of an indoor enclosure in the heated African exhibits building at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago.

“[It's] wrong to capture wild animals and confine them in captivity for people to go and gawk at them. And that’s basically how zoos got started. Once you do that, and once you have animals that have been bred in captivity, you’re really stuck with them… You can’t return them to the wild.”

– Peter Singer



As your own recollection likely revealed, most people go to zoos to be entertained. Growing up, I went for that reason too. During the animal shows and feeding sessions, we would cheer and holler and clap when the killer whales and smiling dolphins leaped and dove and squirted water at us; when the blood-thirsty crocodiles lunged skyward and snapped pieces of raw meat dangling from ropes between their jagged teeth; when the gorillas and chimpanzees stood up on two legs and mimicked their human trainers behind their backs. But, while we were being entertained by the outwardly content creatures and the zoo was counting their money with greedy fingers, injustices were happening behind closed doors.


Some of the horrors of the animal entertainment industry have been caught on film. The Oscar award-winning documentary film, The Cove, exposed the slaughter and capture of thousands of dolphins in Japan for the entertainment industry and for food. It was one of the first instances the public witnessed such brutality against dolphins. Similarly, the documentary film, Black Fish, caused a media outcry when SeaWorld’s questionable treatment of killer whales and the related deaths of trainers were brought to light. (I won’t diverge into the issues surrounding circuses, which exist solely for entertainment. That’s another article for another day).


In response to the public’s fury, aquariums and zoos around the country, and indeed the world, were pressured to expose themselves and become transparent about their animal welfare practices. Wiping the sweat from their brows and stammering incomplete explanations to the press, some facilities ultimately surrendered certain marine species and released the animals they had into the wild agreeing not to acquire new individuals. In several states including California, New York, South Carolina, Hawaii, and several other countries, legislation was passed banning the captivity of orcas.


Throughout the past decades, zoos have seen several policy overhauls, in addition to the one just mentioned. In the 1960s and 70s when the animal liberation movement was beginning, the public became more aware of the impact humans were having on biodiversity and species extinctions. We also became more aware of animal welfare issues thanks to books like Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.


We soon realized entertainment was not a substantial defense for keeping animals captive and that we needed to play an active role in caring for our planet. Thus, zoos needed a new purpose. They changed their attitudes and redirected their policies to reflect the new public sentiment focusing instead on education, science, and conservation. But have these values been upheld in practice?

Fish in the aquarium



Now that you have recalled the last time you visited a zoo, take a moment to think of something you learned. What do you remember? A fun fact about polar bears? Or maybe something about the tropical rainforests of Brazil? Whatever you thought of, keep it in mind.


Using animal shows, live handling and feeding sessions, and signs zoos strive to emotionally connect us to animals, increase our conservation awareness, and encourage us to adopt actions that will mediate our impact on wildlife. Yet, those ambitions are not generally achieved. Our emotional connection depends upon the animals we see, their size, rarity, endangered status, and our proximity to them.


Thus, a regal tiger, trumpeting elephant, cuddly polar bear, or quirky chimp gets more attention and has more emotional appeal than a scaly aardvark, slippery fur seal, or tiger that can only be glimpsed from afar. No doubt zoos introduce us to animals we have never seen in the wild. But whether those introductions lead to greater public knowledge about wildlife issues or prompt changes in our behavior to the benefit of wildlife is up for debate. 


During my visit to the Chicago zoo, I noted how swiftly people passed through each exhibit – about five minutes. Few took the time to read the signs posted on each enclosure describing the animals’ life-history patterns, their courtship rituals, what they eat in the wild, and the length of their gestation periods. Most stopped for a few moments to stare or to point out the animals to their children before shoving their strollers through the crowd.


How did those parents and children assimilate the educational knowledge on the signs so quickly? What did they learn about chinstrap penguins? Despite the efforts to encourage visitors to learn about wildlife, if people spend such little time at each exhibit there is no chance they have read the signs on display, let alone learned anything.


Recognizing this quandary, zoos heeded research by Kreger and Hutchins in 2010, which suggested that exhibits that mimic natural, wild settings lead to longer visits by individuals and may allow for better information absorption. However, little research has explored this idea further. What is not known is whether merely displaying information leads to knowledge assimilation and whether that translates into positive behavioral change. Results have not been consistent (see refs 4, 5, and 9) and my own experiences support this ambiguity.

People get comfortable at the tank where pigmy hippos live. They were successfully hidden from view, but the swampy habitat didn't conceal the tropical fish at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago.

Fish swimming

Hundreds of fish dart back and forth towards the glass wall of their enclosure as visitors peer back and them and snap some photos at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago.

We “connect people to animals and nature while inspiring and empowering them to act as stewards for local environments and the global community.”
– Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago

Japanese macaque

In 2007 a scientific paper by Falk and colleagues was published. The AZA happily posted on its website that new scientific evidence shows zoos and aquariums were effective tools for education that positively changed people’s attitudes toward wildlife. Sounds like a happy ending, right? Not so fast. Three years later, Marino and colleagues published a paper in the journal Society and Animals that assessed the scientific soundness of the 2007 study.


It turned out that the study had been funded, conducted, and published by the AZA. Clearly, there were conflicts of interest involved. Several limitations and assumptions implicit in the AZA study led the 2010 paper to conclude that in reality “there [was] no compelling or even particularly suggestive evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, and interest in conservation in visitors.” Nor was there evidence that any behavior or attitude changes were long-lived. Bust. 


Recall what you learned at the zoo. If, in fact, you were able to pinpoint a kernel of knowledge acquired after your zoo visit, now consider whether that knowledge could have been obtained by another means, say a book, documentary, conversation, or activity. When schools teach children and young adults about most topics they rarely involve immersive experiences. Instead, they rely almost entirely on books, videos, and in-class activities and discussions. While I have not been in a classroom setting for a few years now, I am able to recall the number of times I went on a school field trip to explore a particular subject matter – about six. If it is actually more than that and I don’t remember it, then what was the benefit of the trip? 


In short, most people do not leave zoos more knowledgeable about wildlife than when they arrived, nor do their behaviors change permanently as a result. If this finding stands, the virtue of introducing people to iconic or threatened species and casually displaying placards at each exhibit cannot stand in as education and therefore, cannot be a moral justification for the captivity of animals.

Left: A lar gibbon (Hylobates lar) stoops in the indoor enclosure and looks back at me through the bars evoking a sense of frustration, boredom, and loneliness at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.


Right: A Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) gazed back at me from behind solid glass huddled in his enclosure at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Most people don’t leave zoos more knowledgeable about wildlife than when they arrived, nor do their behaviors change permanently as a result.

Leopard at the zoo

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.

Giraffe hooves

A reticulated giraffe's (Giraffa reticulata) twisted feet seen at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Scientific Research


As a Masters of Zoology student from 2013 to 2015, I conducted research on invasive marine barnacles along the west coast of South Africa and published three papers in respectable journals. I explored the species spread along the coast, their feeding behaviors, their reproductive successes and failures, and how they competed for resources with other co-occurring barnacle species. My colleagues further divulged the ecological impacts of other marine invasive species on the environment. The research we conducted in the field could not have been mimicked in a confined, controlled setting, nor would our results have likely been the same. The importance of our findings came from the fact that they reflected the reality of the species under unpredictable, real-world circumstances.


Like universities, many zoos claim they support and conduct vital scientific research. Zoo research tends to focus on animal behavior, anatomy and physiology, and human health, and conservation. Studies conducted on zoo animals help clarify an animal or group’s preferences and stressors to ensure proper care. However, the ultimate importance of research is not what makes one individual’s life better, it’s whether the research uncovers a universal truth so significant that it sheds light on the species as a whole and thus, outweighs the cost of keeping those animals in captivity.


At the top of the Lincoln Park Zoo homepage is a tab for “Conservation & Science” (directly after one for “Education”). Their prominence not only indicates their importance to the facility, but also establishes the zoo’s defense. Each of the six science centers at Lincoln Park focuses on a different research area: 1) small population biology, 2) the fundamentals of animal health, 3) ape biology, behavior, and cognition, 4) population management studies, 5) urban-wildlife management, and 6) veterinary services. The zoo claims, “by expanding our understanding of animals and the threats they face in the wild, zoo scientists are helping to preserve threatened species.”


Ironically, their research, much like at other zoos, is conducted almost exclusively on captive animals rather than those in the wild. There are several issues with this. The first is that of extrapolation. Not only will the behavior of captive animals be extremely different from those in the wild, but also the experimental constraints (i.e. the number of animals, enclosure size, companions, handlers, health, and whether they were born in captivity or captured from the wild). Thus, it’s unlikely experiments will be able to be replicated – a tenet of scientific research – and results are unlikely to be consistent between zoos and between captive and wild animals.

Grizzly bear

A grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) cools off in the pond while chewing on a toy at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Black rhino at the zoo

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.

Serious scientific studies require robust sample sizes. For zoos, this means many animals of a species. However, most zoos do not have large numbers of animals of a single species. This is an obvious issue from a statistical point of view and another limitation of conducting experiments on captive animals. Small sample sizes constrain the research and dictate how the findings can and can’t be interpreted.


Such limitations would prevent results from being applied to other settings – especially field settings – rendering the results useless if the goal is to understand wildlife threats and help preserve species in the wild. These studies, if submitted for publication, would likely face strong criticism from the scientific community regarding their limited scope, experimental design, and relevance.


Not all research is conducted on captive animals, however. In addition to zoo experiments, the Lincoln Park Zoo focuses on six conservation issues that are tackled in no less than thirty-two research projects. They range from studying chimpanzee and gorilla behavior in a remote field station in the Republic of Congo to monitoring reintroduced black-footed ferrets in the Western United States, assisting with black rhino conservation in Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, monitoring bat biodiversity in Chicago, and protecting the Puerto Rican parrot. Each project includes multiple partner organizations working towards the same goals. As part of a collaborative network that focuses on the health of ecosystems, species, and animals, zoos are more likely to contribute something novel and vital to science.


Still, according to Kreger and Hutchins in 2010, most zoos do not support any scientific research at all and most captive animals, even at institutions that do conduct research, are not involved in any studies. Around 150 of the 232 AZA-accredited zoos have reported dabbling in research projects. However, only six of those institutions regularly engaged in research. In 2015, of the 1,135 reported studies, the AZA stated that only 159 publications, reports, or book chapters came to light. That’s only 14% of all studies becoming available to the scientific community. Frustratingly, even studies that make it to publication are often not so significant or novel that they impart valuable information that was unobtainable in another way.


While some zoos do make valuable contributions to science, most don’t, and most studies are redundant or trivial in a wider context. That leaves us with the final justification for zoos: conservation.

Gorilla and zoo visitor

Species Conservation


As I rounded the corner of the Japanese macaque enclosure, a colorful illustration on a sign caught my eye. The black, brown, red, and white patches of the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), a species I tracked through the South African bush several years ago, were unmistakable. I approached and began to read the sign that described the species’ behavior, reproductive strategies, and group hunting tactics. But the inactivity in the background soon drew my attention away.


Adjusting my focus to beyond the sign, I saw there were no wild dogs in the enclosure. Instead, I saw an empty space with concrete boulders and manmade waterholes equaling the square footage of an average American house. This much space for animals that run tens of miles each day in search of food. But what was it the zoo boasted? Wild dogs for species conservation? I glanced to my right: “The animals have indoor access today,” informed a small sign posted on the wild dog enclosure. Ah, that explains it, I think. No wonder, it is winter in Chicago after all…


Although zoos may help conserve species through other programs, many strive to protect them through breeding programs as part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). The program was developed by the AZA and aims to breed endangered species in captivity to prevent their extinction. Today there are nearly 500 individual SSP programs in the U.S. Examples of success do exist and their contributions to conservation should not be overlooked. But in general, do zoos help conserve species that would otherwise be extinct? And if so, does this justify their existence? Possibly more important, should we strive to conserve species that might only exist in zoos one day?


One of the most well-known breeding program success stories is of the California condor. In 1987, there were only twenty-two in existence. As part of the California Condor Recovery Plan, zoos around the U.S. captured the remaining birds, bred them, and reintroduced the new, hand-reared birds to the wild over the following years. Several decades and millions of dollars later, their efforts succeeded. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, although still critically endangered, today there are about 270 California condors in the wild.


Other zoos in the U.S have helped protect endangered species like the Arabian oryx, black-footed ferret, red wolf, and freshwater mussels. But instances where zoos have led the fight against species extinction are rare. Most zoos do not have breeding programs, let alone breeding programs that focus solely on endangered species.

A local woman who has been visiting the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado for decades, arrives at the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) enclosure and begins to read a magazine to one of the females. She takes a keen interested in the colorful pages following along as the woman reads, turns the pages, and speaks directly to her, as one would to a human child. Above the pair, several cracks in the glass are visible. A day prior to my visit, the angered gorillas had thrown large logs into the window. Today though, the females here seem at least calm if not bored and lonely.

"The real solution, of course, is to preserve the wild nature that created these animals and has the power to sustain them. But if it is really true that we are inevitably moving towards a world in which mountain gorillas can survive only in zoos, then we must ask whether it is really better for them to live in artificial environments of our design than not to be born at all”
– Dale Jamieson

Orangutan and baby

Walking between the exhibits, I passed several restricted buildings dedicated to the work the zoo conducts, including the Population Management Center. The website explains that the center “provides assistance to zoo professionals across the country by conducting demographic and genetic analyses and preparing breeding and transfer plans for Species Survival Plan species.” Digging deeper, I was surprised to discover that the Lincoln Park Zoo does not host an endangered species breeding program itself despite being involved with other SSPs and housing many endangered animals: African wild dogs, black rhinos, white rhinos, polar bears, Amur leopards and tigers, red pandas, red wolves, snow leopards, and mountain gorillas (among others). 


While the SSP strives to maximize species genetic diversity and sustainability, ironically, one of the largest concerns with breeding programs is the lack of genetic diversity. When captive animals are bred to one another time and again to produce offspring that are bred together, infant mortality rates are often extremely high. Animals bred this way and isolated from wild populations for decades can even begin to diverge both behaviorally and genetically to the point where they hardly resemble the same species in the wild. 


Some breeding programs also end up producing a surplus of animals. This may seem like a good thing, but not necessarily so. In fact, a surplus of animals can breed other issues. In the best scenarios, extra animals are traded between zoos, an action the AZA says helps increase species genetic diversity. In worse scenarios, animals wind up in the circus or roadside shows without institutional oversight. Worse still, some slip into the exotic animal trade on the black market where they are sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars to the highest bidder. This fuels the wild animal and parts trade and thus, illegal breeding programs which are completely unmonitored and uncontrolled. 


One ideal of breeding programs is that the animals will eventually be released into the wild to supplement the wild populations. However, most zoos have no ability or intent to reintroduce the animals. Either because of the cost involved in a reintroduction or because of the inherent risk associated with releasing captive-born, habituated animals that have never hunted or escaped danger. Failure is almost inevitable. 


What’s more, if a species isn’t protected in the wild (which is why many are endangered in the first place) there is little hope for the reintroduced animals. Single-species conservation is a last ditch effort to protect the few remaining individuals and allow the species to hang on while other efforts are underway – it is certainly not an effective long-term conservation strategy.

Left: A Bornean orangutan mother (Pongo pygmaeus) watches her rambunctious baby swing from the enclosure bars and play on the climbing structures at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, CO.


Right: A female Bornean orangutan sits in the grass below some climbing structures seemingly deep in thought at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, CO.


A lone Baringo giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschild) munches on leaves and twigs from buckets dangling from the ceiling of an indoor enclosure in the heated African exhibits building at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago.

Monkey at the zoo

White-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) seen through bars, dangles from the door frame of his enclosure evoking a sense of frustration, boredom, loneliness at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Zoos deny animals their basic right to freedom, elicit unnatural behaviors leading to stress, and can cause immense suffering or death.

Gorilla at the zoo

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.

So… Are Zoos Ethical?


Zoos deny animals their basic right to freedom, elicit unnatural behaviors leading to stress, and can cause immense suffering or death. Few people today believe zoos are justified in keeping animals in captivity purely for entertainment. Yet, as we have seen, the other justifications don't fare well either.


Little evidence exists as to whether knowledge gained during a zoo visit is long-lasting or changes a visitor’s behavior towards wildlife. Zoos support little scientific research and many studies are under constraining limitations, are trivial or redundant, or cannot be applied in a wider context. Of all the goals, species conservation is likely the best justification. Still, based on the few unsubstantiated research studies, the results probably don’t outweigh the costs. What’s to become of eastern lowland gorillas when they only exist in zoos one day?


The most ethical route for zoos is along the lines of a natural history museum: to create public awareness about conservation issues, continue their conservation work in the field, support other conservation studies and researchers, and strive to connect people to the planet and wildlife in ways that do not involve caging sentient beings.


The Lincoln Park Zoo would be closing soon. It was almost sunset. The blue glow of the winter night had already descended prompting most visitors to head home. As I walked towards the main gate at the opposite side of the park, pulling my coat tighter around me, I was struck with immense loneliness. I was alone in an empty zoo in the middle of one of America’s largest cities. Candy wrappers and receipts blew across the paved path in front of me chased by the wind, while discarded zoo maps rested on unoccupied stone benches. Everything suggested vacancy. But the animals were still there, hovering in the corners of their enclosures waiting to be let indoors for the night. And soon, they too were gone.


I returned to my hotel room that evening and the following day flew home. Just like that. Like those days in Chicago and my visit to the zoo, my life will be unpredictable and different every day until the day I die. I will choose where to go, what to do, with whom to do it, what to say, and what to think – the ultimate freedom. Freedom that appears to be more a privilege than a right.

Ground hornbill

In Closing


After reflecting on my visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo and a following visit to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, I wonder: maybe zoos do encourage long-lasting attitude changes towards wildlife… For, in two afternoons, I saw humanity and our treatment of other animals in a new light.


We have a long way to go before animals have the rights they deserve: the same basic rights as humans. My recent zoo visits prompted this article and have encouraged me to continue fighting for the ethical treatment of non-human animals. That’s a change that will count for something.


I hope this article has encouraged you to think differently about zoos and the role they play in our society. I hope I have convinced you, if only a little, that animals are not ours to use for our own purposes and that they deserve respect and most importantly, freedom. While humans may be the most widespread and dominant species the Earth has yet to see, we do not have the right to use and abuse other species, or Earth’s resources, for our own selfish gain. We are only one among many. 


I’ll end with a quote by the zoologist and sea turtle conservationist Dr. Archie Carr who summed up our role as ethical beings saying, “for most of the wild things on Earth, the future must depend upon the conscience of mankind.”

An Abyssinian ground hornbill or northern ground hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus) picks up rocks and tosses them around the enclosure. Some hit the glass. Is the bird playing, bored, or doing something else? Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Below, top left and right: The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago recently added a polar bear to its exhibit. Despite being the winter, no snow was visible in the bear's enclosure. In fact, the polar bear's enclosure was quite lonely. The bear was nowhere to be seen and neither were the visitors.


Below, bottom left: Several black and white rhinos call the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago home. In the wintertime, they are kept indoors in heated rooms to mimic the African climate. A small sign points out that "the animals have indoor access today."


Below, bottom right: A trash dump on wheels labeled "Rhino" sits outside the building where the animals are housed during the wintertime at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.




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  14.  “California Condor Recovery Program”. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (accessed April 5, 2017).

  15.  Here's All the Places Around the World That Ban Orca Captivity, by TakePart:​​



  1. Robinson, T. B., Pope, H. R., Alexander, M.E. 2017. Early life-history processes and their implications for the invasion of the barnacle Balanus glandula. Marine Biology Research, 13:4, 439-446.

  2. Pope, H. R., Alexander, M. E., Robinson, T. B. 2016. Food resource utilization of the invasive barnacle Balanus glandula and the native barnacle Notomegabalaus algicola in response to water temperature and food concentration: implications of future spread. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 479: 54-59.

  3. Robinson, T. B., Pope, H. R., Hawkin, L., Binneman, C. 2015. Predation-driven biotic resistance fails to regulate a sessile rocky shore invader. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 522: 169-179. 

Further Reading & Watching:

  1. Animal Liberation, book by Peter Singer

  2. In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, book compilation edited by Peter Singer

  3. Scientific American, How Do Zoos Help Endangered Animals

  4. TED Talk, Why Animals in Zoos Need Choice

  5. Black Fish movie

  6. The Cove movie

  7. Blood Lions movie

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