4 things we need to stop telling ourselves about animals in zoos

Since the eye-opening documentary 'Blackfish' hit screens, the world has woken up to the cruelty of keeping marine animals, like Tilikum, confined to tanks. But what about other animals in captivity?

LAST UPDATED: 30 April 2020

COVID-19 update: The global pandemic is placing animals around the world at urgent risk, including many in zoos and aquariums. Without ticket sales, these captive animals may become economically unviable, with some even potentially slaughtered to feed others — a tragic extension of usual "surplus management" euthanasia practices discussed below. And for those who do survive this period of pandemic, sadly every day will likely continue to offer ongoing "lockdown". You can help by choosing animal-friendly entertainment and supporting conservation groups.


We hear a lot of things to justify keeping animals in zoos. But are these justifications based on fact, or are they simply what zoos would have us believe? Here are 4 things we hear about animals in zoos, and why we should think twice about them.

<strong>MYTH 1</strong>: 'Zoos exist for conservation'
Owls are typically solitary animals who prefer to hunt and explore at night. The majority of owl species are not endangered in the wild.

Whilst some zoos may contribute in small ways to conservation projects, the vast majority of animals in zoos are not on the endangered species list, and the ones who are will likely never be rehabilitated to their natural habitat. A study conducted by Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS) found that almost half of the animals in breeding programs in the EU were not even endangered in the wild.

Former zoo director David Hancocks estimates that less than 3% of a zoo's budget goes to conservation, while the majority goes towards "hi-tech exhibits and marketing efforts to lure visitors."

The truth is that most zoos exist primarily for profit. One of the biggest draw cards for zoos is baby animals. Babies will often be bred even when there isn't enough room to keep them, inevitably resulting in "surplus" animals in zoos. Surplus management strategies are one of the best-kept secrets of modern zoos. In 2014, the world reacted with shock and outrage when a healthy 2 year old giraffe named Marius was killed and cut up in front of spectators at Copenhagen Zoo. His body was then fed to the lions.

In response to widespread criticism, Copenhagen Zoo's Scientific Director Bengt Holst defended the decision, saying that the zoo had a surplus of giraffes and that this is something that's "done every day", just not in the public eye. Just a short time later, Copenhagen Zoo was in the news again for killing four healthy lions to make room for a new male lion they wanted to breed. The relevant zoo standards in Australia would allow a similar judgement to be made about 'surplus animals' in zoos here, but these 'management' decisions are rarely made public.

Zoos also routinely trade and relocate animals who they deem to have outlived profitability or who no longer fit into breeding schemes. Trading animals with other zoos can be extremely stressful for the animals who are relocated, as they leave behind social bonds and surroundings they have grown accustomed to.

Just like SeaWorlds and other marine parks, for zoos the interests of animals usually comes second to attracting visitors and making money.

FACT: Most zoos exist for profit.

Much to their (zoo's) embarrassment, death is a constitutive part of life, something they produce not only accidentally — but at the very core of their functioning.Dr Matthew Chrulew, Curtin University academic and zoo expert
<strong>MYTH 2</strong>: 'Zoos are the best way to learn about animals'
Children with a pacing tiger. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals.

A zoo can teach you a lot about how animals behave in captivity but will teach you very little about the behaviour of animals in the wild. Even though most modern zoos make efforts to offer animals a more natural environment, most captive animals in zoos are unable to live in a way that they would naturally and some may even be on medication to alter their behaviour. (See point 4.)

Perhaps those who visit zoos recognise this. A study of visitor behaviour at four zoos in the U.S. found that only 6% of visitors said they go to a zoo to learn more about animals, while 86% of visitors said they went to the zoo for "social or recreational purposes".

In the early days of zoo popularity, television was far from an everyday reality for people. Today, with enlightening and informative nature documentaries, interactive online educational tools and the increasing ease and affordability of international travel, we have the opportunity to learn about animals by viewing them in their natural habitat.

"Learning" about animals by keeping them locked up is not only ineffective, it is obsolete. Click here for a list of 10 amazing places to see animals in the wild and here for must-watch docos.

FACT: The best way to learn about animals is in their natural habitat, online or in a nature documentary.

<strong>MYTH 3</strong>: 'Zoos are a 'normal' part of society'
Giraffes at Taronga zoo look out over Sydney city. In the savannas, giraffes roam the woodlands in small groups and graze from trees and bushes. The common giraffe (and most subspecies) are not endangered in the wild.

There is nothing natural about a penguin, giraffe or elephant living in the middle of an Australian city. We've come to accept this as part of normal society. It's only when things go wrong that we're reminded that a city zoo is no place for an animal.

In 2015, a flood in Georgia destroyed enclosures at the Tbilisi Zoo and saw dozens of zoo animals unleashed on the streets, including lions, bears, wolves and a hippo.

The flood in Tbilisi saw zoo enclosures destroyed and animals loosed onto the streets.A hippo who escaped was shot with a tranquiliser dart before being returned to the zoo. Begi the hippo had been wallowing in the mud and munching leaves from low hanging branches. Sixteen year old Begi sleeps off his tranquiliser-induced slumber. He will awake to find himself in a concrete pen. Other animals fared much worse than Begi. Lions, tigers, bears, wolves and penguins were among the dead, either from drowning or being shot by police. A white tiger was shot and killed. A man tries to save a penguin that had been freed from the zoo. Sadly, only 3 of the zoos 17 penguins were saved. An elephant who survived the flood stands behind bars at Tbilisi Zoo. In the wild, elephants roam anywhere up to 60 km per day.
Photo: Beso Gulashvili/Reuters
Some 20 wolves, eight lions, white tigers, tigers, jackals, jaguars have either been shot dead by special forces or are missing.Mzia Sharashidze, Tbilisi Zoo spokeswoman

If we look back in history we see that keeping animals in captivity has left a trail of disasters ...

  • 2018: The lions at London Zoo are so inbred that 2 out of 3 lion cubs born are dying. 
  • 2018: A Eurasian lynx named Lilith escaped Borth Wild Animal Kingdom in Wales and was shot dead by order of the local authority. A second lynx, Nilly, died the week earlier when she was asphyxiated by the catch pole during handling.
  • 2017: A white rhino named Vince was shot dead and his horns hacked off by intruders at Thoiry Zoo near Paris. 
  • 2017: Government inspectors found that nearly 500 animals had died in less than 4 years at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, UK. The inspectors cited "overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, lack of suitable animal husbandry and a lack of any sort of developed veterinary care" as welfare concerns and recommended that the zoo's license renewal be refused. 
  • 2016: A 17 year old gorilla named Harambe was shot dead at Cincinnati Zoo when a four year old boy climbed into the enclosure. Opinions are divided as to whether the boy was in any danger from Harambe before he was killed by zookeepers.
  • 2015: A female gorilla named Julia, who had lived at Melbourne Zoo for 20 years, was attacked and killed by a younger male gorilla named Otana who had been transferred to the zoo from the UK.
  • 2015: Keepers at Duisburg Zoo in Germany shot dead a male orangutan who tried to escape, saying that a sedative would have taken too long to take effect.
  • 2015: Dozens of animals — including lions, tigers, monkeys and crocodiles — died from hunger or thirst at the Khan Younis Zoo in the Gaza Strip when they were left without care during the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.
  • 2012: A polar bear in Buenes Aires Zoo overheated and died. (Another heat-stressed and depressed polar bear named Arturo is currently held at an Argentinian zoo and, despite public pressure, the zoo Director has refused to have him relocated.)
  • 2008: A leaked memo revealed that a zookeeper at Melbourne Zoo had stabbed an elephant, Dokkoon, more than a dozen times with a sharp metal spike. The same memo exposed that a male gorilla, Rigo, had been kept in isolation for 16 years and four seals suffered partial blindness from the chlorine in the tiny pool they were kept in for up to three years while a $20 million dollar enclosure was built.
  • 2007: A kangaroo was euthanised after being hit by a train that runs through the Cleveland Zoo.
  • 2004: A 13 year old male gorilla, Jabari, escaped from Dallas Zoo and was shot and killed by police.
  • 2002: Flooding enclosures in Prague Zoo led to an elephant and hippopotamus being euthanised to 'save' them from drowning.
  • 2000: An 18 year old sloth bear named Medusa died of dehydration when Toledo Zoo officials locked her in a den to hibernate, not knowing that her species does not hibernate.

We have been born into a society that accepts animals in zoos as commonplace but the invention of the zoo dates back thousands of years — to an era when people who looked different were also put on display. We now have unlimited options for entertainment, not to mention a greater understanding of animal sentience and needs. In today's society, ogling at animals in zoos behind glass seems crudely outdated. Certainly it's unnecessary and rarely (if ever) in the animals' best interests.

Costa Rica has recognised this and in 2013 declared that it would be closing all its zoos and releasing the animals who are able to be rehabilitated to the wild. (The others would be cared for in sanctuaries or live out their lives in nature parks.) Which will be the next country to make this compassionate decision?

FACT: There is nothing "normal" about animals in zoos. Wild animals belong in the wild, not captive in cities.

The only creature on earth whose natural habitat is a zoo is the zookeeper.Robert Brault
<strong>MYTH 4</strong>: 'Animals in zoos are happy'
An orangutan at Melbourne Zoo. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals.

Animals in captivity across the globe have been documented displaying signs of anxiety and depression. In fact, psychological distress in zoo animals is so common that it has its own name: Zoochosis.

Zoochosis can include rocking, swaying, excessively pacing back and forth, circling, twisting of the neck, self-mutilation, excessive grooming, biting, vomiting and copraphagia (consuming excrement).

An elephant sways at Melaka Zoo, a sign of neurological distress. A polar bear rocks back and forth at Pittsburgh Zoo.  A rhino sways at Frankfurt Zoo.
Video: YouTube/mfotanimals

These traits are largely uncommon amongst healthy and happy animals in the wild. When kept in captivity, animals are deprived of the ability to express their natural desires and the effect this can often have on their mental and emotional health is tragically clear in the form of zoochosis. Such behaviour, when exhibited by confined or disturbed animals in other situations, is often referred to as 'stereotypic behaviour' and is recognised by scientists as a clear indicator of severe animal welfare issues.

What's even sadder, is that to counter these problems, zoos internationally have been known to give drugs to affected animals. In her book Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman says that the practice of putting animals on anti-depressants is surprisingly common. "At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a psychopharmaceutical had been tried." One case Braitman shares is of a polar bear named Gus who lived at Central Park Zoo. Gus began compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool for up to 12 hours per day.

An animal psychologist determined that Gus was bored. And not surprisingly, given that his enclosure was less than 0.00009% of what his range in the Arctic would be. Despite being born in captivity, he would still have felt predatory impulses. In fact, when he was first moved to the zoo, he would entertain himself by stalking small children. But the zoo did not want children getting frightened so they built a barrier to stop this.

Gus peers through the glass wall of his enclosure. In the wild, polar bears may travel thousands of kilometres per year, walking and swimming large distances in the hunt for food. Photo: Johnia/Flickr.

Gus was given thousands of dollars worth of behavioural therapy, the nickname "bipolar bear" and ... a prescription of Prozac. His compulsive swimming eased off but never really went away. Gus died in captivity in 2013 at age 27.

Similarly, it has been revealed that SeaWorld (U.S.) trainers give psychoactive drugs and anti-depressants to some of its marine animals. Since the 'Blackfish' documentary exposed the truth about keeping highly active and social animals like orcas in captivity, SeaWorld has seen a significant decline in attendance. Society is recognising that there's nothing fun about sad animals.

FACT: Living in captivity has been found to lead some animals to neurosis and depression.

Marmosets are commonly found in the tropical rainforests of South America. They are currently not listed as a threatened species.

Making a difference for animals

Humans have a great capacity for kindness towards our fellow species. When we see an animal suffer, we jump to their aid, (just like the awesome humans in this video did).

We have the choice to show our respect for animals by letting them live a natural life, rather than contributing to an institution that breeds them for a life in captivity. You can make a difference in the lives of animals in zoos by choosing animal-friendly alternatives to zoos, such as admiring animals in the wild, at sanctuaries or on television.


NOTE: We acknowledge that every organisation has different animal welfare policies and this article is intended to inform the public about existing zoo practices and may not apply to all zoological parks. We hope that it will encourage people to ask questions and to seek out organisations that align with their own values about the treatment of animals.

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