The Debate on Zoos

Zoos garner a unique mix of opinions, not only among adults but across an individual’s lifetime. Generally, we are introduced to zoos at a very young age, and unless we have a pretty advanced sense of empathy (aside: we all know kids do NOT) we see the zoo as being exclusively an exciting, fun place. Then, as we become more aware of concepts like captivity, ethics, and freedom, we have to re-confront the concept of the zoo and re-evaluate our opinions. The Beaverton summed up this bizarre dichotomy in a pretty great way this week:

John Karoly: Hates Two Year Olds. I mean, yes.

Disclaimer: Now, I’m gonna do my usual thing with any zoo-related commentary, and that is: un-funny it. (Read: think seriously about it.) So if you’ve gotten a chuckle out of that video and now you just wanna go on with your day, I 100% understand if you shall now enact your own personal agency and leave this post. If you’ve got an interest in zoos and thinking critically about them, come along with me on the rollercoaster of Ethical and Scientifical Ponderances! (“You must be this curious (bored?) to ride.”)

Onward! Despite this video dismantling the zoo debate into something almost non-sensical, the clever thing about it is that key word almost. It actually raises some really good questions, and overall I really like how they point out the ludicrousness that at its two extremes, the zoo debate can be viewed as a conversation between “kids who just want to see a giraffe” and “adults with an acute sense of ethics.” How can we find a balance between two groups with such different lenses on the zoo experience?

Well, I don’t know.

But maybe delving a bit further into the subtleties of this (at a glance) superficial video can actually illuminate this big question. So let’s make it all about me and have Sarah go through the questions and responses posed in the video instead!

Q: “John, I think public sentiment has come in line with calls to ban elephants and large cats from the circus, but most zoos advocate for conservation just like you.”

[not exactly a question LOL]

I thought this was interesting because technically, the character of John Karoly is being portrayed as an “Animal Rights Activist.” In my experience, the majority of animal rights activists don’t actually come from a scientific background; their grounding is generally more in ethics, public communication, law, or political science. And of course there are a good deal of activists from the general public who inform themselves on the issues, which inevitably generates a highly mixed background including information from articles online, documentaries, publicity from activist organizations like Greenpeace, and one’s own personal experiences attending zoos. It is highly effective for documentaries like Blackfish and organizations like Greenpeace to appeal to the emotional responses of the general public, and as a result activists can be a pretty emotionally charged group at times.


Greenpeace will use images like this, used in a campaign against deforestation, in its publicity to garner an emotional response

In this sketch however, John Karoly is presented as being a pretty logical, scientifically grounded character (albeit with an agenda). I think this unfortunately distorts the understanding an audience casually watching the video might get about the zoo debate: conservationists comprise another faction involved in this issue, and they do not necessarily overlap completely with activists. In fact, I would argue that they increasingly do not overlap with activist agendas with the relatively recent rise of the disciplines of ecology and conservation biology. These disciplines are pretty young and only within the last decade or two have students started graduating out of degrees called “Bachelor of Science in Conservation Biology.” As universities become more engaged with these domains, I think we are increasingly seeing conservation professionals who are more-so interested in the scientific concepts involved (the so-called study of “small population biology”) rather than the pushing of a moral agenda.

This is not to discredit the work of activists: more extreme organizations like Greenpeace can often more effectively draw attention to an issue than an organization that is more scientifically targeted, like World Wildlife Fund or National Geographic (both of whom I love dearly). I had expected the Beaverton sketch to take advantage of the widespread perception that activists are more extreme/emotionally charged for their comedic boon, but I can also see how the ludicrousness of pitting a highly rational adult against a highly irrational kid actually works better. The fact that John Karoly is labelled an “activist” probably comes more from the prevalence of activist voices in the media versus the essential void of scientific voices in the media when it comes to the zoo debate (excellent article on that here – though heads up, the author may seem more opinionated against activists than I am). The Beaverton just doesn’t even know what to call a “scientist who works at a zoo.” And I don’t blame them – there isn’t really a ubiquitously recognized term for that position, and zoos definitely haven’t put an abundance of emphasis on getting the word out.

While this inclusion of an “activist” character definitely downplays how involved zoos are in their own conservation initiatives and thinking scientifically about the management of animals, which is not ideal, it does do a favour for activists: it resists the stereotype of the emotionally-charged, poorly-informed activist. Which I think is a great thing! We can’t ignore that such activists certainly exist, but we also can’t let that colour our view of all zoo activists. We have to take them seriously because they more often than not present valid opinions that challenge the status quo and catalyze change. This discourse needs to be open.

R: “Zoos have no intention of releasing captive animals into the wild, they just desensitize children into believing exotic animals like giraffes should be gawked at from behind a cage.”

When spoken aloud in the context of the video, the actor’s delivery of this line and the kid’s comparatively simple response (“No!”) makes it seem like a well-reasoned, logical idea. While I just defended activists above, and I remain supportive of the Beaverton’s level-headed portrayal of John Karoly, I would argue that the actual sentiment behind the words spoken above are pretty unreasonable. His response first of all suggests that the overarching goal of conservationists (both activists and zoo professionals) should be to ultimately release animals into the wild. If you haven’t been invested in the zoo debate previously, that sounds pretty reasonable. However, there are a few reasons why that argument falls flat for me:

  1. Zoos increasingly are committing to not recruiting animals from the wild simply for the purposes of captivity/entertainment. This means animals in zoos are now mainly held captive for other reasons: namely rescue, rehabilitation, and as an insurance population. Those being rehabilitated should ultimately be released. However there is a large portion of animals that cannot be released because they are rescue cases (not healthy enough to release) or they play an important role as a member of a breeding program (to ensure the continued existence of the species should it go extinct in the wild).
  2. This statement also suggests that zoos are lying about having an official mandate to release animals. It’s simply not true; if zoos had such a mandate they would either a) eventually release all of their animals and go out of business (which perhaps John Karoly is arguing should be the case?) or b) be obliged to continue taking animals unnecessarily into captivity simply for the purpose of later releasing them.

In this instance, I would have preferred to see a more “stereotypically crazy” activist character being portrayed by the Beaverton, because the sentiment expressed above is actually one of the most extreme opinions you can have about zoos: i.e., all animals should be released as soon as possible.

Q: “Are you advocating for the closure of the Metro Toronto Zoo no matter how many vegetables Sebastian eats?”

[insert some goofs here/John Karoly looks and is reasonable]

R: “…the bottom line is it’s morally reprehensible to allow zoos to keep animals like elephants locked up in tiny cages.”

Here we get more back to the initial point that was made by the interviewer about big cats and elephants: we all generally seem to agree that some animals should not be held captive, and especially not for entertainment. And at minimum, zoos should hold such animals in appropriate enclosures and not “tiny cages.” I think this is where we’ve been finding compromise in the zoo community more recently: both activists and scientists can agree that it’s important for animals currently held in zoos to have appropriate enclosures (both in terms of their space and contents), and to think carefully about which animals are appropriate to have in zoos in the first place. Zoos are constantly working to improve the lives of their animals through projects like improving/expanding enclosures, providing enrichments (supplementary toys and foods), and varying the structure of habitats to keep them interesting for the animals. For example, check out these otters at the Vancouver Aquarium getting blocks of ice as Christmas gifts:

It’s so $%?#!ing great that that’s science.

Where these compromises get more sticky is when we start to consider which animals are OK to keep captive and which are not. How do we draw the line? How do rescue animals factor into this kind of ethical framework (where the compromise may be between a) being held in a non-ideal enclosure and b) death)? What about animals that are nearing extinction in the wild, but we have not yet perfected how to keep them healthy and happy in captivity yet? From a purely conservationist perspective, the captivity of these animals is an unfortunate necessity. These are issues that we will need to continue to discuss with all the stakeholders of the zoo community, which includes you (I’m assuming if you’ve read this far as a random member of the public, you care a bit about zoos).

What do you think about these issues? How would you vote with your dollar? I think people forget that they definitely have power and options here: you could boycott zoos altogether if you disapprove. You could make a small donation to organizations like World Wildlife Fund or Greenpeace. Even choosing which of these organizations you follow on twitter makes a difference. I just encourage you to inform yourself on the issue you’re taking a stance on, and be willing to listen to others – maybe you will find that your opinions will change the more you talk about them. When it comes to zoos, issues can become quite specific depending on what sort of animal you’re talking about. The biology of that animal really matters – is it normally solitary or social? How large is its average territory size? These are the kinds of questions zoos ask themselves when they’re managing animals. If you’re ever curious, send me a tweet at @nasonicus and ask me anything! I am not an all-inclusive expert by any means, but I can lend a conservationist’s perspective. [/social media plug]

By the end of this sketch John Karoly does ultimately buckle to Sebastian, finding himself unable to deny a kid his desire to see the giraffes. We can’t forget that zoos are perhaps the most important tool in the animal conservationist’s belt. They provide a space for humans to connect personally with animals, learn about conservation, and provide financial support to conservation causes. For these reasons, and all the great research and conservation work that zoos do behind the scenes, I will always ultimately stand by zoos and support them.


3 thoughts on “The Debate on Zoos

    • Thanks for your comment!! Your blog is very interesting, I like the concept. Keep doing what you’re doing! I would love to see you delve into some case studies more deeply (I thought your stuff about how freeze drying and epipens were developed out of war times was really interesting – it would be cool to go deeper with one of these product examples and look at its history in depth). Good luck with the project! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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