Animals have been kept for the enjoyment of humans for decades, the first zoos were established to allow humans to see creatures from around the world with little consideration to the animals well-being. More recently zoos have been evolving to be centres of education and assist with conservation. But are zoos able to produce useful conservation action for the good of the species or do they still resemble the morals of those early zoos?
Animal collection have existed since the start of human history. William the conquer was believed to have a menagerie for his enjoyment(and would send animals as gifts). It was in the 1793 that something similar to a zoo first came to Europe. Animals would be kept on display from the zoos opening until closing with no space away from the crowds that gathered to look through the bars at these poor animals.
Knowing what we do now it is obvious that these first zoo animals would have suffered from many behavioural and psychological problems as a result of their captivation, and over the years zoos have moved away from this “animal on display” design.
Anyone who has been to a modern zoo can see how enclosure design has improved. Generally enclosures are larger with access to natural light and often animals are kept in social groups of their species. All of these features have been implemented to improve the animals well-being, but also to improve the public experience.
But that is not to say that all zoo’s have eliminated the problems that captivity can cause. A uncrossable boundary is not something animals have evolved to deal with, so placing animals into enclosures is bound to have some impact on their mental well-being. Often big cats are seen to pace at the enclosure borders. This is most likely due to boredom and a lack of stimulation. Many zoos do try to off set this by the use of enrichment activities such as, suspended feeding stations, hiding food or puzzles but new enrichment items must be added often to keep the animals mind active.
Another form of negative behaviour found in zoo is stereotypical behaviour. This is any behaviour that the animal repeats to an unhealthy amount. Whilst there are no cases of sterotypical behaviours in wild animals they are unfortunately frequently seen in captive animals, and believed to be again caused by a lack of stimulation. Some examples involve primates going bald by overgrooming themselves or one another or animals continually chewing the enclosures fixtures.
So clearly zoos still have issues to resolve in order to give the animals proper mental stimulation but do zoos offer any benefits? Zoos often make claims about their ability to educate visitors about conservation issues regarding these species. This may be a reason to keep animals in captivity as a means to help people gain an understanding about the animals. But this problem has a few flaws. Firstly, if zoos are there to educate about conservation issues why are animals of no conservation concern often seen in zoos? Meerkats for example are in most zoos, yet they are of least concern on the IUCN red list. So it raises the question what conservation issues is keeping meerkats teaching the public? Also, several studies have looked into the education that zoos provide. Several of these studies have found the education either doesn’t provide a broad amount of information or that the information is not being retained by the public. This is something that requires much more investment and research or zoos may need to reconsider their roles as educators.
Zoos however, are not wholly negative. Many zoos around the world are some of the biggest investors in conservation research around the world. These contributions have helped support projects around the globe to help protect numerous rare and endangered species. One of Britain’s zoos is world renown for their help in global conserrvation efforts. Without zoos is it possible that many of the species they are working to protect would have already gone extinct? These are difficult questions to answer and whilst the question of are zoos helping animals or hindering them it brings up some interesting ethical debates.
As zoos continue to expand and evolve over the years I believe we will see an even stronger shift away towards a coordinated conservation effort. How that happens whilst still promoting the zoos as a public attraction remains to be seen but is it worth a small number of animals having to live in zoos so that the species as a whole can survive in the wild?