Zoos are quite a debated topic.
Some people think it’s cruel to keep animals in captivity, while others think it’s the more humane choice as many zoo animals are endangered in the wild.
While many zoos might raise awareness about the climate crisis, they still have an environmental impact as it requires a lot of energy and resources to keep a zoo running, so they are not particularly eco-friendly.
1. Are Zoos Good for the Environment?
Zoos are not good for the environment.
Many zoos try to minimize their environmental impact, and lots of zoos try to raise awareness about the climate crisis.
Research found that more than 80% of zoo attendees accept climate change as a fact, which is promising given that only about 60% of the general public sees climate change as real.
While zoos might be able to inform the public in a way that the likes of politicians and scientists cannot, since people feel an emotional connection to animals, some attendees might be off put by having what is regarded as a political issue brought up during a day out at the zoo.
Plus, while zoos might try to combat the issue, it still requires a lot of resources to run a zoo and feed the animals.
Zoos require a lot of energy to maintain the animal habitats, for example, ensuring animals native to warm climates have warm enclosures, while marine animals need huge volumes of water.
There has been research on making zoos more energy efficient, which is a step in the right direction.
However, today, most energy use in the US is still from non-renewable sources like coal and natural gas, so high energy use is unsustainable.
Zoos also generate a lot of waste from feeding and caring for animals, which can quickly add up as zoos can potentially house hundreds, even thousands of animals.
Plus, many animals in zoos are carnivores, so more animals must be bred to feed them.
Some zoos send animal waste to landfill, while others have moved towards composting.
Plus, zoos can encourage consumerism since most, if not all, have several gift shops.
2. Are Zoos Good or Bad for Animals?
Zoos do not seem to be good for animals.
Most zoo animals live longer in captivity than in the wild.
However, a longer life is not necessarily a happier life for animals.
In the wild, zoo animals would not be kept in enclosures and would be able to fend for themselves.
So animals can experience stress due to the artificial conditions, a new environment, restrictive enclosures, and the presence of humans.
Research found that many animals experience chronic stress upon entering captivity.
However, the studies noted that in some instances, some species might adapt to their new environment, while others do not appear to settle in and continue to experience stress.
Some zoos might even euthanize healthy animals to reduce the zoo population.
3. Are Zoos Unnatural Environments?
Yes, zoos are unnatural environments.
Regardless of the plant life brought in or the artificial lighting, a zoo enclosure is not the same as being in the wild.
For example, the climate in the US or Europe is not the same as something a polar bear would experience in the arctic or tigers in the rainforest.
Zoos are urban spaces too, so it is still an unnatural environment for native animals who would have initially lived in forests, away from civilization.
For example, research found that zoo animals experience stress when exposed to construction noise – which they would not encounter in the wild.
4. Do Zoos Help Endangered Animals?
There is an argument that zoos are safer for animals than the wild due to climate change and poaching.
Many zoos are involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA’s) Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program.
This program sets out to manage the breeding of endangered animals.
Zoos associated with the AZA are believed to have helped stabilize the bongo population, which is a type of African antelope, through captive breeding and the release of some of their offspring.
5. Do Zoos Release Animals into the Wild?
Although the goal of some SSPs is to release some animals into the wild, most zoo animals do not get released because it is not always what’s best for them.
As mentioned earlier, the bongo population increased due to captive breeding and releasing these animals into the wild.
Although being in captivity is not good for animals, captive animals can not always be released because they lack survival skills and are accustomed to human contact – which puts them at risk of poaching.
Whether animals can be released or how well they adapt depends on the species.
It seems easier for reptiles, fish, and amphibians to adapt to the wild, but mammals like big cats, whales, primates, and elephants struggle as they never learned survival skills and how to interact in a larger group.
For example, lions may be released in stages to distance them from humans and allow them to form a pride.
When released, the odds are not good for the animals.
Research found that only 30% of carnivore animals released survived.
Half of the deaths were due to human activity, and the captive animals were more likely to starve and struggle to integrate into groups.
6. Are Zoos Ethical?
There are compelling arguments on both sides about whether zoos are ethical.
While captive animals live longer, zoo animals do not seem as content as wild animals.
Although contributing to conservation programs and drawing attention to the climate crisis is admirable, it’s hard to overlook how some zoos euthanize healthy animals due to overcrowding.
Plus, zoos – while making efforts to be greener – require a lot of energy and resources and so contribute to climate change themselves, which would not be needed if zoos did not exist in the first place.
7. Are Zoos Eco-Tourism?
Eco-tourism is considered a form of travel with sustainability in mind and often entails people visiting threatened environments – to view the wildlife but also to support the conservation of the environment.
Zoos are arguably a form of eco-tourism since people go to zoos to see the wildlife, and they may be more concerned about sustainability than the average person.
However, surveys suggest that many people go to the zoo to watch animals, but not necessarily to learn about them or the environment.
From an environmental standpoint, it might be more sustainable to visit a zoo in your local area or country rather than flying elsewhere to observe animals in the wild.
More than 2% of CO2 emissions globally are the result of aviation, so taking fewer flights is the greener option.
While humans cannot enter and disrupt the animals in their enclosures in zoos, traveling to areas where wild animals reside can spread disease and disturb them.