In Defense of Zoos

I’m not the zookeeper, nor the zookeeper’s son,
But I’ll keep the zoo till the zookeeper comes.


It looks like the internet has gotten momentarily tired of demanding humans be sacrificed to its insatiable bloodlust and has moved on to hating on zoos (this is just one of innumerable similar pieces I’ve been seeing). This is a much more valid and productive hate than last week’s zoo-fueled call to hurt strangers, in the sense that it is possible that zoos are bad and should be reformed or eliminated (while it’s not really possible that hurting strangers will improve anything). However, I think most of the anti-zoo arguments I hear people make right now are wrong.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have worked at a small zoo and I have done research at a ca23100000000000different small zoo, so I’ve seen some of the “behind the scenes” action. I can’t, and wouldn’t, say that all zoos are well-run, so it’s possible you have your own horror stories. A poorly run zoo should be improved, of course. All zoos in the US are federally regulated, and whether those regulations should be changed is naturally a discussion it is important to return to periodically. But a poorly run zoo is not an argument that zoos should be eliminated, any more than Congress is an argument that democracy should be eliminated.

One thing to understand is that zoos are not amusement parks where humans gape at trapped animals. Zoos are research and conservation facilities that are funded by allowing humans to tour the grounds. This probably isn’t true of all zoos, but it is not a trivial fact. The Bronx Zoo, for example, conducts research not only onsite but (perhaps through its partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society? I don’t really understand these corporate structures) across America. Until a decade ago they had an entire island off the coast of Georgia dedicated to research.


Bronx zoo signage. Some kind of mission statement.

In addition to initiating conservation, zoos are part of the propaganda arm of the conservation movement, as a stroll through the Bronx Zoo should confirm. Just read the signs encouraging you to eschew animal products, and to spray your garden sparingly. Drop money in the collection boxes. I don’t mean propaganda pejoratively, I just mean that zoos tend to be “on message” at all times.

It may be that zoos’ greatest boon to environmentalism is in fostering a love of animals in its visitors. Insisting that a new generation experience this love without any zoo visits is a great way to virtue-signal, but is probably not very realistic.


That should teach him to increase the stores of human knowledge.

Furthermore, our idea of zoos is still informed by nineteenth-century ideas. We’re still upset by the idea of zoo employees “kidnapping” animals from the wild, even though this almost never happens any more. In Disney’s Tarzan (for example) the villain is not even a hunter but someone who wants to advance science by studying an ape species hitherto unknown. That guy should have been the hero of the movie!

Almost all zoo animals are bred in and for zoos. They are animals  that would not exist if zoos had not made them. I’m not trying to assert some kind of Cosby-based “I brought you into this world, I can take you out” philosophy, I’m just pointing out that the provenance of most zoo animals is well known, and does not involve kidnapping.

Naturally, zoo breeding programs create not only more zoo animals, but also animals that can be reintrodued into their native habitat.Pere David’s deer, extinct in the wild for over a 9137121century, only exists at all because of zoos, and has been reintroduced into China.

The zoo I worked in was stocked 100% with animals that could not live in the wild. We had a three-legged arctic fox, formerly wild, but sickly, and nursed back to health in the zoo; we had two mountain lion cubs, declawed by their owner, who then got arrested for, you know, trying to keep mountain lions as pets; we had a macaque that had been the control group in some lab experiment. If these animals were not in a zoo they would be sushi for a wealthy supervillain. There is nothing else that could happen to them, unless you have the means to fund a place that tends to animals without letting humans look at them (these places do exist, although not in sufficient numbers to take in all needy animals; unlike zoos, they are completely unregulated).

Zoos no longer have small cages, like the cruel lack of head room on the giraffe’s cage in the fanciful animal crackers below. Even when the “display space” is small, it’s small the way your cubicle at work is small. The animal naps there during business hours, Animal_Crackers_aR2NIXmls8and as soon as the zoo is closed it gets to run free in a broader area. At my zoo, the macaque got free range, after closing, over a large amount of what was during the day office and operational space, but this would hardly have been apparent to the casual visitor.

(The rodent house, of course, still has small cages, but these are no less humane than your hamster’s habitrail.)

In my experience, which I will reiterate is limited, zookeepers are passionate about giving zoo animals good lives, and work hard to keep them healthy and engaged. Since life in a State of Nature is famously solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, it’s not even a high bar! But zoo animals are protected not only by zookeepers’ goodwill and federal regulations, but also by suspicious watchdog nonprofits that (and this is just my experience, but it really is my experience) hung around the zoo trying to catch us doing something harmful. (It was only one watchdog group, to be fair; but I didn’t work there that long.)



Let’s return for a moment to that State of Nature. I know we believe that animals do not “want” to be in zoos, and I don’t claim to be able to refute this. I don’t know what animals want. But I am suspicious of the idea that animals want dignity or freedom, precisely because I know that dignity and freedom are what I find important or interesting in animals. The state of being well-fed or warm I hardly need to fantasize about or live out vicariously through lions and elephants. I’m already warm and well fed! Wild animals have a symbolic resonance because they embody things I lack, and in this way I am like most people who read this: warm and well-fed but unfree and humiliated. Every day I choose to be warm and well-fed over being free and dignified.  It’s weird to think we are so certain that animals would make the opposite choice.

Most of what I’ve written here is potentially naive, and I may have been gulled by the propaganda arm of Big Zoo, but this much I know to be true with as great a degree of Untitledcertainty as I can muster: When we claim caged animals want to be free, we are talking about ourselves, and not them

So if you know of a zoo that treats its animals poorly, labor to fix that zoo’s policies! If you know of a zoo that kidnaps animals from the wild, you should probably report it somewhere. But that’s a far cry from saying zoos are in some way ipso facto immoral.

If you think keeping pets is a form of slavery, you probably will not agree with anything I say; but for the rest of us, we should be aware that the main problem zoos labor under is lack of funding, and so discouraging people from visiting zoos is hardly in the animals’ best interests.

(We should also stop our pretending that Harambe was just holding the kids’ hands out of Giving-Tree-style agape. Come on, people!)


  1. Porter · · Reply

    The other day in conversation with a co-worker I arrived at:

    Zoos are intrinsically not a risk-free thing. Much the same as attending a ball-game. At a ballpark, they might erect various safeguards such as fencing, plexiglass walls, netting, etc. All to prevent an errant ball, or broken bat from injuring those in the audience.

    However at the ballgame – you’ll get push back from the audience if you go too far with the safeguards. People will say: might as well just stay home and watch it on TV, for all that I’m at the ballgame.

    Zoos are the same. In our desire for access to the animals, for authenticity of experience – we want the minimal amount of intermediary barriers. As such it’s not a zero-risk activity. In the grand scheme of things it’s still pretty low risk when you consider the total number of zoo visitors in the USA let alone world-wide.

    Then to your point of poorly run zoos. Beijing’s was pretty disheartening to visit. The National Zoo in DC on the other hand was a joy. I can see where some will say all zoos should be abolished (use of term deliberate). However I would argue that the “access” I mention above pays a real dividend in exposing people to these animals and the wonder that they actually exist in a zoo, let alone out in the wild. I think there is some benefit to that, even if the existence the animals experience is unnatural.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said!

      I think I implied, but didn’t come out and make explicit that everything I said was about US zoos, probably extrapolatable to Canadian, etc., zoos. For all I know Chinese zoos have Tibetans and Falun Gong dissidents in them, and I don’t want to endorse any of that.


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