A great treat for the kids with the gift of species conservation thrown in – or a wildlife prison? Trips to the zoo have become a far less simple day out than they used to be.
Animal rights activists have no doubt where the truth lies: “No one should ever support zoos,” said Peta, the animal rights organisation.
Captivity is a stultifying, daily torment for animals meant to freely wander vast distances, activists argue. Animals are meant to make their own choices about what to eat, where to sleep and who mate with – decisions taken from them in zoos.
Deprived of stimulation, research has found that many animals are trapped in spaces that are all-too-often “living hells”: three-quarters of British zoos, aquariums and petting farms have been found to regularly break minimum animal welfare standards.
Activists also point out that zoos abduct animals from their natural habitats under the guise of “species protection” and get rid of “surplus” animals either by killing them or by selling them to unethical exotic-animal dealers.
Zoos argue they do vital conservation work: they hold, research shows, nearly 15% of the global International Union for Conservation of Nature threatened species – although most zoos are concentrated in temperate regions, whereas most threatened species are tropical.
Activists argue that the vast majority of species kept in zoos are not endangered and nor do most zoos have any involvement with reintroduction programmes. “Conservation is a con,” said Peta.
Zoos argue that their role in educating the public is one their most important roles. A study of children between the ages of seven and 15 who visited London Zoo, however, found that for the majority of them – including those who took an educator-guided tour of the zoo – there were no positive educational outcomes. In many cases, the trip even had a negative impact on their understanding of animals and their habitats.
“And that makes sense,” said Peta. “We wouldn’t go to a prison to learn about typical human society, so why would we try to learn about animals by observing them in captivity?”