In the Pacific Northwest, there are ten aquariums and zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (eleven if you include the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada). In addition to being open to the public (now with restrictions because of Covid-19), these parks do a variety of things, including work on conservation projects with native species like the western pond turtle and pygmy rabbits. Zoos, a shorthand for zoological parks, aren’t a new phenomenon, as there is evidence of zoo-like parks in what is now Egypt and Iraq dating back to 2500 BCE.

The Pros and Cons of Zoos

Nowadays, there are a few different types of zoos and many of these parks place a heavy emphasis on scientific study and animal welfare. We have learned a whole lot about animal behavior and biology over the decades and much of this knowledge is used by zoos around the world to make the best possible life for the animals in their care. But even so, there are pros and cons of zoos and keeping wild animals in captivity.



  • Zoos provide a new experience for folks who otherwise might not see certain wild animals in real life, which could foster an empathetic understanding of the animals. These experiences can educate people about wild animals in an interesting and fun way and the threats that endangered species face. Being able to see these animals could potentially get the general public involved in conservation work.
  • The Association of Zoos and Aquariums offers a rigorous and reputable accreditation process that requires zoos and aquariums to provide the best possible care for their animals. The AZA has very high standards on “animal welfare, care, and management, including living environments, social groupings, health, and nutrition” and every animal and department at a zoo is accessed. Additionally, to keep up accreditation, zoos must go through the entire process again every five years. Having an outside organization create standards for captive animal management and thoroughly vet parks that want to be accredited is a great way to hold organizations and employees to high standards.
  • The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 is the only US federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers, making it the only federal law that can regulate zoos. It is enforced by the USDA Animal Care unit within the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
  • As we learn more about wild animals through scientific study, zoos are constantly evolving and day-to-day life for the animals often reflects that.
    • Zookeepers provide enrichment for animals to stimulate life in nature as best as possible while also working within physical limitations.
    • Zookeepers and veterinarian staff work to provide the best medical care for these animals by keeping a close eye on the animals and providing species-specific care and medical treatments.
    • Many zookeepers and animal caretakers form strong bonds with the animals and work on training that’s geared towards voluntary medical participation. By working on this kind of training, in addition to other forms of training, the animals and zoo staff members can generally provide a safe space for everyone involved and it can help with preventative care. Additionally, this training and other policies give the animals more control in stressful situations while not endangering the staff caring for them.
    • Many zoo animals are given choices in whether to engage in certain behaviors.
  • Zoos can provide a safe home for animals that protects them from habitat loss, starvation, poachers, and predators. Some zoos participate in Species Survival Plan Programs, which is a breeding program that zoos use to help boost a species’ population and genetic diversity. Some zoos also help rehabilitate exotic pets that are given up or seized.


  • Some animal rights activists say that even if a species is endangered, humans don’t have the right to capture, confine, and breed other animals.
  • Even with enrichment activities, complex exhibits that attempt to mimic the animal’s natural habitat, or even larger safaris, animals in confinement can suffer from boredom and stress and may develop physical tics.
    • Stereotypies can be seen in both domestic animals and captive wild animals and can be defined as repetitive but invariant or abnormal behavior that does not have an apparent and immediate function. The exact cause behind an animal exhibiting stereotypies is complex and variable but stress and the inability to behave in a species-specific way seem to contribute to the abnormal behavior. In zoo animals, this repetitive and abnormal behavior is also known as ‘zoochosis’.
    • Additionally, by not being in their natural habitat and being able to perform instinctual behavior, animals can develop health problems.
  • One reason why some zoo animals develop zoochosis is the size of their exhibit. In the wild, polar bears, for example, have been known to have a home range of 31,000 square miles.
  • Intergenerational and familial bonds are broken when individual animals are sent to other zoos, a practice that’s sometimes done in the Species Survival Plan Program to encourage mating and genetic diversity in the species. There are plenty of wild animals, especially elephants, that form strong, emotional bonds with other animals.
  • While the United States does have the Animal Welfare Act, enforcement is difficult and rare. Additionally, the act only established the most minimal care standards and punishment for any violations seem mild.

Roadside Zoos and Circuses

There doesn’t seem to be a direct definition of what a roadside zoo is but generally, these parks include substandard conditions for animals and often involve more flashy and involved activities for tourists to enjoy. This can include wild animals trained to perform tricks on command and the opportunity to hold and take photos with the animals. This type of interaction goes against the practice of protected contact, as these animals are still wild. According to one report put together by NYU staff for the Humane Society of the United States, there are at least 77 distinct facilities that allow humans to interact with endangered wildlife and almost half are in Florida and California.

Wild and domesticated animals, like elephants, lions, and horses, have long been a part of circuses around the world. Ringling Brothers ad Barnum & Bailey circus only recently retired their elephants in 2017 after decades of using them in shows. This is an incredible move, as many animal rights activists have fought against having elephants in traveling circus shows for years. In a 2013 interview with National Geographic, Dr. Michael Hutchins said “there is no way that even the best of traveling circuses can provide the kinds of conditions that will allow captive elephants to thrive”.

Elephants in Captivity

For decades, elephant exhibits in American zoos have had their own problems and controversies. As the largest land mammal, elephants are an iconic species but have been facing numerous threats that have decimated their populations in Africa and in Asia. African elephants have been poached for their ivory tusks, urban development has greatly affected their habitats, and resources like water and food are getting harder to find.

It’s true that zoos are able to work on important research projects with the elephants that call these places home and many newer exhibits provide several acres for the elephants to roam, in addition to enrichment activities. But things aren’t perfect yet, as captive elephants have been known to develop physical ailments like foot sores and infections, joint disorders and even a relatively high incidence of tuberculosis, with 5-6% of the elephants in the US being infected.

Another example is exactly how some zoos have gotten their elephants. Back in 2015/2016, several US-based zoos prompted controversy after agreeing to import 18 elephants from a Swaziland national park. The zoos claimed it was a rescue mission, as the landscape of the African country was drought-stricken and there were other species, particularly rhinos, that needed resources too. But many objected, including 80 of the world’s top elephant scientists and conservationists. These scientists and conservationists even wrote an open letter with eight detailed reasons why they objected.

The story behind this ‘rescue’ is odd and apparently very similar to a previous elephant rescue from the same organization in 2003. Big Game Parks (B.G.P) is a private, nonprofit trust that manages Swaziland’s natural reserves and managed the land where the elephants once lived. When this was all happening, B.G.P’s executive director, Ted Reilly, decided to reduce the parks’ elephant population. Relocation within the African continent was apparently deemed impractical and if other homes couldn’t be found for these 18 elephants, Reilly declared that they would be slaughtered. That’s when several US-based zoos stepped in and donated $450,000 in exchange for the elephants.



There are plenty of cases, both now and in history, where zoos have been bad for both captive wild animals and people. Unfortunately, there is a long history of abuse within these parks and prioritizing human entertainment over animal welfare. There’s even a long and horrific history of racism in some zoos where people of color, particularly those from the Philippines or African continent, were kept as exhibits for white audiences to gawk at.

But in the last two decades or so, most zoos have changed and evolved into places that put more emphasis on animal welfare. Things are by no means perfect and there’s still a whole lot more to learn. But for me personally, it’s difficult to paint all zoos as solely good or bad. Are there parks and facilities that are bad for the animals? Absolutely. But there are other places where education and animal welfare are the top priorities and some good has come from them.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

%d bloggers like this: