|Writer, M. Carrington|
The debate of whether or not keeping animals in captivity is ethical has been around for as long as zoos have. There are zoo-goers, who enjoy seeing the animals and learning while doing so; and on the other side of the issue there are zoo critics, who believe that wild animals should be left untouched in nature. For years zoo critics and large corporations such as PETA have tried to put an end to the zoo industry, but the research done in zoos that goes towards wildlife protection is worth keeping animals in captivity in the eyes of several scientists. On top of this, studies are showing that many declining species would not have made it this far if it were not for the zoos that keep them alive. Elissa Cameron, for example, shows in her research of African elephants that over 40,000 elephants were killed in 2011 alone due to the ivory trade, and had this continued without zoos taking elephants to be held for speciation programs, they would be extinct (Cameron 2). Takehito Kaneko even shows proof of a successful speciation program taking place in Japan. There is currently a freeze-dry sperm program in which the sperm of certain species is collected and kept frozen for later use (Kaneko 1). With programs like these taking place in zoos, there should be no question of whether or not the animals should be held captive. Keep in mind too, that wild animals are to be held captive there are several regulations set forth by the AZA (aquarium and zoo association) that ensure the health and protection of these animals. These regulations are summarized in Meehan’s "Determining Connections Between The Daily Lives Of Zoo Elephants And Their Welfare: An Epidemiological Approach", showing the connection between the treatment of an animal in a zoo and that animal’s health. Still though, many people believe that wild animals are to stay in the wild, and keeping them in zoos (no matter how many regulations the zoo has managed to follow) is unethical. This viewpoint is understandable, with corporations like PETA and films like Blackfish feeding the public with propaganda, painting zoos out to be multimillion dollar businesses in it for the money rather than the welfare of animals. What many people do not realize though, is that these large corporation AZA accredited zoos are responsible for the regeneration of hundreds of nearly extinct species. On top of this, zoos and wildlife protection facilities generate education programs to teach the public about environmental preservation. Several zoos worldwide have established programs that have successfully regenerated nearly extinct species, as well as rehabilitated hundreds of injured animals. It is because of the direct health benefits and eventual population benefits to the animals, and the educational benefits to the public, that zoos should be more supported among critics and continue to house wild animals.
To start off, most zoo-goers are able to appreciate both the beauty and education that a zoo has to offer. Most zoos and wildlife parks are equipped with factual information at each animal exhibit to teach their visitors about the animals that they are seeing. In addition to this, a large percentage of a zookeeper's job is to educate the public about the animals that they are seeing. These factors can be especially influential in the lives of young children. For example, when I was in grade school I remember visiting the zoo for the first time and being instantly inspired by the people in khaki shorts and hiking boots that were taking care of all of those beautiful animals. That kind of atmosphere is able to instil the idea in a person's mind that these animals are important and protecting them is our responsibility. The education program director of the Oregon Zoo, Rex Ettlin, even states “A zoo’s paramount purpose is to promote wildlife conservation. A zoo exists to educate. Research happens, recreation happens, but above all is the intent to educate” (Ettlin 1). The ability to learn by actually seeing a live animal, seeing what it can do and how it serves a purpose in the world, is a wonderful achievement. This is what makes zoos such useful education tools, Ettlin goes on to say that this type of learning is exciting because it is “active” and “live” and “outside the confines of four walls”, which is what seems to so easily engage children that may not otherwise want to learn about protecting animals (Ettlin 4). The Association of Zoos and Aquariums explains the importance of their education programs by stating “...AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums enhance the public’s understanding of wildlife and the need to conserve the places animals live” (AZA homepage). In order to continue protecting wild animals, it is critical that the public is educated on the problem and various ways to help solve it. If we were to get rid of zoos altogether, it is likely that the average person would not know how to go about protecting wild animals. People are able to better themselves, and the animals, through zoo education programs.
Next, it is important to recognize the health benefits that zoos provide for the animals being held in them. In addition to rehabilitation programs that nurse sick animals back to health, zoos have also done studies proving that human contact has increased the mental health and happiness in their animals. One example comes from the article “Training Reduces Stress In Human-Socialised Wolves To The Same Degree As In Dogs” written by Angélica da Silva Vasconcellos. It has been shown that a major contribution to the stress in wild animals comes from the lack of predictability in their natural environments (Vasconcellos 1). A zoo provides a controlled environment that is able to reduce the stresses of living in the wild. Finding the next meal, or protecting offspring from danger no longer becomes a pressing issue. In addition to this, Vasconcellos and his team have collected research showing that training wolves has reduced their stress just as it would in a domesticated dog. Keep in mind that the close evolutionary connection between the two species may contribute to this similarity in the reaction to human interaction. However, wolves are wild animals nonetheless and seem to be benefitting (mentally and physically) from being trained by humans. The behavioral and psychological effects of training wolves were measured by observing behaviors linked to stress in animals, and salivary levels throughout the training (Vasconcellos 2). Through classical conditioning much like the studies done with Pavlov’s dogs in 1889, researchers were able to measure salivary levels and connect that to a wolve’s psychological reaction. Because wolves are such social animals, their reactions to the human training were almost always positive (Vasconcellos 4). The conclusion to be made by the results of this study is that increasing the interaction between “wild social candids” such as wolves, and their caretakers, can greatly improve the welfare of animals being held in zoos (Vasconcellos 4). This same conclusion can be made about several other social species; dolphins, elephants, otters, and meerkats are just a few examples. Of course, these animals are interacting with members of their own species in the wild, however it is important to understand that in zoos they benefit from human interaction as well.
The welfare of animals is a top priority at AZA accredited zoos. In order to protect and save wild animals, we must treat them with respect and provide the proper shelter, nutrition, and attention that each one requires. Zoos understand this, and have regulations set forth in order to provide for each animal being held. In her article “Determining Connections Between The Daily Lives Of Zoo Elephants And Their Welfare: An Epidemiological Approach”, Cheryl Meehan provides statistical data that shows the correlation between an elephant's treatment in the zoo, and it’s overall health. Meehan includes housing, interaction, and life history under areas of “welfare” and correlates the results to “performance of abnormal behavior, foot and joint problems, recumbence, walking rates, and reproductive health issues” (Meehan 1). By collecting data from 68 AZA accredited zoos, she found that 96% of the time, larger housing areas and increased social time decreased the likelihood of health problems by 42% (Meehan 4). The conclusion to be made here is somewhat obvious, but equally important, the better an animal is treated in a zoo, the longer and healthier it’s life will be. This is why the AZA sets regulations on the care of all animals in accredited zoos; their treatment does affect their long term health and the importance of this is not to be taken lightly.
Above all, the most beneficial aspect of large corperation zoos are the speciation programs that can be implemented. These corporations are profitable and therefore have the funds to conduct research that protects endangered species, unlike small wildlife refuges. The intent from both parties is the same, to protect wild animals, however larger zoos tend to have more resources that allow them to complete this task before smaller corporations do. One program in particular that has been able to successfully regenerate species’ in a controlled setting is the Sperm Preservation Program at the National Zoo of Japan. In short, the process involves the freeze-drying of live animal sperm to later be inseminated in females of the same species.
This has been tried on long haired rats, weasels, chimpanzees, giraffes and jaguars (Kaneko 2). In all cases, scientists found that when the sperm was taken out to be used it was still in tact (Kaneko 3). Seaworld has successfully done this as well, with the breeding of killer whales, though unfortunately this program was shut down after the Seaworld scandal became so prominent in 2012. Despite the program being stopped, it was successful in the sense that orcas were being kept alive in captivity and no longer taken out of the wild to be bred in zoos, instead the orcas were born in the zoos that they would then grow up in (Schelling 2). On the same note, Jack Hanna explains in his article “What Zoo Critics Don’t Understand” that people are so quick to state that wild animals belong in the wild, however “the wild” is “ceasing to exist” (Hanna 1). This is a product of human expansion and it is a reason for the importance of zoos. He goes on to explain the value in large zoo breeding programs, stating that without zoos continuing with these programs many of the species that have before neared extinction would have made it to that point (Hanna 2). Here, one can see the importance of a zoo staying open very clearly, without these programs many species would no longer be here.
As a zoology student, this subject is particularly important to me as it directly relates to my future career. More importantly though, as a human on this planet, the topic of wildlife protection is exceedingly important to me as it should be to many others. Understanding the relevance that zoos have towards protecting animals is a very important step in protecting them. The education that zoos provide allow people to know that there is something worth saving out there; if it were not for zoos my interest in zoological and wildlife studies would have never came to be. It is safe to say that this is the case for many famous zoologists as well, Jane Goodall being the most prominent example. The studies that have been done to show the increased mental and physical health in zoo animals is also a large point to consider. Above all though, the presence of speciation programs in zoos is reason enough to keep supporting them. Private field researchers and small protective refugees simply do not have the resources or funds that large corporations put towards protecting and re-stabilizing the populations of endangered species. All in all, there are many more reasons for keeping zoos open than there are for shutting them down. As much as zoo critics would like to say it’s about the money, it truly is about the protection of our planet and every creature on it.
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