Like many students who wanted to relish the too-short break, I spent most of mine lounging around until I spontaneously decided to go to the San Diego Zoo. I hadn’t been to a zoo since I was a little kid but I always remembered having a blast. As I walked under the brightly colored cartoon lion, I began to wonder if maybe the zoo wasn’t the paradise I remembered and instead something more nefarious. Was it a prison for these beautiful animals? We all know how poorly SeaWorld treats their animals; is the zoo the same?
I try my best to be an ethical consumer, but it wasn’t until I got through the gates that I began to question my decision to go. Thankfully, after learning more about how the animals are kept, treated, and learned from, I was happy to conclude that responsible zoos, like the San Diego Zoo, can be a place for animals to thrive, and not be imprisoned.
First, let me say that I do not believe all zoos are ethical and responsible. “Roadside zoos” that cram malnourished animals in small containers to parade around are by no means acceptable. But city zoos are held accountable by international, federal and state laws to ensure that animal treatment is ethical. The most important federal law is the Animal Welfare Act which sets minimum standards for how the animals are cared for, treated, housed and monitored during all transportation procedures. A place like SeaWorld has a history of violating this act and has been cited by the United States Department of Agriculture more than once.
Additionally, the San Diego Zoo is a nonprofit organization, as opposed to Sea World, which exists to profit off their animals. This means that each entrance ticket to the zoo goes back into sustaining operations, not into the pocket of some corporation. It exists to educate as well as promote and facilitate the conservation of these animals. Each animal has a placard with its conservation status on it ranging from not endangered to severely endangered/at risk of being extinct. There are signs throughout the park informing attendees of the causes of animal extinction and ways small acts like turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth can help save water for these animals. Students from UC San Diego do tons of research at the zoo and various studies have been conducted to help conservation efforts.
The zoo puts animals on display, which some may say from the get-go is unethical. However, the manner in which these animals are displayed is much different than a place like Sea World. The animals are not forced into daily shows or made to follow “exciting” routines for people’s entertainment. They are displayed in their natural habitats, safe from predators but still mentally stimulated through exercises and games with keepers that have animal-related degrees in zoology, conservation science, animal behavior,and more. Keepers aren’t performers and their primary duty is caring for the animals, not holding a mic and yelling to a crowd to cheer louder.
Finally, one of the largest objections to zoos is the issue of breeding. The San Diego Zoo uses its Reproductive Sciences program at the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research to breed endangered species while also researching ways endangered species can better adapt to changing habitats. Again, this is very different from a place like Sea World, which has only just ended its breeding of captive killer whales in 2016 due to backlash. At the zoo, breeding is done with purpose and for the betterment of the species, not to keep ticket sales going.
Organizations like PETA claim that zoo animals are sitting in their “cages” in misery when that’s simply not the case. Their lives are often much better than if they were in the wild. Not all zoos are amazing for animals, but not all zoos have animals that are suffering. Zoos provide a unique and effective opportunity to learn about animals and better protect them in ways that nothing else could. The general public would know so much less about the animals we coexist with if it wasn’t for places like the zoo where people can learn about animals and work towards conserving them.
Caitlin Antonios is a third-year English and literary journalism double major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.