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The zoo debate

Clare Hyde asks whether it's ever right for zoos to keep animals in captivity.

The public flock to zoos to witness extraordinary animals up close, without being in danger. Animals that, some people have argued, belong only in the wild. Indeed, the debate over whether there is a better way to save endangered animals and the ethical issues surrounding the use of animals for public entertainment  shows no sign of dying out soon.

The arguments for

  • Protection 

With the recent extinction of the Pinta giant tortoise and with less than 3,200 tigers left in the wild, protection of endangered animals has become increasingly important. 
Zoos enable endangered animals to be protected from predators, and humans who hunt animals for commodities such as tusks and fur. Zoos can also help animals whose habitats have been made uninhabitable by factors such as climate change, helping to prevent their extinction.

  • Rehabilitation

By increasing biodiversity among species, these animals are better equipped to adapt to changing environments in the wild. Therefore, zoos work to increase genetic variation among their animals, using techniques such as IVF and breeding programmes that encourage out-breeding amongst different zoos. This has been used in particular to help the cheetah population.
Other programmes that enable animals to be released into the wild include training animals to hunt, and replicating the conditions of the wild. These programmes increase the chances of animals surviving once they have been released into the wild, and preventing extinction of wild animal populations.

  • Education and research

Most UK zoos are involved in research projects with biology and zoology experts, which are made possible by keeping wild animals in captivity. By deepening our understanding of animal behaviour, our efforts in animal conservation and maintaining biodiversity can become more effective and better informed. 
Aside from this, zoos have an important role in educating the public; helping them understand the world around them, and enabling them to appreciate wild animals up close. 

The arguments against

  • Wild animals belong in the wild.

Most wild animals require specific habitats and diets, and even the best zoos will find it near impossible to replicate the conditions of the wild. For example, elephants roam in large groups, often forming strong familial bonds, and prefer vast and complex environments, covering as much as 80km a day. Unfortunately, elephants kept in captivity are separated from their herds, and there are inevitably problems in providing elephants with enough space.

  • Stress

Many animals have been seen to have developed ‘Zoochosis:’ a term which refers to stress behaviour exhibited by animals in zoos. This can include obsessive grooming by big cats, a reluctance to exercise when encouraged, or repetitive pacing movements. This stress is believed to be caused by the presence of the public, lack of freedom, and inadequate living conditions.

  • Health

Many animals suffer health complaints caused by a lack of exercise, and inadequate diet and care. The specific conditions in which wild animals live can cause problems for zoos when they are unable to replicate these conditions. Many zoos have found that the elephants in their care have died many years earlier than their wild counterparts, due to health issues such as obesity and extreme stress

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