Zoos and Aquariums
Educational Institutions or Prisons
Aquariums—Life in a Bowl
Petting and Roadside Zoos
Animal Welfare Act
Educational Institutions or Prisons Back to Top
While some zoos provide educational programs, are involved in wildlife conservation, and attempt to preserve endangered species, most zoos are no more than prisons. To be considered an educational experience, zoos must provide humane standards of care that require creation of natural habitats with ample areas for exercise and socialization, appropriate diets, and suitable climate controls. Few zoos are able to meet these humane standards. The only educational message the majority of zoos offers is that it is okay to confine living, breathing, sentient beings for our entertainment.
Even at state-of-the-art zoos, there is no way to adequately replicate the natural existence of a lion or tiger, or any other animal held captive. The animals’ habitats can never be as large and diverse in a zoo as they are in the wild. The animals cannot run, roam, climb, hunt, forage, choose a partner, or be with others of their species. For birds, life in a zoo is especially traumatic—they cannot fly. For nocturnal animals, the stress is significant as they are forced to be on display during the day for zoo-goers to see. Their lives are turned totally upside down.
Polar bears in Arkansas, tropical birds in Minnesota, elephants in Maine—animals are being made to adjust to our desires. What happens to these wild animals when kept in unnatural settings? They develop neurotic behaviors known as stereotypies. A stereotypy is a repetitive movement often found in humans with autism and mental retardation. In nonhuman animals, behaviors, such as constant pacing, swaying back and forth, and self-mutilation, are considered stereotypies. These stereotypies often develop when the animal is in an abnormal environment. How more abnormal an environment can a zoo be to an animal whose home is in the wild?
While the quality of life for zoo animals is inadequate, life after retirement is often worse. If the animals are costing more to care for than the zoo is reaping in entertainment dollars or if the animals are getting too old to lure in paying customers, the animals are discarded. After what may have been years of service, these once considered members of the zoo family are sold to roadside zoos, canned hunts, or research laboratories. They are often sold at auction to the highest bidders regardless of what those bidders intend to do with them.
Aquariums—Life in a Bowl Back to Top
For marine life, the ocean is their habitat—and the ocean is huge. Capturing them and putting them into an oversized swimming pool for our entertainment is putting their physical and psychological lives at risk. For instance, whales and dolphins, also known as cetaceans, travel 40 to 100 miles in a normal day. When confined to a tank, these sea mammals develop stereotypies just as land animals do. They can be seen swimming in static patterns around their fish bowl for hours at a time. They also develop skin problems from living in heavily chlorinated water and suffer from ulcers and pneumonia as well as self-inflicted injuries.
In the wild, dolphins and whales live in tightly knit social units called pods. Some of these pods stay together for life. Yet, when they are captured, they are torn from their family units. They are either chased to the point of exhaustion or herded into a cove where they are trapped. Only the young and healthy are taken for exhibition, yet many of them do not survive the transition from ocean to tank. During these violent chases, the ecosystem from which they are taken is also disrupted.
Some species of dolphins can live more than 40 years and orcas can live to be 80—in the ocean. Life in a fish bowl is rarely that long. Dolphins typically live in tropical and temperate oceans throughout the world. Whales live in colder climates, yet can be found in aquariums in southern regions.
Ric O’Barry, the original dolphin trainer for the television show Flipper, spent 10 years training dolphins to perform; for the next 35 years, he has worked to tear down the very industry he created. O’Barry believes that no dolphin can thrive in captivity whether born in captivity or wild caught. “You’re talking about a creature that’s primary sense is sonar. You have a sonic creature in a concrete box. There are generations of dolphins born in a concrete tank who have never seen the ocean, have never seen a live fish, and have never experienced the tides or the current. They have lived in a concrete box. They were born there. These are freaks that we have inbred for our amusement.”
As with zoos, aquariums try to defend their existence by stating they promote educational and conservational agendas when in fact they are nothing more than profit-based enterprises. What they are teaching the public is that capturing, confining, and exploiting marine mammals for our entertainment is acceptable.
Petting and Roadside Zoos Back to Top
Petting zoos seem benign. Children meet real live farm and wild animals in a supposedly safe environment. However, the environment is not safe for the animals. Most animals at petting zoos are babies. They need to be with their mothers and extended families. Being in a chaotic environment with other babies from other species can cause them to become ill as their immune systems are not fully developed, and they are not getting the protection they need from their family unit.
But there are other health hazards present at petting zoos and these are to the people who come in direct contact with the animals. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and prions (rare progressive neurological disorders) are just some of the examples of what humans, especially the young, elderly, pregnant, and people with suppressed or compromised immune systems, might come in contact with at a petting zoo. The most widely known pathogens, E.coli, cryptosporidium, and campylobacter, are on the rise.
Depending on locale, there may be few restrictions on who can set up a roadside zoo. The animals in these zoos are often fed inadequate and inappropriate diets for their species and rarely, if ever, are seen by a veterinarian. They are housed in squalid conditions, crammed into small cages, or tethered to shacks. Some of these animals may be drugged or have their teeth and claws removed to protect humans.
Humane Alternative Back to Top
The word “sanctuary” means a place of safety. Whether seeking safety from spousal, political, or animal abuse, a sanctuary’s inhabitants find a safe haven in which they can recover from the damaging effects of the violence they have endured.
The mission of a wild animal sanctuary is primarily to care for animals who enter because they were either given up or taken away by legal means. These animals are often in debilitated condition from years of inadequate and inappropriate care. Usually these wild animals cannot be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, so sanctuaries provide lifelong care to their residents. Sanctuaries also educate the public on the negative effects zoos and aquariums have on these wild creatures.
Many sanctuaries are not open to the public except by appointment or on special days. Since sanctuaries are focusing on the care of animals who have been exploited, the staff does not wish to further stress the animals by having visitors come by on a daily basis. Often, sanctuaries will open their doors to committed volunteers who wish to help with the care of the animals. They may also open their doors for special events as a way to educate the general public about the needs of animals forced to live in zoos and aquariums without adequate care and habitat.
Management at some zoos and aquariums are realizing they do not have the right exhibit space for some of their wild animals and these animals deserve a better life than cramped quarters without the ability to express themselves naturally. As more zoos and aquariums realize their inability to handle some of these wild animals, more sanctuaries will be needed to give safe haven to them. Some zoos and aquariums are considering converting their exhibition space into a sanctuary, thereby giving the inhabitants a safe haven for the rest of their lives.
All sanctuaries, however, are not created equal. Some animal sanctuaries exist for the right reason—to protect abused, neglected, unwanted, and abandoned exotic animals. Others exist for profit and publicity. A “sanctuary” that breeds animals, makes a profit selling items, allows visitors unrestricted access to the animals, or sells animals to other facilities is not operating in the true spirit of a safe haven and should be avoided. When deciding to support a sanctuary, make sure it is a legitimate operation focusing solely on the long-term care of its inhabitants and not on making money.
Animal Welfare Act Back to Top
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), sets minimal standards of care for captive animals. These standards pertain to handling, housing, treatment, shelter, and veterinary care. However, there are no regulations governing the training sessions that these animals, primarily those in aquariums, endure in preparation for their daily performances. The AWA requires that inspections be conducted annually; however, due to a limited number of inspectors, not all facilities are reviewed that often. There are approximately 12,000 known facilities nationwide. Zoos, aquariums, roadside zoos, and sanctuaries found in violation of the AWA may continue to operate while paying only minimal fines for their violations.
Take Action to Help Animals Living in Zoos and Aquariums
What can you do to change what is happening to animals forced to live in zoos and aquariums? First, avoid supporting animal cruelty; do not visit zoos and aquariums. Other humane actions include:
- Educate your friends, family, and coworkers as to the cruel nature inherent in forcing animals to live in unnatural environments.
- Encourage your local zoo to stop breeding animals and to never accept animals caught in the wild.
- If you do visit a zoo and find unhealthy conditions, report your findings to the USDA and write letters to the editor, detailing what you saw,
- Lobby to ensure regulations are changed to protect animals living in zoos and aquariums; make sure those regulations are enforced.
- Give charitable donations to organizations preserving and protecting wildlife and their natural habitat.
- Visit animal sanctuaries and become truly educated in the needs of wild land and sea animals.
October 2009 Back to Top