Are zoos and aquariums necessary | NatureTalks
Do zoos and aquariums confer any tangible benefits in today's society? This blog aims to determine if the educational benefits of zoos (if any) warrant their proliferation.
zoo, zoos, aquarium, marine, sea world, lion, captive, captivity, captive breeding, orca, Michael Ruffolo, Michael, Ruffolo, science, environment, environmental, blog, nature, travel, blog, blog, science blog, controversy, controversial
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Free Willy

Free Willy

What is the purpose of a zoo? What do we gain by keeping these establishments open? For the majority of us, if we have the urge to visit a killer whale or see a cheetah, we go visit them in a marine park or zoo. We don’t have the luxury of experiencing them in their natural habitat, and instead are left to watch them in a simulated environment. The benefit of this scenario is that we can revisit the park every day of the week and continually see our favourite animals. However, our ability to experience wild animals in this form is a part of the underlying ethical dilemma that we face in regards to animal captivity. A topic filled with naïvety, good intentions, and death; and is a topic that is without an easy solution to its many problems.

everything I thought I knew was completely incorrect.

In January of 2013, Blackfish premiered and brought animal rights issues to the forefront of popular discourse. The documentary’s aggressive and energetic message was the catalyst for exposing horrifying details about the conditions we keep performance animals in, and brought to light whether keeping animals in captivity is ethical at all.

Personally, I feel like the living conditions at zoos are something that most people just don’t like to think about too deeply, it’s rather convenient to stay steeped in ignorance. We’re content with going to see the lions and look at their pretty manes, but we don’t really want to dwell on the fact that we’re keeping a species that has an effective range of 260sq km in enclosures as small as 2000sq ft (the minimum size allowed for an indoor enclosure). We exhibit this cognitive dissonance often with uneasy topics, much like how we don’t really bring up that Canada and the U.S. aren’t a part of the Kyoto Protocol or that Beck is a Scientologist.

And the reason why we’re so quick to “forget” this unsettling information (aside from blatant ignorance) is for the look on our child’s face when they see their first elephant up-close; for the scared, yet fascinated, expression of our friends when they realize that only a thin sheet of glass separates them from a hungry polar bear; and for the family members that hinge on our every word when we tell them the amazing physiological adaptations behind many of our favourite animals while they see them in person. I have experienced this first-hand — I’ve had the luxury of spending hours in large aquariums giving in-depth tours to my family and friends, watching as their eyes light up when I explain to them the process that allows sea-stars to move their arms. This is why the answer to animal captivity is a difficult one. The ability to inspire and invoke awe in young children (and even adults) is an invaluable tool in developing future conservation biologists and researchers.

Or, at least, this was my opinion before doing my own research. Up until the point when I decided to write this article, I (like many others) simply assumed that zoos and marine parks promoted a positive learning experience to children and taught them valuable lessons about conservation and nature. However, a study published in 2014 in the journal Conservation Biology shows that zoos have the potential to promote a negative understanding of animal-habitat interactions, stating:

The headline finding in this study is that 34% of pupils in the study on education officer-led visits showed positive change, while 16% of unguided pupils showed negative change.

The article has written that statement in a positive voice, but what it really should be stating is that 66% of all children (ages 7-15) that visited the park gained absolutely nothing worthwhile from their stay. The article then went on to state that an average of 13.5% of participants (both guided and unguided) left the zoo exhibiting a negative change in their understanding of animal-habitat interactions and conservation possibilities. This study reveals that the target demographic for the educational programs at zoos are receiving mediocre education at best, and misinformation at worst. Reading this leaves me asking: “Why even go?” In a study published in the UK by the independent research group ADAS, concerns were brought up regarding the effectiveness of the educational programs put forth by zoos, stating:

Concerns remain, however, with regard to the lack of available evidence about the effectiveness of these projects.

In an article published by National Geographic, an interview with former zoo director, David Hancocks, showed that he will often point to studies showing that:

visitors leave zoos feeling uninspired and uneducated. Rather than walking out determined to help save wildlife, they go away disenchanted. He wonders if this indifference is due in part to outdated animal enclosures, inadequate space, and the poor quality of 'natural' habitat exhibits, such as a reliance on artificial-looking synthetic rocks.

I was quite surprised upon reading these studies — I had always believed that zoos and marine parks were necessary to instil a positive understanding of nature in children; these studies seem to throw counter-evidence in the face of that claim. However, after some reflection, this data seemed to make sense (I swear it’s not confirmation bias). I have personally never visited a zoo, and have went to large aquariums only after I was certain that biology was my calling. So what brought me to animals? Documentaries. Emotionally charged, beautifully produced, masterfully narrated (by Attenborough and no one else) films that evoke grandeur and wonder are what brought me to the natural sciences; and there is evidence to show that films are what drive nature-based education. A study conducted to determine the effectiveness of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity found that:

the use of documentaries significantly influenced students’ attitudes and beliefs about insects as compared to students in the control group(5)

People who watch documentaries on nature leave the film with more compassion, more questions, and a greater understanding of how we fit into the world — and the benefits of documentaries when used as a learning tool has been detailed countless times. Documentaries work because we see animals in their environment interacting with other animals of the same and different species — it acts as a proper representative of their lives.

So now we’re left with wondering what to do with our zoos and marine parks. I had originally planned to write this article to uncover the merits of these enclosures — but in the above paragraphs I detailed (and personally realized) how everything I thought I knew was completely incorrect. So really, is there any reason to keep them around?

If zoos and aquariums simply improve the quality of education offered at their establishments, such that children actually benefit from visiting, that would be a step in the proper direction and gives us a reason to keep these facilities around. However, studies direct us against this decision, and in my ideal scenario the only animals that would be held in zoos would be endangered species. Before you jump down my throat, hear me out. I don’t suggest that all the individuals of a given endangered species are held captive (a harsh, but true, word) — rather, just enough to begin a captive breeding program as a means of increasing population numbers before releasing the animals back into the wild. Captive breeding programs don’t always work, but they are the best hope for many species that may be unable to recover their numbers in the wild — and numerous success stories dictate that captive breeding is a viable option. Captive breeding is generally considered a “last-resort” in the efforts to save a species from extinction;   nonetheless, zoos can be repurposed to solely aid in these efforts (of course, this is all wishful thinking). Not only would the conservation efforts be welcomed, but tourists would benefit from being able to visit rare charismatic megafauna that would otherwise be near impossible to catch a glimpse of.

With the release of Blackfish, the zoo and marine park industry took a massive blow to their funding and attendance. After over a year of declining tourist numbers, stock values dropping huge percentages, and revenue falling well below projected values, SeaWorld finally:

acknowledged for the first time the negative publicity may have had a hit and may have been why the attendance has been flat for now and the past quarters.

The future of these establishments isn’t certain, but it definitely doesn’t look promising. As much as it pains me to say (because I really do love the ability to see my favourite animals at a moment’s notice), I don’t feel as though there is enough merit to warrant the proliferation of zoos and marine parks. The cramped (understatement) conditions and lack of tangible educational benefits lend credence to the statement that these are organizations that do very little to contribute to those who they hold captive. Unless we can find a way to increase educational standards or repurpose them, zoos and aquariums are better left as abandoned shells of their former glory.

Taken from the Smithsonian Museum Website

Captive breeding of cheetahs has shown promising results.


  1. African Lions, African Lion Pictures, African Lion Facts, African Cats – National Geographic.
  2. Colahan, H., D. Zoo, C. Asa, C. Azzarello-Dole, B. Zoo, S. Boutelle, M. Briggs, A. APCRO, K. Cox, L. Kellerman, and others. Lion (Panthera leo) Care Manual
  3. Jensen, E. 2014. Evaluating Children’s Conservation Biology Learning at the Zoo. Conservation Biology 28:1004–1011
  4. ADAS UK Ltd. 2010. Review of Zoos’ Conservation and Education Contribution
  5. Critics Question Zoos’ Commitment to Conservation.
  6. Barbas, T. A., S. Paraskevopoulos, and A. G. Stamou. 2009. The effect of nature documentaries on students’ environmental sensitivity: a case study. Learning, Media and Technology 34:61–69
  7. Brain Games Versus Nature Documentaries.
  8. Borness, C., J. Proudfoot, J. Crawford, and M. Valenzuela. 2013. Putting Brain Training to the Test in the Workplace: A Randomized, Blinded, Multisite, Active-Controlled Trial
  9. Bertschinger, H., D. Meltzer, and A. Van Dyk. 2008. Captive Breeding of Cheetahs in South Africa – 30 Years of Data from the de Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre. Reproduction in Domestic Animals 43:66–73
  10. Keeley, T., J. K. O’Brien, B. G. Fanson, K. Masters, and P. D. McGreevy. 2012. The reproductive cycle of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) and factors associated with reproductive success in captivity. General and Comparative Endocrinology 176:182–191
  11. Condor Program Monthly Status Report 2014-10-31.pdf
  12. The Loneliest Animals ~ Captive Breeding Success Stories | Nature | PBS
  13. EQUITY ALERT: The Rosen Law Firm Files Securities Class Action Against SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. — SEAS – MarketWatch

Image sources

  1. Pittman, R. 2006. From source: Two mammal-eating “transient” killer whales photographed off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska
  2. Panoramio – Photo of Lion Cage at Wichita Zoo – Lions and children.
  3. Wolf, Z. 2006. Rhincodon typus ♂. Georgia Aquarium
  4. Breeding Cheetahs.

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