Apr 5, 2012

Posted by in Blog, Featured, Postcards | 12 Comments

Are Zoos Good or Evil?

If you haven’t noticed it by now, I’m kind of an animal freak. I am that annoying person that points out every dog ever and brings home wounded, flea-infested magpies named Gordon only to cry when they die two days later. (Yup, that happened. Last year.)

Orangutan yawning at the San Diego Zoo

He's not too interested in the question.

Like many little girls, my childhood days were spent imagining my future life as a zoologist or marine biologist. (My hopes were dashed in middle school when I realized I sucked at science.) I have had a plethora of pets, from anoles, guinea pigs, and an owl, to my beloved 100 pound Akita.

Akita and girl

My baby girl, Kimi

I still love visiting zoos while I travel, and was really looking forward to my visit to a fauna mecca: The San Diego Zoo. (Please check out this photo essay of my time there!)

While I was exploring, however, that little voice in my head popped up, saying, “Is this a good thing? Are the animals happy?” It shows up every time I find myself at a zoo, aquarium, marine park… or Bear Country USA. (What? Haven’t heard of it? It’s in South Dakota, and is awesome. I’ve been there. Twice. Is that weird?)

It is a topic that even animal experts disagree on. Zoos educate the public about endangered animals and the destruction of habitats, but at the cost of a select few.

Is the zoo animals’ sacrifice worth it to help their population?

If you asked me if I had to live in a cage with a few mangy others to keep the rest of the human population alive, I would do it (and pretend I was on LOST… is a Jack going to be provided?), but I don’t think I’d be stoked about it.

Cow-like animal at the San Diego Zoo

This cow-like animal kept sticking his tongue out at me!

After spending a summer in Alaska and seeing orcas up close in the wild, they quickly became one of my favorite animals. Getting to know them made me realize that they should never be confined to a tank. My feelings were only confirmed after a Sea World trainer was killed by an orca later that year.

Being that orcas have never attacked a human in the wild, that made it clear that something wasn’t right. I have thus sworn off Sea World or anything similar. Elephants, too, are very large animals. No matter how big their enclosures are, it never seems enough.

On the other hand, seeing those shows and being mesmerized by the animals throughout my youth made me into an enthusiastic donor to the Humane Society and World Wildlife Fund. I have also sponsored seals, dolphins, and turtles through marine organizations. Sure, I had Zoobooks and Ranger Rick, but that didn’t really compare to seeing the animals up close.

Polar bear statue at the San Diego Zoo

I wouldn't know how giant polar bears are unless I had visited the zoo!

And seeing the wonder on the childrens’ faces at the San Diego Zoo, I couldn’t help seeing the future generations of animal lovers and protectors.

I am no expert and am (obvs) very torn about my feelings on the subject. I think it must depend on a number of factors, such as zoo quality (just say NO to shitty zoos) and types of animals kept (their size and habits).

Should only endangered species be kept in zoos? Though zoo animal life expectancy is longer, does that make up for the animals’ quality of life?

I would LOVE to know what you think. Do you support zoos and/or aquariums? Why or why not? How about places like Sea World? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!


  1. I definitely support accredited, well maintained zoos. The sacrifice of the few for the longevity of the others is needed, in my opinion. Plus, there are some animals such as Chinese Alligators that have a larger population in American zoos than they do in the wild in their native China. It’s up to the zoos to keep these species around. However, I totally agree on places like Sea World where large animals that can travel hundreds of miles in a day are kept and basically exploited for entertaining shows.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, John! It is so hard to decide. I know that zoos made me into a lifelong animal lover and supporter, but I still feel guilty! Quality is definitely key.

  2. I’ve lived in San Diego for the last four years, and I have yet to visit the zoo, the Wild Animal Park, or Sea World. As far as the zoo and the Wild Animal Park go, I can’t say that I have any insight into how the animals are treated, but unless I could know for sure that it lived up to my standards. On top of that, I’d have to imagine that all the carnivorous animals are fed factory-farmed meat–a thought which I cannot reconcile with my ethics.

    It would be really easy to think up an excuse for myself, because I’m sure I would have a great time if I went. But I try to avoid rationalizing decisions that I know I can’t defend if I really analyze them.

    Also, I see the worth of animals at an individual level, not as a species. I don’t really see the nobility in giving a few animals a crappy life just so that there can be future generations to entertain us.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Dan! I really respect your high level of ethics and wish I could stick to something like that. I have been working on it, and I think that the first step is contemplation. I’ve stopped eating factory farmed meat for the most part and am trying to read more about everything. Anyways, I really appreciate your input. It’s given me a lot to think about!

  3. You raise a very interesting question…I’m not exactly sure where I stand, but totally agree with having well maintained zoos.
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  4. The San Diego Zoo is a non-profit that focuses much of it’s time and resources on research, which is something that is missed in all the above comments. It’s not just about entertainment for people, not at all. Many of the animals there were rescued and would have died had they not been taken to a zoo (for example, the polar bears were rescued as babies when their momma was killed.) They can’t be released back. I honestly believe that MOST of the animals there are happy and well cared for. The apes and orangutans are like people in that they get unhappy and depressed. I have spent a lot of time watching these guys and talking with the zookeepers. They are a happy group and live much longer than in the wild. SeaWorld on the other hand can go to H as far as I’m concerned. Their all about $$$ and have no respect for the creatures they hold prisoner. I like your blog!

    • Thank you, Kate! Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I really appreciate your comment and insight on the San Diego Zoo. I do think I’ve come to the conclusion that places like that are beneficial — it’s the shoddy zoos and ALL the Sea Worlds that I take issue with. Thanks a million for stopping by, and keep in touch!

  5. Great discussion, I have been going trhough the same questions. I feel like you now, San Diego Zoo seems to be the good stuff, I was really wanting to go and it feels right to go now. Thanks for the blog. I had avoid sea world for some time now, I agree they are only for the money and those animals are not well.

  6. I like your article! It’s an interesting topic. Elephants, lions, giraffes – large and wild animals, but they are so beautiful! People are taking care of them in zoos.

    Thank you for a good post.

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