Unapologetic progressive. Fearless activist. Plucky liberal.

I bought “Free Willy” on DVD as a Christmas gift to myself. I watched it Thursday, and although it came out in 1993, its message holds up remarkably well. Among its major themes is the cruelty of separating wild animals from their families and imprisoning them in small enclosures for people to gape at for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve never been to a zoo or aquarium and enjoyed it, but I’ve always felt sorry for animals who have to make do in space that’s so much smaller than what their habitats would be in the wild. Willy, an orca whale, swam around in what amounted to a tank the size of a fishbowl compared with the ocean he was used to. Although some zoos do a good job at providing adequate living space, a lot do not. I grew up next to a city of 60,000 people that had a zoo boasting lemurs, snow leopards, mountain lions, bald eagles, prairie dogs, chimpanzees, and many other animals. It was a small zoo, and looking back, none of those animals had the kind of room they needed to be healthy and active.

Although I don’t like that aspect of zoos, I do realize they perform a vital function for many threatened and endangered animals who risk being driven to extinction by overhunting, deforestation or climate change. Part of me thinks that should be the only purpose of zoos—to save endangered animals and leave nonendangered ones in their natural habitats. They would also be a good place for animals who have been injured or for other reasons would not survive in the wild.

CBC News wrote an article called “The debate over zoos” that provides a good overview of the topic. What it seems to come down to is, does the educational and preservation aspect of zoos outweigh their potential harm to animals? Does every medium-sized city really need a zoo to improve the quality of life for its residents?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but we need to start figuring them out. Experts said in 2010 that only 3,200 tigers remain in the wild. Will zoos be part of their salvation?

A lot of people don’t seem concerned with the extinction and mistreatment of wild animals. They are of the opinion that because humans are the dominant species on the planet, we can do whatever we want to it. They would prefer pushing through a $500 million development to preserving habitats for endangered animals. However, I think that being the dominant species comes with great responsibility. If we keep going the way we are without regard for our oceans and wildlife, we might find ourselves the only species on the planet. We have already caused the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the dodo, and certain species of tiger, bats, gazelles, wolves and bears.  As Rick pointed out, some countries still insist on hunting whales, and the documentary “The Cove” highlighted the barbaric murder of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

I think we have an obligation to confront these issues and solve them with the least amount of harm to the animals involved. It’s not just our planet. We share it with billions of creatures who have the same right to be here that we do.


Comments on: "My moral quandry about zoos" (5)

  1. Great post. I agree that great power requires great responsibility. Could not imagine the Great Plains without bison.

    • Thanks, Rick. I know there are lots of other pressing issues out there, but I don’t think this is one we can ignore for long. More endangered animals are disappearing every day.

  2. Uncle Dave said:

    Yes, I agree this Zoo issue is a very difficult one to say the least !
    I have visited many zoos during my years and have seen many animals
    that I might have never seen if not for the zoos and wildlife parks; the best is the
    dual gift of our National Parks – Preservation together with natural environment.
    The Zoo system has been fighting to save many of our brother and sister species;
    I am sorry for the space issue; I have that need personally.

    • I agree that the national parks model is a good one. And I too have seen many animals in zoos I wouldn’t have had a chance to see otherwise, but it seems some zoos are set up for the benefit of people rather than the animals, and that’s disappointing.

  3. […] written before about my conflicted feelings when it comes to zoos. All things being equal, I think animals are better off in their natural […]

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