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Most people experience mixed feelings of amazement and pity when seeing exotic or wild animals at the zoo. With over 200 million people visiting zoos annually, society is amazed at the existence of wild and exotic animals, but also pity animals in their caged existence, no longer able to run wild and free. Zoos have existed since 2500 BCE as a symbol of wealth and power, and more recently, as a source for education and entertainment all over the world (Kellert and Dunlap). However, as long as zoos have existed, there has been controversy regarding the moral ethics surrounding animals in captivity. Zoo supporters believe in the opportunity to entertain and educate the public while providing a refuge and breeding opportunities for injured or endangered animals. Zoo activists believe zoos are mentally and physically harmful to the well-being of animals, and educating and entertaining the public does not justify holding animals captive in a cage. Whether zoos are safe and ethical for animals is a social issue which must be resolved in order to alleviate the concerns regarding animals' rights and the mental and physical dangers that animals face when in captivity.
In response to animal activists, many zoo facilities have been receptive to the criticisms and concerns raised regarding animal welfare. Some zoos across America have made strides to seek higher standards of animal care by gaining accreditation status. Accreditation programs, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), have been established to encourage zoos to attain higher standards of living conditions and care for animals living in captivity. According to Dan Ashe, president of the AZA, animals in AZA accredited zoo facilities receive the best veterinary care and animals tend to live just as long or longer than animals in the wild (Ashe 601). With programs that require exemplary standards of care, many would think animals are safer in zoos than in the wild. Unfortunately, of the 10,000 zoos currently active around the world, only 239 zoos in twelve countries have been accredited (Garner). With only a fraction of zoos globally taking strides to improve care and living conditions, programs like the AZA are only encouraging solutions and not necessarily erasing concerns regarding animal-welfare in zoos. Although many zoos do not pursue the lengthy and costly process of accreditation, they work to raise funds needed to create larger, more realistic habitats so animals feel more comfortable in their surroundings. Dr. Hutchins, a zoologist, and Richard Lattice, zoo official for the Bronx Zoo in New York, admire and encourage the efforts zoo officials have taken to provide more space for animals, knowing these efforts help eliminate animal stress and behaviors that occur when animals are bored or frustrated due to captivity in smaller habitats (Masci 362). Many of these facilities have replaced cages with natural, more realistic habitats that are aesthetically pleasing for spectators and closer to natural animals habitats. The question is are these improved habitats enough to alleviate the negative behaviors exhibited by animals when they are forced to live in captivity which currently is not the case.
Zoos have existed for thousands of years, despite controversy, because there are several advantages supporting the concept of zoos. Zoos provide entertainment for the public which often helps promote support both financially and socially for conservation efforts that develop and pay for refuges and sanctuaries around the world. In fact, zoos accredited by the AZA report that zoos brought in $22.5 billion just from visitors. Of this amount, $238 million was spent on conservation programs and grants (Garner). This money is spent on renovating and improving animal habitats, providing the best care for animals, as well as setting up programs that research best animal practices and conservation efforts in the wild. In order for efforts to be successful people must be excited about zoos. Richard Lattice of the Bronx Zoo believes “People need a real connection to understand how important it is to save these animals in the wild, and zoos provide that” (Masci 362). Without providing a source where people can see these wild and exotic animals there is no opportunity to raise awareness and funds for much needed conservation efforts. Zoos also provide educational and research opportunities for the public to learn more about wild animals and their behaviors that otherwise would not be available in captivity. With the money raised through accredited zoos, “the AZA spends over $220 million annually to support research studies on the sustainability needs of animal programs to release species back into their natural habitats” (Garner). Research efforts in zoos have improved captive breeding, living conditions, and provided more efficient care for animals. Many zoologists agree that conducting research using zoo animals allows researchers to obtain valuable information that can be difficult to obtain in the wild (Karaim 599). Progress in any aspect of life cannot be made without making new discoveries, and zoos provide a source for scientists and zoologists to make the discoveries that help society create stronger connections with the animal kingdom.
Animals activists; on the other hand, have gathered data that proves, in addition to simply not being ethical, holding animals captive in zoos leads to mental and physical harm. Animal activists believe it is ethically wrong to force animals to live in a habitat other than the one they were born to live. “Animals taken from the wild are deprived of the opportunity to behave naturally” (Kellert and Dunlap). This is a fact that cannot be denied. These animals had no say in being stripped from their natural habitat. It has also been reported in an article, Protecting Animals, that elephants born in captivity tend to have lower life expectancies as a result of health problems, boredom, stress, and loneliness (Karaim 601). All the research, education opportunities, and funds raised do not justify stripping animals from their natural habitats and forcing them into a life of captivity. In addition to being ethically wrong, studies on animal behaviors provide evidence that shows many animals develop mental disorders due to boredom in cages and an inability to exercise their natural instincts. A study reported by Kellert and Dunlap reported that “animals deprived of social or environmental stimulation in zoos, become listless, self-abusive, and develop behaviors such as pacing” (Kellert and Dunlap). Even the largest enclosures with the most realistic landscaping cannot replace natural habitats that cover thousands of acres of land to roam – particularly for larger animals. Studies have also shown that constant visits from strangers, along with unfamiliar movements, sounds and smells, creates a high level of stress that negatively impacts the health and well-being of animals (Salas and Manteca). Unnatural enclosures, combined with strange sounds, smells, and movements from zoo visitors results in levels of stress that often evolve into negative behaviors. The evidence validates the concerns from animal activists that animals exhibit levels of stress and mental disorders when forced into unfamiliar or unwanted circumstances.
There is only one solution to this controversial issue, and that is to allow animals to roam free in harmony with society. This is the most obvious and ethical solution to alleviate the concerns surrounding animals being held captive in zoos. For this to work successfully, zoos would be on a strategically set schedule that will smoothly transition animals into society, ensuring all animals would have ample opportunity to properly acclimate into new surroundings. With this new found freedom, animals would be able to seek an appropriate habitat for the species. Zoo workers would not be unemployed, but instead become police workers with a goal of keeping animals and people safe throughout cities and parks. This would include sanitation duties that were once conducted in the zoo, but now will be throughout the cities. The public would be educated on how to safely interact with the animals through diversity appreciation and predatory avoidance training. Finding food and seeking shelter would not be a problem for animals roaming free, because natural instincts will lead them to the most advantageous habitats. Most cities are equipped with parks and water features that would provide food sources for smaller animal species like monkeys and other small mammals. Larger animals, such as lions, tigers, and bears, would gravitate toward the national park lands and areas with more undeveloped space. Humans would need to rely more on independently-owned hydroponic farms for fruits and vegetables due to animals encroaching on traditional farms. There would be a need to adapt to some drastic changes, but all animal species require some adaptation abilities in order to survive.
Eliminating zoos and encouraging animals to roam free would alleviate health concerns and dangers that animals experience in captivity. Animals roaming freely, interacting with other animals and people, will be less stressed and more stimulated in their environments. Animals will no longer be bored, listless, or seen pacing and exhibiting self-abusive behaviors as they do in captivity. No longer will animals be stressed by visitors, because they will acclimate to living in and among the people. Freeing the animals is a win for both sides of this controversial issue. Educational opportunities are easily available without stripping animals of any rights. People will be able to learn more about animals now that they live right in the backyard and can be viewed at any time. Research opportunities will be endless, because access to animals is unlimited. Think of the possibilities when you simply have to walk out to the park or drive down the road to conduct research. In the current situation there is so much red tape.
Freeing all animals to live among the people alleviates every concern registered by animal activists while also securing every positive advantage there is to having zoos. Interaction with animals is possible at any time, and animals will be free to be, well, animals. Animal activists, researchers, educators and the public, who all love animals, will be at peace when animals finally have the same rights to the land as people. It is surprising that society has not already explored the idea of animals living freely in harmony with humans.
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