Analysis Paper, 9 pages (2000 words)

Are zoos ethical? analysis of the pros and cons

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To truly come to an understanding of the question we need to define what a zoo is and what ethical means. Lexico. com defines a zoo as “ an establishment which maintains a collection of wild animals, typically in a park or gardens, for study, conservation or display to the public .” This definition opens up to debate whether zoos are ethical or not, due to the term “ display to the public”. This part of the definition does this as, if the zoos are only doing this for their personal gain, then are zoos truly righteous and ethical for exploiting animals in this way? Next is the term “ ethical”  Lexico. com defines ethical as “ morally good or correct ”. This is open to interpretation as different people can have a different viewpoint on ethics. This can be due to religion, circumstances and upbringing. So, in this essay, I will be discussing whether I think zoos are ethical and what can be done to fix these issues.

I have always enjoyed the zoos that I have visited  e. g Colchester Zoo and London Zoo. I used to always think that zoos are amazing because of how they educate children and how healthy and  happy the animals looked. When, however, I researched some zoos in other parts of the world, e. g. Asia, I was horrified about the living conditions of some of the animals. The rules and regulations in this part of the world are extremely lenient or non existent. So, I will be looking into zoos in different countries to help me answer this question of are zoos ethical?

On the “ for” side of this argument, Dr. Robin Ganzert, (the president and CEO of American Humane, the country’s oldest national humane organization. which works to protect animals and children from abuse and harm) wrote in an article for TIME, “ The Arabian Oryx has been removed from the endangered species list.” This has been due to breeding programmes in zoos. The conservation of animals is an important part of zoos. She also writes, “ Even when animals aren’t introduced back into the wild, placing them under human care can still improve the lives of their wild counterparts: modern zoos and aquariums serve as bases for observation and research.” I think this is a very valid point. We can discover things to help animals in the wild e. g. medicines and characteristics. So even if we can’t release the animals into the wild the research we can do and therefore the information we learn and help we can get from them is vital towards our understanding of the different species.

I read an article in THE TIMES, Saturday October 19 2019. It read that “ two cubs born at Berlin Zoo in August …. first pandas to be born in Germany.” This indicates how important animals are and the global conservation of animals is a top priority. Even China is willing to give their national animal, a panda, to another country for promotion and conservation purposes and to keep the species off the endangered species list. This shows that zoos can be ethical and that the animals are the number one priority instead of the country’s pride or any selfishness. Adding onto this THE TIMES also had an article titled “ Zoo welcomes baby rhino into the world.” “ A rare southern white rhino has been born in a Belgium zoo.” This is in response to the battle between zoos and poachers. It also states in the article that “ there are 18, 000 southern white rhinos in the wild but poachers kill one every eight hours’ ‘. This is an example of zoos being ethical as they are fight to safeguard a species against the murder of innocent animals through breeding programmes.

On Saturday 19th October there was a short article in The Times entitled “ Zoo opens window on mysteries of “ le Blob” detailing how a Paris Zoo is displaying a “ yellow, single-cell slime mould that can display intelligent behaviours, such as finding its way out of a labyrinth ……. And can heal itself after being cut in two”.  This is very positive for zoos as they are shedding a light on other forms of animal life.

Michael Hutchings, PhD, director and William Conway Chair of the Department of Conservation and Science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, argues whether “ the benefits of zoos to society outways the cost to individual animal welfare”. I agree with this principle as zoos contribute greatly to our society, as you learn about animals in a proactive environment. Children love going to the zoo and seeing the animals, feeding the animals and learning about them. It is vital that we are taught about our world and how to respect it.  I believe that in order to consider if zoos are ethical or not we also have to see whether “ the benefits of zoos to society is greater than the cost to individual animal welfare.”

Dr Hutchins, says “ we need to know about the biology of animals to conserve.” This is vital as we need zoos for research as well as education so that we can find out more about the animals eg. “ the biology of animals”. This can help us in so many different ways. For example, we can develop new ideas for medicines and nutritional diets to improve the lives of the animals in captivity and also their wild counterparts.

On the “ against” side of the argument, I consulted the PETA UK website to see what they say about zoos. PETA is a UK-based charity dedicated to establishing and protecting the rights of all animals. They call zoos an “ unnatural prison”. They mention how animals have miles and miles of space in the wild and that it is not natural to keep them in small enclosures, which cause mental issues with the animals eg “ zoochosis, abnormal and self destructive behaviour.” They also say, “ sometimes the zookeepers give animals antidepressants to hide their distress.” This certainly doesn’t sound like it fits the definition of ethical. The part that I’m most interested in is what  they call  “ Conservation Con”. Conservation is one of the significant roles of zoos that I agree with and why I think zoos are ethical. According to PETA UK  “ animals that are bred in captivity are not prepared to cope in the wild”. This means that the conservation is not really working, as a key element of conservation is to breed the animals and then release them in the wild. Animals have certain natural instincts that they need to survive in the wild. If several generations of the same animal family have been in captivity then they lose the natural instincts that are vital for survival in the wild. In captivity the animals have food given to them so they have no need to hunt and the lack of predators means that, if released into the wild, they will be in severe shock and ill prepared to cope.

According to various websites, zoos in China are flourishing due to a booming domestic tourism market.  The zoos there are not regulated by the Government and are not being held up to the correct standards due to this. One example of this is that there are photos of a zoo in China pushing a live donkey into the big cats enclosure. This certainly does not fit the term ethical which we defined. The enclosures are incredibly cramped and filled with rubbish. They are certainly not up to standard. So, looking at some of the examples of zoos in China I believe that these zoos are definitely not ethical. So even though these zoos are extremely popular the morality of what these zoos are or how they treat their animals is definitely not right.

In a book I used for research called “ Zoos and Animal Rights” by Stephen St C. Bostock, on page 132 under the subheading of, “ an animals relationship to its environment”, they write “ Animals have a close relationship with their environments.” This is also summed up as if a zoo can’t replicate an animal’s habitat well enough then that animal will behave differently to how it would in its natural environment in the wild and that is probably not beneficial for the animal.

He says on page 72, “ All animals are adapted to their natural habitats. From this we might presume: (a) that they are well off there.” The fact that they are well off in their natural habitat adds to the fact that they should be living in those habitats (the wild) rather than in enclosures in zoos that may bear little to no resemblance to their natural habitat. I still think most of this is up to circumstances. If the zoo has tried to make the enclosures spacious and as close to the wild as possible then I think it is acceptable, but, if the enclosures bear no resemblance to the animals’ natural habitat, then I believe that these zoos should be shut down.

Dr Dave Hone (Senior Lecturer and Director of Biological Sciences Programme at Queen Mary University, London), wrote two excellent points in the Guardian newspaper that I think perfectly illustrate the challenges, he wrote  “ But just as the fact that some police are corrupt does not mean we should not have people to enforce the law, although bad zoos or exhibits persist does not mean they are not worthwhile institutes.” This is an excellent comparison . The police force is a vital part of society to keep everyone in check and enforce the law, but there are corrupt police officers, yet if we remove all police due to this we will be doing more harm than good. So, even though there are some bad zoos that does not make the good ones any less amazing or helpful towards animal welfare and society as a whole.

He also says that “ they have to keep the public onside or go bust and they have to stand up to rigorous inspections or be closed down.” I think this works in two different ways. In the case of really good and popular zoos, in regulated countries, more people visit them and with the money from entrance fees, annual memberships, catering and retail, they can improve the enclosures and the lives of the animals in their care.

From researching zoos in different countries I believe that government regulation to be one of the key factors in zoos being ethical.  New Zealand has one of the strictest set of regulations with frequent inspections and harsh penalties for breaking the rules. The UK, Australia and the USA also have strict rules and have rigorous inspections and if they do not fulfill the criteria then the zoo will be shut down.   There are little or no rules or regulations in many Asian countries and this means that the zoos tend to be more commercial and profit driven rather than caring for the animals.   Whereas, in unregulated countries like China, there may be examples of zoos that are popular for the “ wrong” reasons. The zoos I am referring to have entertainment (animals performing shows) as their primary focus rather than animal welfare and they may be popular attractions because of  this and therefore are getting lots of money, however, they are not investing this in the animal enclosures or conditions. Instead the owner of the zoos have commercial gain as their main objective.

In conclusion, I believe, just like Michael Hutchins wrote, “ if the benefits of zoos to society outway the cost of individual animal welfare.” I believe that the two key elements are conservation and animal welfare.  If this happens then I think the zoos are ethical. From what I have seen though more zoos in Asia, that have extremely lenient rules, are not ethical. They are there to entertain the visitors and some of the animals are malnourished and close to death. Whereas zoos with stricter rules and regulations tend to be more ethical as they have to stick to guidelines that protect the animals so they can live good lives. I have had to take into account many things, some people say that zoos are unethical due to the fact that the animals cannot be released back into the wild, I agree with this statement but the priority has to be conservation. I believe that if zoos have a strong conservation programme then that makes them ethical as they are protecting a species of animals that are endangered and keeping them from the brink of extinction. It all depends on the circumstances as to whether an individual zoo is ethical or not, just like Dr Dave Hone wrote regarding the police.


  • Animals in Zoos: condemned to live a life behind bars, PETA website.
  • Animal Liberation, book, Peter Singer.
  • Animal welfare assessments, Wild Welfare website.
  • Are zoos ethical?, By Pooja N. 25th may, 2017, website.
  • China’s terrible zoos and why they’re still thriving, Mandy Zuo, published 9: 30 am, 1st July 2017. Updated 11: 31 pm, 1st July 2017.
  • endangered and extinct species, Book
  • TheTimes, newspaper article, Sunday October 19 2019
  • TheTimes, Thursday December  26 2019, newspaper
  • TheTimes, Thursday January 30 2020, newspaper
  • Why zoos are good, The Guardian website, Dr Dave Hone, Tuesday 19 August 2014 11. 57 BST. last modified on Tuesday 9 May 2017 18: 37 BST.
  • Zoos and animal rights the ethics of keeping animals, Book
  • Zoo and aquarium manual, Michael Hutchins, Journal, 18 december 2007
  • Zoos are not prisons they improve the lives of animals, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg VMD, website, May 16 2018.
  • Zoos are not prisons they improve the lives of animals, Dr. Robin Ganzert, TIME website, June 13, 2016.
  • Zoos code of welfare, Newzealand government website, October 1 2018.
  • Zoo def of zoo, Lexico. com Oxford website, 2020.
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