Do Zoos Still Serve A Purpose?

Recently in Australia Bong Su, a bull elephant, was euthanised due to ongoing arthritis issues1 at the age of 432. In the wild, if all goes well, an elephant can live for between 60 to 70 years3 which begs the questions, did captivity shorten Bong Su’s life and are traditional zoo’s still important?

Firstly, let us define what a zoo is. For the purpose of this blog, I like this definition:

…”zoos” means all permanent establishments where animals of wild species are kept for exhibition to the public for 7 or more days a year…4

This includes traditional zoos, drive-through safari parks, aviaries, snake parks, insect collections, aquariums, birds of prey centres and all other areas in which animals are displayed to the public5.

So, with the formalities out of the way, we can now discuss the roles that zoos play, whether these roles warrant the captivity of animals and to what extent these zoos should contain these animal species.

Zoos play an important role within society. Not only do they provide a form of entertainment, but their educational and conservation roles are also imperative. The information passed on to many of the zoos visitors provides them with a connection to wild species that they may not have received elsewhere. I believe that these connections are often underestimated. If, for instance, you had never had an interaction with a Koala, would you care about their conservation? Having this connection, would you not feel saddened when reading about their habitat destruction? But in saying this, even with such a connection, how many people would actually go out of their way to assist in restoring the koala’s habitat? Unless there was a way to help the koala’s there and then, say in the form of fundraising or partition signing, most of us would loss much of the connection as soon as we left the zoo.

One particular zoo in Victoria, Australia, provided a terrific educational program, not based on specific animal species as such, but more on a particular environmental message which was then linked to an animal species. For instance, the message at one exhibit was based on balloons being released onto the air and the effect it has on birds and ocean species. This message was delivered with the help of a captive platypus….brilliant! The platypus made the message fun resulting in it being remember, especially by children. More zoos need to think creatively about the educational information that they are trying to delivery rather than the old….this tiger eats a total of blah blah kilos of meat a day and can live up to blah blah years of age. Although this is important information, it’s not exactly exciting or helping a greater cause.

The conservation roles of many zoos is extremely important, particularly in regards to threatened and near extinct species. Research and captive breeding programs has ensured the longevity of many species.  For instance, the Orange Bellied Parrot has been captively bred in an Australia zoo since 19946. The parrots that are bred here serve as both an insurance population and to be release into the wild6. With only approximately 50 individuals remaining in the wild, the release of captive bred individuals is crucial to the species survival.

But the burning question is, is the captivity of wild species worth the outcome? Should we cage some individuals so that others can be saved? And, are we doing it right?

Ultimately, I believe that zoos are required because, as humans, we need to be rewarded for everything we do. We would not simply just give a zoo money for the purpose of conservation, without the reward of viewing the animals. We need to feel that we are receiving value for our money, even if this value is in the form of a caged animal. With this investment, zoos are then able to continue their quests to resolve conservation issues, such as captive breeding programs. In saying this, zoos do generally abide by strict rules and regulations and in many cases the species being displayed has been rescued. But at the end of the day, it’s a wild species in a non-natural environment.

Now, back to Bong Su for a moment. This was an almost five tonne animal that was kept within an inner city traditional zoo. This zoo did not have the capacity to provide such an animal with “natural” conditions. So the question begs to be answered…..would such an animal not be better suited to an open range safari type setup? This then leads to another question…..being a large draw card to the zoo, would management have been willing to release the animal to an open range zoo at an economical risk? It’s important to remember, that as much as a zoo is important to conservation, it is still after all a business.

So to answer the question…. Do Zoo’s Still Serve A Purpose? Yes, they do. However, the way that this purpose is served needs to be addressed. I sincerely believe that zoos and their personnel have the animal’s best interests in mind, but only with revenue can zoos perform to their full potential. This revenue is gained by providing the general public their much longed-for value for money.


1 Herald Sun

2 The Age

3 All About Wildlife

4 Council Directive 1999/22/EC (Zoos Directive) as in Rees, P. A. (2011). An Introduction to zoo biology and management. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

5 Rees, P. A. (2011). An Introduction to zoo biology and management. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

6 Zoos Victoria

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