9 min read

How To Tell If A Zoo Is Worth Your Visit

<p>Hitchster / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/hitchster/5466843408/" target="_blank">Flickr</a> (<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY 2.0</a>) </p>

Circuses are known for their mistreatment of animals, and after "Blackfish" (2013), the exposé documentary on orca whales at SeaWorld, we see shows featuring animal performers in a different light. These productions are typically avoided by the conscious-minded or those aware of the animal exploits at work to draw crowds.

But what about other establishments that use animals to attract paying visitors like zoos and aquariums? Is it simple enough to say that any animal held in captivity is wrong? Here, we offer a few questions and points to consider on the ethical grounds of zoos before paying patronage to animal collections.

Frontier Gap

Frontier Gap

The majority of zoos and aquariums will contend roughly the same mission objectives: conservation, research, education and entertainment. Many institutions either claim to breed animals in captivity for eventual release into the wild or fund conservation efforts in remote localities, sometimes both.

Advocates insist that research on captive animals allow for a broader understanding of wildlife biology and that zoos and aquariums are necessary to educate visitors, promoting public awareness on the decline of global diversity and therefore encouraging conservation. In addition to fulfilling this societal duty, these institutions also provide a more active mode of entertainment than say, television or video games.

bacole87 / Pixabay / Public domain

However, many animal rights activists challenge these claims and their moral standings. Organizations such as PETA maintain that restoring wild populations with captive-bred animals is nearly impossible because animals raised in zoos do not acquire the necessary survival instincts that their wild counterparts develop from living in their natural habitats. Rereleased animals may also potentially spread diseases to wild animals, and restoration efforts are often unsuccessful because of habitat loss due to human development. Moreover, animal rights activists assert that any research conducted on caged animals does not further knowledge on the species because captivity inherently restricts natural animal behavior.

Hebifot / Pixabay / Public domain

Countless zoos have been criticized for their ineffective and sometimes inaccurate signage as well as failure to engage visitors, and the link between awareness and behavioral change has yet to be established. Many critics allege that the main objective of zoos and aquariums is entertainment and that these establishments will resort to ethically compromised means to attract paying visitors. The fact that zoos tend to spotlight animals that are cute but not endangered over ones that are actually in need of protection is a prime example.

So how are you to decide which zoos or aquariums are worthy of your visit? First, you'll have to decide where you stand on the spectrum: on one end, animal rights advocates believe that every organism has an inalienable right to freedom, therefore no reason could possibly justify animal captivity. On the other end, people see animals as commodities that can be bought, sold, traded and captured to achieve human ends. In the middle are those that are chiefly concerned with animal welfare, meaning that caging animals is acceptable as long as their well-being is not compromised. If you're an adherent to either ends of the spectrum, the choice whether or not to visit a zoo is pretty clear. But it may not be so straightforward if you're somewhere in the middle.

Steve Wilson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

To start, it's important to do a little bit of research beforehand. Fact-check claims and counterarguments concerning the institution you may consider visiting. What is the zoo's primary source of funding? Be prepared to investigate with a fine-toothed comb if the establishment acquires the majority of its funding from ticket sales. How are the zoo's expenses broken down? Is more money spent on marketing than conservation initiatives? Take a look at the inventory of animals. Does the zoo have animals that are not suited for its regional climate (i.e. polar bears and penguins in hot, arid conditions or giraffes in cold areas)? How do the zoos acquire their animals? What happens to surplus animals? Does the institution belong to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), the international regulatory and support network?

These are just a few of the basic questions any animal lover should find the answers to before visiting a zoo or aquarium, but you don't have to stop there. If you can't find the answers to these questions online, don't hesitate to email the zoo or its keepers directly. In the information age where anything can be cross-referenced, transparency and honesty is paramount, and it's much more damaging to an institution to lie and deceive rather than tell the truth, no matter how bad it may look. If you decide to visit a zoo or aquarium, the extra effort you make in determining the merit and integrity of the institution is one way of supporting the well-being of all animals.

By Frances Lai, online journalism intern

Frontier runs conservation, development, teaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

See more from our volunteers #Frontiervolunteer