Vegan Gray Areas: Zoos

Many people, vegan or not, strongly feel that they love animals. That’s why they like visiting places like zoos and aquariums. That’s why they like tourist attractions that allow them to take a picture holding a koala or even a lion cub. These are the isolated incidents in which most of us could possibly encounter a ‘wild’ animal. I live in Wisconsin, but I didn’t grow up on a farm. It was very common to drive past cows grazing in a field on a regular basis. But even I didn’t see cows up close until I went to the zoo and checked out their farm exhibit. People love animals so much and that’s why they enjoy marveling at beautiful creatures up close.

Photo by Git Stephen Gitau from Pexels

I’m not here to nitpick about whether or not a non-vegan truly loves animals. Many vegans feel that there’s a strong distinction between loving animals and loving pets, which I do agree with. However, I think it’s more complicated than to simply say ‘you can’t eat animals and love them at the same time’. How often are these things ever so black and white? We compartmentalize which animals are worthy of love and awe and which are not. Many people can commodify those ‘unworthy’ while genuinely believing that they do, in fact, love animals as a whole. It may not look like love to me, but who am I to dictate what someone else thinks or feels?

I once loved to go to the zoo, but I remember my mother was not a fan. It made her sad to see the animals in small enclosures, but as a child, I couldn’t really understand that. I just wanted to see the penguins. Surely the staff at the zoo took good care of them, so what’s the problem? As a now vegan adult, I have no plans to go back to the zoo. However, that doesn’t mean the zoo is an evil villain, twisting it’s mustache and laughing maniacally as it’s evil plot unfolds. Not all zoos are the same and some play a role in conservation. That being said, despite public perception, the evidence that zoos are effectively educational for children, is not very strong. 

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

As to the quality of life of these animals, there’s the good and the bad. On the bright side, these animals are receiving medical attention they would obviously not otherwise receive if they were in their natural habitat. The prey animals on display don’t need to live in fear of being eaten and predators never need to worry about not finding food. On the other hand, despite the fact that many of these animals were born in the zoo and don’t know anything different, their instincts are inevitably being impaired. There is simply not enough space in any given zoo for certain animals to participate in their natural behavior, like running fast, climbing high, or migrating/swimming far distances. It’s believed by some that this is what leads to a condition called ‘zoochosis’.

Zoochosis is the term used to describe the stereotypical behaviour of animals in captivity. 

Stereotypic behaviour is defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function. Stereotypic behaviour is not seen in animals in the wild and is understood to be abnormal and is therefore a negative factor in conservation captive breeding.

Examples of this can be seen at most zoos in such behaviours as:-

  • Bar Biting, Neck Twisting, Tongue Playing…
  • Head Bobbing, Coprophagia, Swaying/Pacing/Circling
  • Excessive Grooming, Vomiting, Self Mutilation

From <>

Footage of what zoochosis can look like:

I can attest to seeing many of these behaviors from dogs going stir crazy in their kennels  at the animal shelter. I clearly saw these as signs of stress in that instance as their behavior would transform once outside of their kennel. I don’t think it’s far fetched to extend that interpretation to zoo animals, as well. 

Breeding endangered animals and releasing them back into the wild would seem to be a noble goal that some zoos have. As far as their breeding programs are concerned, there have been mixed results. Breeding giant pandas, for example, has had very little success. Other animals, like the condor, have been brought back from the brink of extinction. While many zoos do try to play a role in conservation, it’s important to note that they’re primary purpose is that of a business, i.e. to make money. Animals are killed at zoos for poor health, but also to make room for younger animals or to deal with other concerns of surplus. I’d like to note that killing otherwise healthy animals is less common at zoos in the United States, but is fairly commonplace in much of Europe.  So, I guess the question is: does the good outweigh the bad?

Image by EM Framing from Pixabay

Wildlife sanctuaries differ from zoos in that they primarily exist for the animals and not the visitors. They typically do not breed animals for entertainment purposes, but there are some exceptions (which in my mind undermines their entire mission). They take in injured or rescued animals that would not survive were they to be released back into the wild. I would possibly be open to going to a wildlife sanctuary, although it’s important to note that just because the word ‘sanctuary’ is in the name does not guarantee that the animals are treated well. There’s a wildlife sanctuary in a nearby city that I’ve gone to a few times with my husband. Upon further research I was surprised to find out they have a fishing program. I guess it’s only a sanctuary for some animals.

In conclusion, I feel I learn more about animals and get to witness a more accurate depiction of them through documentaries than a zoo. I believe there are more effective ways to support breeding and conservation efforts through alternate organizations. There are far too many terrible zoos that are allowed to continue staying in business in the world. Animals are underfed, kept in small enclosures, and in inappropriate conditions, such as excessive heat, lack of shade, etc. This is animal abuse and should be illegal everywhere. Zoos that do their best to provide an adequate environment and living conditions for their animals should not be lumped in with these other places, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement. If zoos focused more on animals that are endangered, abused, or otherwise in need of rescue instead of which ones have the most curb appeal to visitors, I believe they could hold a valuable role in promoting animal welfare with fewer moral qualms. However, as it stands, I won’t be visiting a zoo any time soon.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay



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