People who criticize zoos and aquariums for displaying animals in captivity are ignoring the roles they play in preserving species, contributing to scientific research, as well in education.

I continue to see articles in some extremely reliable, professional and credible news sources in which the authors question whether it still makes sense to keep animals in captivity for public display in the 21stcentury.  The people who write those articles are correct insofar as animals which are kept in zoos throughout the world are removed from their natural habitat.  


However, as the human population of the planet earth continues to grow more so than during any previous eras throughout history, the amount of land and sea which is available in the natural ecosystems that these animals are native to continues to be reduced every year.  Industrial pollution still continues to damage the air, water, and soil which form the basis of every naturally occurring ecosystem throughout the world.  


Zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens are now playing as much of a role in preserving rare and endangered species of plants and animals, and hence, preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems throughout the world for the future as seed banks and gene banks throughout the world are.  


People who write articles which criticize zoos and aquariums for displaying animals in captivity are ignoring the roles that zoos and aquariums play in preserving species, contributing to scientific research in numerous fields, as well as how zoos and aquariums play a role in education- from pre-school groups up through graduate school classes from colleges and universities- which is why I’m surprised when I see such articles in some of the most reliable news websites in the world.


While the criticism that it is unnatural to keep animals confined in cages or tanks is usually used in reference to zoos and to aquariums, the people who are writing articles which criticize zoos and aquariums are really discussing the broader issue of keeping animals in captivity for public display.  Many of the larger botanic gardens throughout the world also have displays which include some animals. I’ve seen botanic gardens which have displays which include various species of fish, turtles, frogs, and toads which are kept in tanks, ponds, pools and fountains within their greenhouses, some botanic gardens have butterfly houses, and some botanic gardens also keep various species of birds in some of the greenhouses.  

For purposes of this article, I’ll be discussing animals which are kept captive for public displays in various venues throughout the world.

On a more personal note, I’m an amateur hobbyist photographer.  I participate in a camera club as well as an arts center in the suburbs of New York City.  I like to tour zoos and aquariums when I travel to different cities throughout the world. I enjoy taking photos of the animals which we see when we tour zoos and aquariums, and I have displayed one of the photos which I took in an aquarium in 2 exhibits.  

I also converse with people about my travels, and I keep hearing a common criticism about zoos and aquariums.  People frequently pointed out that in nature, animals have vast spaces in their natural habitats to travel through.  This criticism is nothing new. Many animal rights activist groups and charity organizations have been objecting to all institutions which display animals in captivity for several decades now.

Zoos, Aquariums And Botanic Gardens Have Been Contributing To Scientific Research Projects, To Education And Have Been Used By Numerous Arts Groups Throughout The World For Many Decades Now

 One hundred years ago, a common criticism of zoos throughout the world was that it is cruel to keep animals confined.  The administrators at zoos asserted precisely the opposite- they stated that zoos are important for the conservation of various species because when people tour zoos, some of them are likely to become interested in biology and learning more about biodiversity.  People who worked at zoos argued that zoos play a role in getting people of all ages interested in learning more about various species of animals which exist throughout the world and that people who tour zoos may become inspired to travel throughout the world to see different species of animal in their native habitats.  People who advocated for building more zoos argued that people who tour zoos may come to view animals as entities which they’ll want to photograph while they’re traveling, rather than as entities that they’ll want to hunt for sport and so zoos actually contribute to saving rare species throughout the world.

In the second decade of the 21stcentury, the same debate continues- though the technologies are notably more advanced today.  As you peruse the internet, you’ll find no shortage of articles which assert that zoos are cruel because they keep animals confined in small spaces, and in nature, these animals would have vast territories to travel through.  

Today, in addition to encouraging tourists to learn more about how species behave in their native environments, zoos are playing a greater role in conservation than ever before.  Wildlife biologists learn a lot about animal physiology by studying animals in zoos. Biologists who work at zoos throughout the world also breed quite a few rare and endangered species and release young specimens back into their native habitats.  

 Most zoos and botanic gardens are maintained through a combination of public funds and donations from private donors and from various charity organizations.  In many countries, the aquariums that we tour when we travel tend to owned by private companies, though, in some cities, the aquariums also receive public funding.  

Many of the larger zoos in the world are close to 100 years old now, and some date back to the 19thcentury.  Zoos and botanic gardens were often built in public parks, open spaces and lots which had already been vacant, and city governments approved funding for constructing as well as maintaining zoos because zoos bring tourist revenue to the cities.  City governments also recognized that zoos would contribute to educating people of all ages about wildlife, biodiversity and natural habitats in other parts of the world. 

Zoos and botanic gardens offer opportunities for people of all ages to walk around and breathe some fresh air during the day.  In the latter decades of the 19thcentury and the early decades of the twentieth century, when many of the zoos and botanic gardens that we like to tour when we travel today were originally built, city politicians and urban planners throughout the world were beginning to recognize the need to preserve open green spaces within cities, and city politicians and planners were realizing that healthy cities need healthy parks and green spaces, because healthy cities need healthy air, and healthy people.

As of October 2018 when I’m writing this article, there are at least 10,000 zoos throughout the world.  Aquariums require a lot more maintenance than zoos, aquariums are more expensive to operate, so there are fewer public aquariums than zoos.  

I found contradictory information as to the precise number of public aquariums throughout the world today as I was researching this article, so I’m not going to list any numbers regarding the number of aquariums which are open to tourists today. According to the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, there are now 1,775 botanic gardens which are open to tourists throughout the world.  As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the world’s botanic gardens exhibit numerous different species of plants, but some of the larger botanic gardens also include different species of fish, birds, insects, aquatic reptiles and amphibians in some of the displays in their greenhouses.

The Association Of Zoos And Aquariums was founded in 1924, the World Association Of Zoos And Aquariums was founded in 1935, and the administrators who work at both of those organizations thoroughly research how to house animals in very humane conditions.  The displays that we see when we tour accredited zoos and aquariums have been thoroughly researched, and the animals are cared for by some of the top veterinarians in the entire world. 

Some species live longer in captivity than they do in the wild.  Animals in zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens will obviously never become victims of predation, and they never suffer from starvation or malnutrition.  Animals which are housed in zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens receive excellent veterinary care and are therefore less likely to contract many of the diseases which effect animals in the wild. 

Zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens have been contributing to education as well as to scientific research projects since the mid 20thcentury.  It is very common for pre-school and elementary school teachers to take their students to zoos on field trips.  Junior high school and high school biology classes also sometimes go to zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens for more advanced studying of animal species.  In many countries, biology classes and veterinary courses from colleges and universities work closely with zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens.

In many cities, art classes from high schools, colleges, and universities as well as arts groups sometimes go on field trips to zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens; art students use zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens as venues where they can practice painting, drawing and photography.  

The administrators who work at summer camps, summer academic programs as well as numerous other summer programs and youth programs also take the preteens and the teenagers who are enrolled in those programs to tour zoos, aquarium, and botanic gardens.

It is inevitable that sadly, all zoo animals, as well as the animals which we see on display in aquariums and botanic gardens, will eventually die. After death, those animals often continue to play a role in education. Animals which have died in zoos and aquariums are sometimes taxidermied for display in natural history museums or are sent to laboratories, biology classes or veterinary for dissection.  The skeletons of deceased animals which had been living in zoos and aquariums also sometimes become used for display and teaching anatomy in biology classes in high schools, colleges, and universities. 

The Need To Distinguish Between Accredited And Non-Accredited Zoos/ Wildlife Displays

I’m not going to deny that there is some merit to the arguments that people who criticize zoos are making.  The staff who work at most zoos and animal sanctuaries are very careful about caring for the animals. Some animal theme parks or safari parks are combined with some large amusement parks, the emphasis is not on education or scientific research, but only on entertainment and tourism.  Those wildlife displays are also closely monitored, and the animals are well cared for.

However, although roadside zoos been steadily declining in popularity over the course of the past half century, there do still exist some roadside zoos and animal exhibits which are not accredited with either the AZA or any of the professional agencies which are involved with the WAZA.  In roadside zoos as well as in some carnivals and circuses which are not accredited with the AZA, WAZA or any other professional agencies, we still find animals which are poorly cared for or neglected. This is one of the reasons that it is critical that institutions throughout the world which educate the public about natural ecosystems and habitats need to continue to be well funded so that they can continue to operate.  As more people learn about how every species is an integral part of a natural ecosystem, people will learn to appreciate how complex the relationship between different animals are, and then we’ll see an end to roadside zoos and other displays which are poorly maintained because people will recognize that animals are a vital part of the world that we live in, and it will no longer seem appropriate to display them in a carnival style atmosphere as props for entertainment. 

The administrators who work at zoos have learned a lot since the mid 20thcentury, zoos now house animals in displays which include many elements from their natural environment.  Most institutions will list all of the relevant agencies which they are accredit with at the entrances. While you are traveling to different cities throughout the world, if you see a zoo or an aquarium which is affiliated with either the AZA, the BCGI, or any of the institutions which are associated with the WAZA, you can be assured that the animals are being well cared for and that the displays that the animals are living in have been researched by very knowledgeable wildlife biologists.  By contrast, if you see a tourist attraction such as a roadside zoo which does not list any professional organizations at the entrances, then they’re probably not accredited and I’d avoid spending any of my time or my money touring them. 

 I do also want to point out that zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens as well as the accrediting agencies are in fact administered by humans, and humans do have a tendency to engage in notably senseless behaviors sometimes.  Occasionally even accredited and reputable zoos get into trouble too. Zoos in Egypt,

Gaza as well as in the PRC have gotten into trouble for altering the appearance of some of their animals so that they can display some of their animals as entirely different species in recent years.  

Such incidents are rare, the administrators who work at zoos all comprehend that they can lose accreditation with professional agencies such as WAZA when they engage in such practices, but even today some engage in them.  The administrators who engage in these practices may believe that they may be attracting more tourists to visit their facilities when they opt to alter or misrepresent species, but they’re actually likely to lose visitors because they’re risking losing the accreditation of the institutions that they work for, and tourists are less likely to visit a zoo or an aquarium which has lost its accreditation.  

Zoos And Aquariums In The Twenty-First, The Twenty-Second And The Twenty Third Centuries

In future years, zoos may take on a new role, which until relatively recently, most scientists thought was something that we’d only be reading about in science fiction.  Many highly credible biologists throughout the world now believe that it will soon be possible to revive extinct species.  

Biologists believe that there may be enough usable DNA material in taxidermied specimens of some extinct species which are on display in natural history museums throughout the world that they’ll be able to extract DNA and insert it into eggs of females of similarly related species, which would result in a live offspring of the extinct species. This is still highly experimental, scientists have yet to successfully revive extinct species, but they believe that they now understand the technologies which will be involved in accomplishing this. If scientists are able to revive extinct species, zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens will likely be the facilities which are best suited for keeping them alive.  

Scientists will want to make certain that they can keep specimens from revived species alive in captivity before they attempt to release any into the wild. If scientists do release some revived species into the wild in future decades, they will also still want to keep some specimens in captivity.

 So, as you travel on your next vacations, or you take a break to engage in some tourism on your next business trips or visits to friends or family members, as you travel to other cities and other countries, as you tour zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens, remember that when you see animals of different species from throughout the world on display, you’re looking not only at specimens which are representative of the results of conservation efforts of at the past as well as the present, you’re also looking into the future.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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