The Justifiability of Zoos

The Justifiability of Zoos

A few days ago a 4-year old boy fell into the gorilla residence of an American zoo. A gorilla took notice and walked up to the boy. Although the gorilla showed no intention of harming the boy, he was executed on the spot. The incident caused global outrage

Last week gorilla Harambe was shot after a 4-year old boy fell into the gorilla residence. According to primatologist Frans de Waal, the gorilla showed no signs of aggression and De Waal got the impression that the gorilla’s actions were 'mostly protective'. The unfortunate primate was shot anyway, for safety reasons. The incident caused global outrage. This is, however, not an isolated incident. Examples of zoo accidents are plentiful. Only two weeks ago a suicidal naked man threw himself into a lion's enclosure in Chile, resulting in the execution of two lions (and the survival of the man). In February 2014 a young and healthy giraffe called Marius was killed, chopped into pieces and fed to the lions after his genes proved to be redundant to Copenhagen Zoo’s breeding program. In March this year the TV programme Rambam revealed that dolphins in the Dutch aquatic zoo, Dolfinarium, are secretly locked away in extremely small basins, exposed to highly chlorinated water, and even sexually abused by their keepers (or ‘sexually satisfied’ as the keepers would probably put it). These horrific reports sharply contrast with the peaceful, child-friendly images most of us have of zoos. They beg the question of whether our beloved family daytrips are worth such dreadful incidents. Can the existence of zoos still be convincingly defended?

Ancient justification: entertainment and pride

Initially the zoos' right to exist was easily defended on the basis of two things: public entertainment and imperialistic pride. When the first zoos were established in Europe and the USA in the 18th and 19th century, exotic and (to Western people) ‘new’ animals were brought to these continents to be exhibited to the public. In the London Tower, where predatory animals were exhibited, people could even feed their own pets to these exotic animals for the sake of entertainment. Animals were thought not to be our moral concern and therefore their imprisonment didn’t need any justification other than human entertainment and imperialistic pride.

Altering image of animals

What started as a relatively innocent (or ignorant) form of entertainment and pride has changed today into a lucrative business. Contemporary zoos, however, are careful to no longer seek legitimacy through entertainment (imperialistic pride having, of course, long since lost its glory). Today we know that zoo animals are our moral concern and therefore most people feel that their lifetime imprisonment cannot be justified solely for reasons of entertainment. Instead, contemporary zoos base their right to exist on two higher goals that they claim to pursue: education and the preservation of (endangered) species.


Zoos claim to educate their visitors, especially children. However two important questions arise that that could possibly undermine this claim. First: is encountering real, but often highly stressed and neurotic animals in cages more educational than learning about these animals and their natural conditions in books, documentaries and – if possible – observation in the wild? The second, and most important question is: is sacrificing the freedom of these animals worth the small amount of education it may offer over education through books, documentaries etc.?

Preservation of species

Zoos also often claim that preserving species by setting up complex worldwide breeding programs is an important justification for their existence. However, again, two important challenging questions arise. First: is the extreme focus on genes caused by these breeding programmes desirable, given that it can have highly immoral consequences? It is, for example, common practice to kill bred animals that have unneeded genes because they have no value to the breeding pool and can only cause inbreeding. According to experts, thousands of zoo animals are killed across Europe every year for reasons of genetic superfluity. The second, again more important question is: what’s in it for the animals themselves? The animals have no interest in the anthropocentric occupation of preserving species, but nonetheless they are the ones who pay the ultimate price for it: lifetime imprisonment or death.

Additional immoralities

Apart from the inconclusiveness of the two reasons offered by zoos to justify their existence, other moral problems also exist. Zoos have taken animals from the wild, thereby breaking family and group bonds that are extremely important to social animals. Furthermore, in taking infant animals from the wild, for example chimpanzees, it used to be common practice to kill the mothers and any other chimps that stood in the way during the kidnap. The worldwide trade in zoo animals is also troubling: animals are hurt or sometimes even killed during transport and often they still die after arrival due to adaptation problems. For those not convinced by arguments concerning the interests of animals themselves, it might be worth mentioning that zoos also cost a great amount of public money. For example the new Wildlands Adventures Zoo in the Netherlands. It cost Dutch tax-payers the embarrassingly large sum of 8,5 million euros. That’s an awful lot of money for yet another dubious animal prison.

For more on this subject, the incident with Harambe and animal rights, find a recent NPO Radio 1 broadcast here. With Janneke Vink, Erno Eskens and Arjan Postma (the broadcast is in Dutch).


Janneke Vink

Dear Shelly,
Thank you for putting this forward. I agree with you that íf zoos decide to display possibly dangerous animals, it automatically becomes their responsibility to make sure physical contact in both ways is impossible. After all, kids can always wander off and lose their parents in the zoo. However, in my view, this doesn't relieve the parents of their responsibility to keep an eye on their children.

Shelly Sullivan

This is helpful, thank you. It also seems to me that zoos (as dubious as they are to me ethically) ought to ensure that their animals are properly protected from human -- in this case, child -- intrusion. So many people want to accuse the mother of not watching her child, but it doesn't seem reasonable to assume that a mother should pay to visit a zoo and be responsible for protecting her child from climbing into a gorilla habitat! The habitat should be secure for visitors. I would think that this sort of protection would be included in her visitors' rights!

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