ECOPINION: In defense of zoos and aquariums


by Bob Sherman It’s really easy to hate on zoos. Look at all the animals trapped in those tiny pens, thousands of miles from where they belong! The people who run zoos must be heartless monsters who just want to profit off of these poor furry souls, right? In a word: no. In three words: not even close. In a lot of words: zoos and aquariums are some of the coolest places on earth, for reasons both practical and philosophical. First off, let’s address the arguments of the detractors. As an added bonus, let’s do it in the form of a listicle, which is a word the editors keep throwing around along with others like “interactive journalism” and “source code” and “stop missing deadlines, Bob.”

Claim 1: Zoos and aquariums keep animals in tiny pens, when they should be roaming free!

Response: In AZA accredited zoos and aquariums, animals are raised in habitats that mimic the their natural environment. It’s true that many zoos keep their animals in terrible conditions, and no one is going to advocate for that. But it would be unfair to lump all zoos and aquariums in with the terrible ones that we all once saw a Netflix documentary about.

Claim 2: Zoos and aquariums steal healthy animals from the wild!

Response: Most zoos are not going out into the wild to snatch up baby lions; often they are raising animals that are either being rehabilitated or were born in captivity. They shouldn’t do that, and in most cases don’t, either due to morality or the fact that it is illegal to do that in most contexts.

Claim 3: Zoos and aquariums are profiting off of their imprisoned animals!

Response: Most zoos and aquariums are run by either government or non-profit organizations, meaning their goals are usually not to profit, but to work toward missions such as education and research.

This transitions well into my next point:

One of the best things about zoos is that many are engaged in tremendous animal research, ranging from physiology to conservation. Scientists working for Chicago’s own Lincoln Park Zoo are currently researching chimpanzees, black-footed ferrets, and more, all to help conservationists do their work more effectively. Organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums spend over $160 million every year on conservation projects, often helping to protect some of the world’s most important ecosystems. Zoos also provide places for kids to get personal experiences with animals, turning people into lifelong lovers of nature and conservation.

This brings me to the last part of my explanation, the “philosophical” section I alluded to earlier. For many of us, going to zoos as kids brought us closer to nature than almost anything else in our lives. The empathy we gain from seeing a chimpanzee and thinking “it looks kinda like me!” is unlike anything else in the world. Zoos link us to nature by reminding us of the vastness of life on earth, but also how connected all living things are. Without places like zoos and aquariums, most of us will never get the chance to see some of nature’s most majestic creatures. So the next time you find yourself in Lincoln Park on a lazy Sunday afternoon, don’t turn your nose up at the idea of seeing a rhino, or a lion, or a poison-dart frog. Dive in.

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