Zoos are Animal Prisons – There is Nothing Amusing About Seeing a Depressed Gorilla



To many, zoos represent a utopian garden of bliss, which is solely committed to the nurturing and caring of animals. The incident at Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark where keepers killed a healthy young male giraffe, named Marius in front of a crowd of people, then dissected and fed him to the lions shattered this perception for many.

Despite several other zoos offering a home for 18-month-old Marius, his life was still ended because he did not have the right bloodline. This raises the question of whether zoos are or  have ever been safe havens for animals. Many animal activists argue that even the best of zoos with the most favourable conditions cannot replicate or replace wild animals’ habitats.

Captivity at zoos prevent animals from doing many things that are of importance and natural to them says Laura Weyman-Jones who is from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Australia organization. “Even the largest zoos in the world cannot provide the animals they imprison with the space, exercise, privacy, mental simulation and other vital things they need. For example: wild elephant herds roam up to 50 kilometres a day- an activity that is essential to their well-being- but no zoo can provide them with this kind of space”, she says. Referring to animals in zoos as “zoo inmates”, she says they have no control over anything in their lives from what they eat to when they eat and from who their companions are to who they mate with.

Animal Rights Advocates’ (ARA) general Board member and volunteer, Tuija Kay says that the practices of zoos clash with the concept of freedom. “The notion of freedom implies that one can choose where they go, who they associate with, when they eat and so on. In a zoo, all these activities are regulated and restricted by the zoo keepers”, she says. British actress, Virginia McKenna, who performed in the classic wildlife movie Born Free says that her involvement in the movie, which centered on a lion’s independence made her recognize that “wild animals belonged in the wild, not imprisoned in zoos.”

It has been found that the lack of freedom captivity imposes upon animals mentally and physically damages them. A study conducted by Oxford University based on 40 years of observance of animals in captivity identified that animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, polar bears and cheetahs demonstrate the most psychological dysfunction and stress. Also, animals at zoos are generally kept alone or in pairs, which causes them stress as many of these animals naturally live in large herds.

“The physical and mental frustrations of captivity often lead to abnormal, neurotic and even self-destructive behaviour”, says Ms Weyman-Jones from PETA. Physical and psychological distress of this kind in zoo animals is referred to and known as “zoochosis”, says Lefki Pavlidis, an admin and supporter development from Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV). She says, “Zoochosis is exhibited in repetitive behaviours such as: bar biting, rocking, swaying, excessively pacing back and forth, circling, twisting of the neck, self-mutilation, excessive grooming, biting, consuming excrement, repetitive hair plucking and the practice of repetitively vomiting and eating the vomit”.

Ms Pavlidis underlines that these behaviours “almost never occur in the wild” according to Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, authors of Animals Make Us Human. An investigation carried out by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on numerous zoos found several bear species displaying unusual, neurotic behaviours such as walking in tight circles, spending a lot of their time pacing and rolling their heads. Other signs of psychological distress found in bears throughout the investigation was that “in some bear enclosures, paths worn by the bears’ constant pacing could be seen; in others, there were actual paw impressions in the soil where bears had repeatedly stepped in the exact same spot.” According to the investigation, this type of behaviour is indicative of despair.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Animals like this bear in captivity often suffer from ZOOCHOSIS<br> <br>HARD 2 WATCH <a href=”http://t.co/o6xDeEBzSm”>http://t.co/o6xDeEBzSm</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/CaptivityKills?src=hash”>#CaptivityKills</a> <a href=”http://t.co/gIsASfN2Bn”>pic.twitter.com/gIsASfN2Bn</a></p>&mdash; PETA (@peta) <a href=”https://twitter.com/peta/status/568148456168034304″>February 18, 2015</a></blockquote> //platform.twitter.com/widgets.js


The endless number of tragedies and deaths experienced at zoos such as the one at South Lakes Safari zoo in Cumbria, England which had almost 500 of its animals dead in just four years comes as no shock anymore but the thought that we should still have zoos despite these calamities remains a surprise. A report on the conditions at South Lakes Safari zoo revealed that 486 animals died due to causes such as emaciation (the state of being abnormally thin or weak) and hypothermia (the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature). The inspectors appointed by the government detected “overcrowding, poor nutrition, poor hygiene, lack of suitable animal husbandry and a lack of any sort of developed veterinary care”. Among the dead animals were two snow leopard cubs discovered to be partially eaten in their enclosure, a tortoise electrocuted by electric fencing, the decaying body of a monkey found behind a radiator, a rhinoceros crushed to death by its partner, a giraffe shot after collapsing and seven lion cubs and five baboons euthanized because there wasn’t adequate room for them.

The high death rate of animals at the South Lakes Safari zoo has lead to calls in closing the zoo down. But the troubling incidents of animal deaths are not only unique to this North England zoo.

Looking at other zoos around the world, we see that animals kept in captivity leads to a trail of disasters. A gorilla named Jabari was fatally shot by police when trying to escape from the Dallas Zoo by jumping over walls and moats and evading electrified wires; it was later reported by a witness that teenagers were annoying the gorilla with rocks before his attempted escape. In 2005, two polar bears died at the Saint Louis Zoo- one of them died following an ingestion of an object that was thrown into his exhibit and the other one died due to an infection resulting from having two dead fetuses in her uterus.

At the Virginia Zoo, a rhino drowned in the moat of her exhibit, 10 prairie dogs died when their tunnel collapsed, a zebra almost lost its life after jumping into the lion exhibit while another zebra died because she struck a fence and broke her neck. A pregnant rhinoceros at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo died due to having around 70 litres of sand in its intestines. The silverback gorilla, Harambe was shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo in an attempt to save a 4-year-old boy who fell into his enclosure.

In 2015, a deadly flood hit Georgia, destroying the enclosures of animals at Tbilisi Zoo and resulting in dozens of zoo animals being unleashed on the streets. Many of the animals were killed in the flooding or by special forces. According to Tbilisi Zoo spokeswoman, Mzia Sharashidze, “some 20 wolves, eight lions, white tigers, tigers, jackals, jaguars have either been shot dead by special forces or are missing”. In 2013, a baby elephant named Sanook from Melbourne Zoo died suffocating after her head got entangled in a tyre used as a swing. Again at Melbourne Zoo, in 2015, a female gorilla named Julia was savagely attacked and killed by a male gorilla named Otana. She had nowhere to run and although, the zoo staff was aware of the violence that occurred, they did not get Julia to veterinary care up until the following day.

In 2015, in Germany’s Duisburg Zoo, keepers shot dead an orangutan that tried to escape. In 2012, a polar bear at Buenes Aires Zoo in Argentina died because of overheating. In 2007, a kangaroo hit by a train that runs through Cleveland Zoo was euthanized. In 2015, many animals including lions, tigers, crocodiles and monkeys died from either hunger or thirst in Gaza Strip’s Khan Younis Zoo due to being left without care during the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

In another tragedy, a sloth bear named Medusa died of dehydration when officials in United States’ Toledo Zoo locked her in a den to hibernate thinking she was pregnant and that in the wild, sloth bears hibernated when giving birth. Eventually, when she was found dead, they discovered that she wasn’t pregnant and her species does not hibernate.

Animal reports from 2005-2011 of Royal Melbourne Zoo, Werribee Open Range Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary revealed that a zebra died while being transported to Perth Zoo, a fur seal died inside a pet-pack when being returned to the wild, a bandicoot died after being left behind in an experimental trap and a group of emus attacked six pademelons to death. And in 2005, nearly 100 animals died across an eight-month period at Melbourne Zoo from causes such as infectious diseases, traumatic injuries and drowning. These revelations about the deaths of zoo animals renew the debate about keeping animals in captivity.

Ms Pavlidis from Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) says, “Over the last two years Zoos Victoria has reported 19 avoidable animal deaths”, highlighting the cruel nature of deaths animals at zoos undergo.

Although Melbourne Zoo is known as one of the best zoos around the world, in 2008, a leaked internal memo exposed distressing animal abuse. The memo revealed that a zookeeper had stabbed an elephant multiple times with a sharp metal spike and a male gorilla had been kept isolated for 16 years. The memo also revealed the case of four seals which suffered partial blindness from chlorine in the small swimming pool they were kept in for up to three years while the new $20 million enclosure was built. The leaked memo has manifested the cruel practices that animals at zoos are subject to. Taking animals from the wild into unnatural settings is not only detrimental for their health; it also can literally mean ‘death’ for them and a short-lived life. For instance, in a study led by wildlife scientific officer Ros Clubb, it was found that the average life span of an African elephant in a zoo was 16.9 years while African elephants living in the wild, which died of natural causes had a lifespan of 56 years.

The practice of culling is also present at many zoos where thousands of healthy animals are deliberately killed to generally manage animal populations at zoos. Culling surplus animals is a casual approach taken by zoos worldwide. A Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS) study found that in European zoos, at least 7,500 animals are surplus. In 2007, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) said that unwanted animals such as hybrid ones and ones that are not wanted by other zoos are encouraged to be killed by member zoos, as such animals take up space and keeper time according to the EAZA. In 2014, there was global outrage when healthy 18-month-old giraffe Marius was killed at Copenhagen Zoo. In response to the criticism, Copenhagen Zoo’s Scientific Director Bengt Holst said that the zoo had an excess number of giraffes and that this act is something that’s done every day, normalizing the act of intentionally killing animals due to insufficient space. Shortly after the killing incident of Marius, Copenhagen Zoo killed four healthy lions to make space for a new lion they wanted to breed. In 2006, after the social structure of a wolf pack had broken down, the whole pack of wolves were killed at Highland Wildlife Park. And in 2013, Taronga Zoo in Sydney killed five animals to manage populations. “Killing animals to manage population is a decision driven out of concern for profit rather than concern for the living animals involved… Animals are commodities to zoos, to be bought and traded and disposed of when they no longer turn a profit”, says Ms Pavlidis from ALV.

The carcass of male giraffe, Marius eaten by lions

Many zoos play the conservation role and perspective. They claim they are protecting species from extinction and saving endangered species, but the vast majority of animals in zoos are not classified as endangered species. Only about 18 per cent of land animals in zoos are threatened or endangered species according to a study on conservation breeding programs published in the journal PLOS ONE. “If zoos were concerned with conservation they would care for only endangered animals, but the truth is that only about one fifth of animals in zoos are threatened species”, says Ms Pavlidis from ALV. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums reported that out of all the animals at its 228 member zoos, only 30 species are being actively worked on for recovery. And most of those 30 species can’t be re-introduced to the wild. They are mostly working on increasing and sustaining zoo populations not wild populations. “Saving species from extinction is not a sufficient excuse for breeding animals into captivity…it seems unethical to purposely breed animals into captivity, knowing that they will not enjoy the freedoms and quality of life that an animal in their natural habitat would”, says Tuija Kay from ARA. .“Captive breeding animals in zoos does nothing to address these serious problems and very few, if any, of the captive-bred species that do face extinction in the wild will ever be released back into their natural environments to bolster dwindling populations”, Ms Jones from PETA says. “ If zoos were seriously concerned with conservation they would concentrate on habitat-preservation projects”, she says. Preserving the habitats of endangered species will only ultimately save them. Being a member of an endangered species doesn’t give the right to capture, breed and imprison these animals.


The argument that zoos have educational value seems quite unconvincing when most visitors spend only a few minutes at each animal display. A keeper at the National Zoo followed over 700 zoo visitors across a period of five summers and found that “people [were] treating the exhibits like wallpaper.” In 2014, a study published by sociologist Eric Jensen that surveyed 3,000 children before and after a visit to the zoo found that only one-third of those children learnt factual information resulting in a positive learning experience. There is clearly no educational merit in displaying an animal behind a glass wall. Today, with informative animal and wildlife documentaries, television programming, educational content online and the ease of international travel, the opportunity to view and learn about animals in their natural habitats is fairly easy. “In an age when David Attenborough can virtually take us inside an elephant’s bottom, is there any … value to keeping animals in captivity?” questions British comedian and actor, Romesh Ranganathan who argues zoos are prisons. Also, the idea that children will have more enthusiasm towards things they see live is not valid as many children are thrilled over dinosaurs, which they’ve never seen and no longer exist. If zoos are teaching children and adults anything, it’s the fact that keeping animals in cages for the sake of entertainment and perceived education is acceptable. “These institutions rather educate children and adults alike that animals are not worthy of our respect”, says Elise Burgess, a spokesperson from animal rights advocacy group, Voiceless. Visiting a zoo may teach you a lot about how an animal behaves in captivity, but not how these animals behave in the wild.

There isn’t anything natural or normal about an elephant, lion or polar bear living in the midst of a city, far away from its real home. Society and zoo advocates have made us accept this as ordinary and justifiable. We are only reminded that a zoo isn’t a place for animals when things go wrong and get out of control. There is nothing entertaining and educational about depressed animals.


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