The Pros and Cons of Zoos for Wildlife Conservation

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As years have passed since the world’s first scientific zoo was opened to the public in 1828 in London, a lot of things have changed for the better (Gray 2008). Since then, zoos have become increasingly safer for not only their visitors, but also the animals in their care, and have shown a brighter light on educating the public and their conservation efforts for the many captive animals within their care.

Well established zoos now strive to be educational as well as recreational and maintain the great achievement of being AZA accredited. Wildlife conservation is an important topic in today’s day and age with so many animals becoming endangered or going extinct due to human development and interference within a wild animal’s everyday life. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has estimated that there are at least 26,197 species threatened with extinction. With that number still growing, zoos are trying everything they can to help counteract this major concern.

By being AZA accredited; having specific breeding programs and Species Survival Plans (SSP’s), as well as having strong education outreach programs for the general public, many zoos are becoming the life line for the conservation of some animal species. While the vast improvement in education and conservation efforts has been astonishing, some might say that this still is not enough, and see that zoos do more harm than good by having; inadequate habitats and suppressing the animal’s natural behaviors.

The first step to be a great zoological park that is tailored for both the conservation of wild animals and educating the public, is to become AZA accredited. According to the AZA website, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), is a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in four major areas; conservation, science, education, and recreation.

To become AZA accredited, a zoo or aquarium must first send in a written application. The application is about 60 pages and covers every detail needed about the zoo or aquarium in question. After this step there is multiple on-site inspections where they evaluate the living environments, health, nutrition, and social groupings of the animals in their care.

The final step is a hearing in front of the Accreditation Commission (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Once accredited, zoological institutions must continue to stay accredited by maintaining the high standards that the AZA holds for the welfare and management of wildlife in captivity. As of October 2018, there are only 233 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums around the world (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). Each of those zoos have breeding programs and Species Survival Plans in place for specific animals in their care. These zoos also have Animal Care Manuals that are required by the AZA to have in their facility.

These manuals are another way that the AZA is looking out for the welfare and conservation of captive animals, they are a compilation of animal care and management knowledge that comes from experts in many backgrounds like biologist, nutritionist, veterinarians, and reproduction physiologist (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). The manuals are ever changing because animal care practices change almost every day with new knowledge that comes about. AZA- accredited zoos go above and beyond for the care and management of their animals.

Another positive to accredited zoos is their Species Survival Plans (SSP’s) and breeding programs. Species Survival Plans are programs that AZA affiliated zoos are apart of to help maintain genetically diverse and healthy sustaining populations (Scientific American). The Endangered Species Act requires that any animal listed on the endangered species list be given a SSP (Che-Castaldo et al 2018).

The end goal of SSP’s is to be able to release new animals back into the wild in hopes of increasing the species population in the wild as well as increase over all genetic diversity. Normally one zoo will have a small number of animals from the same species, that are all very closely related genetics wise. This would become a problem for SSP’s because genetic diversity would be obsolete. To counter-act this, accredited zoos share animals.

For example, if the St. Louis zoo has a SPP for the Red panda they can ask another zoo for a male or female panda that is not related to the one at their zoo. The zoo would say yes and, in most cases, that animal will get sent to the zoo for a period of time, and once copulation and pregnancy is deemed successful that animal will be shipped back to its original zoo. There are many cases of SSP’s being successful in their efforts to release genetically diverse animals back into the wild. One example of this is the Houston toad (Bufo houstonensis).

Currently the Houston toad is still classified as endangered on the Endangered Species List, but according to the 2015 highlights and accomplishments of amphibian conservation done by the AZA, the reintroduction of eggs and juvenile toad is showing signs of being successful. In 2015 the Houston Zoo captively bred around 111 pairs of toads and release about 600,000 eggs into their native habitat (Mays 2015). These survival plans and implements are just another way that zoos are striving for the conservation of animals.

Conservation efforts from zoos do not work without the curiosity and help from the public. That is why education is another big focus for many well-established zoos. Zoos are like a window into another world for many people. It connects them with animals that for some people, they did not even realize they existed. With this window into a new world, it is important to make sure that its being utilized to its full potential and that’s where Conservation Education really comes into play.

In many zoos there are posters, informational signs, and small things that people can interact with everywhere. These things normally have facts and information ranging from where an animal came from and where its at on the Endangered Species List, to things like what is being implemented to get the species population growing in the wild. Other educational out reach things that zoos do are Keeper talks or behind the scene tours. These are great for both kids and adults because they are actively learning about an animal from someone who works with them every day.

One study over the impact on zoos and aquariums influencing the public’s understanding of wildlife and the conservation of animal’s habitats showed that out of 5,500 visitors over a three-year period, to AZA accredited zoos, that at least 54% of people surveyed said that they had some type of enhanced awareness of their part in conservation from their visit to the zoo. Another 42% of visitors had commented on the important role that zoos and aquariums have in education (Falk et al 2007). Without conservation education and interest from the public, the progress and knowledge that we see right now from things like SSP’s, habitat management actions and the endangered species list would practically be gone. Without this there would be a higher amount of extinctions without us even realizing it.

While there are many pros to zoos, some would say that there are more pressing cons to zoos that out weigh the positives. One con is an animal’s well-being in its environment. When people go to zoos and see wild animals like lions, elephants, and bears, they are seeing them in an environment that is supposed to mimic their natural habitat in some way.

What some people fail to realize is how much space that animal normally has in the wild compared to what it is being confined to now. For examples, elephants in the wild live in herds also known as matriarchal family groups (Defenders of Wildlife). These herds are normally big, consisting of mothers, aunts, juveniles and babies. In reality these animals need at least 100 acres of area to freely roam in a zoo, but AZA had only set the standard to 1800 square feet for one elephant (Cohn 2006).

Now since then, the AZA has changed their standard minimum size of elephant’s enclosures to 5400 square feet (AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care 2012), but this is still small when thinking of the amount of space elephants have to roam in the wild. The space needed for these massive animals to thrive is not something that one zoo can just make happen, and the amount of money that would be needed to make such a thing happen would be well over $38 million dollars which is what one zoo paid for just 3.7 acres (Cohn 2006).

Some major side effects that come from inadequate habitat size is that the animal in question can start to have its natural instincts suppressed or they become bored and stressed easily. When born in captivity, many animals must learn or be taught their natural instinct before they can be released into the wild. A baby fox must learn by trial and error how to scavenge and hunt for its food.

In captivity though, most zoo animals are fed every day with water available 24/7. Zoo animals might not learn these natural instincts because they do not need to. In the wild they would have had to learn where to find water and sometimes they would not be able to find a meal for weeks. With no need to have these natural instincts, or use them, these animals get bored and become stressed out. Stress and boredom can be shown in many different ways with animals.

For example, it has been seen that in some zoos in North America, up to 75% of Giraffes (Giraffa cameleopardalis) show the stereotypic behavior of wall licking (Mason 2010), and many other animals like lions and elephants show signs of stress or boredom by stereotypic behaviors like pacing and swinging their trunk back and forth. Stress and boredom can eventually lead dangerous health problems like abscesses, self-mutilation that leads to infection, and vulnerability to some diseases (Mason 2010). To counteract some of this, zoos have been using enrichment to stimulate animals into using their natural behaviors like they would in the wild.

Enrichment can we done in many different ways. It can be done by; increasing sensory stimulation, altering the physical environment, or even by modifying the animals care. The Saint Louis Zoo gave great examples of animal enrichment like putting different scents on things in the animal’s enclosure to stimulate their sense of smell, as well as using things like real prey items to get the animal to use natural hunting instincts. These and many more ideas are fine ways to reduce the amount of stress or boredom a captive animal may be feeling as well creating times for the animal to use its natural behaviors like it would in the wild.

Zoos can have many positive outcomes for the conservation of wild animals. The AZA makes sure that many zoos are keeping up to date with the maintenance and care of the animals that are at their facilities. This means, always looking out for ways to improve animal welfare, as well as; educating the public about wildlife conservation, and implementing Species Survival Plans and enrichment to be able to release genetically diverse animals back into the wild to help increase and sustain healthy population sizes. While the intent of what zoos are trying to accomplish is good, there are still some cons to keeping these animals in captivity. Weighing out these pros and cons are something that experts and zoological institutions do every day, all for the improvement of animal welfare and wildlife conservation.

Cite this paper

The Pros and Cons of Zoos for Wildlife Conservation. (2021, May 24). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-pros-and-cons-of-zoos-for-wildlife-conservation/



What are 3 benefits to zoos?
Zoos provide education and awareness about animals, conservation efforts, and their natural habitats. They also offer opportunities for research and scientific study, as well as providing a safe and secure environment for endangered species.
What are cons of animals in a zoo?
There are a few cons to animals in zoos. One is that the animals are often caged, which does not allow them to roam free. Another is that the animals may not be able to socialize with other animals of their same species.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of keeping animals in the zoo?
The advantages of keeping animals in the zoo are that they are protected from predators and the elements, and they have access to food and water. The disadvantages of keeping animals in the zoo are that they may not have enough space to roam, and they may be subject to stress and illness.
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