Born to Be Wild: A Life in Captivity

Born to Be Wild: A Life in Captivity

What’s the reality of being inside a zoo, for the animals and for the people who love and care for those animals? There’s a lot of joy, and there’s a lot of loss. -Thomas French


Passionate debates between animal activists and zoo-lovers are constantly occurring on the argument if zoos are doing more harm than good for the animal inhabitants.  The idea of zoo’s exploiting animals for profit is a common belief among animal activists, as wild creatures are taken out of their homes and forced into captivity for the enjoyment and education of guests.  Animals’ welfare is often being questioned such as Orca whales being forced into small tanks after living in the wide-open ocean and bears placed into contained exhibits behind glass, pacing for the majority of their day.  Are these conditions exaggerated by activists or does the education of guests outweigh the conditions and emotions of animals placed into captivity?

Between These Four Walls

Conservation of animals is a priority for zoos, especially when the animals are endangered in the wild.  Education becomes a main central argument for pro-zoo activists which includes the study of diseases among animals or the study of interaction between or within species.  The Smithsonian National Zoo is leading a study on the treatment of a herpes virus found in Elephants so that they can develop a vaccine which can be administered in captivity and in their wild counterparts.  This is a productive element in the argument for zoos but does it outweigh the mental state and lives of animals who call the zoos home?

Many organizations argue against the captivity of wild animals including PETA, an organization dedicated to protecting the welfare of animals.  Animals kept in zoos are indeed wild and often face challenges when they follow their instincts.  In 2016, Harambe, 17 year-old western lowland gorilla, was fatally shot in his exhibit in the Cincinnati Zoo after a young boy fell into the habitat.  The gorilla seemed to not be hurting the boy but pulled him further into the exhibit.  Should an animal die for the result of human activity or was this an unnecessary occurrence that lead to loss of an animal’s life?

Shorter life-spans are also recorded in captivity by a significant difference. Research conducted on 4,500 African elephants showed that elephants in captivity live to a median life-span of 16.9 years yet in the wild life on live on average to 56 years.  That’s a significant difference that can hint to the impaired health of animals kept in zoos.  Elephants extremely social and are used to walking many miles a day.  When they are placed in small exhibits, Elephants are known to shown signs of stress and boredom which leads them to partake in repetitive activities such as swinging their trunks. PETA lead an investigation in examining the mental states of animals kept in exhibits and found that most bears were exhibiting “neurotic” behaviors.  Pacing, circling and swaying, most bears were exhibiting signs of boredom, anxiety and despair.  Born into the wide-open wild, bears that are captured are forced into tight enclosed spaces with walls and constant human interaction.


A Baby For the Crowd

Young animals often draw large crowds to zoos which allows breeding programs to flourish in an effort to create more cute babies.  Breeding programs often follow a public agenda of conservation and boosting numbers of endangered animals yet constant turn to profit when the animals leave their age of youth and become full-grown animals.   Two giraffes, Twiggs and Jeffery, born in Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey were sold to a traveling circus after they grew out of their attractable young age. The owner of the zoo acknowledged the poor conditions the giraffes were subjected to yet did nothing when given a profit. Trading and separating young animals simply because they’re not drawing crowds anymore just adds to the animals trade and forces the animal to be separated from their family.

Zoos offer a unique experience to see animals many would not have the chance to encounter. This is a valid education purpose but it is also necessary to recognize that the animals in exhibits are of course living creatures with their own mental and physical needs to happily survive to the peak of their capability. Many zoos and aquariums, unfortunately, cannot offer this experience as the animals that are removed from the wild will never again see their homes and are forced to live between walls for the enjoyment of humans. There are keepers who do care and devote their lives for the animals’ well being however, is this enough?

For more information:


PBS News Hour  

Freedom for Animals (UK)

Vegan Peace

An example of stress shown by a jaguar at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

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