In Defense Of Zoos: How Captivity Helps Conservation

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The death of Harambe the gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo, shot to protect a child who had fallen into his cage, has caused outrage. Some of the anger has now turned from “trigger-happy” staff towards zoos in general. Why, some are asking, is an endangered gorilla behind bars in the first place?

In an ideal world, Harambe would live peacefully in Central Africa. There would be no deforestation, no poachers, and no diseases transmitted by humans and our livestock.

But in the real world, fewer than 900 mountain gorillas are left in the wild. And zoos are a necessary and vital part of efforts to conserve them and other endangered animals.

Modern zoos aim to promote animal conservation, educate people, and support further wildlife research. The three are entwined to ensure the animals are housed to the highest possible standards of welfare. Staff are dedicated to providing species-specific housing, appropriate diets and husbandry to ensure that the animals’ lives are as natural as possible within captivity.

Anti-zoo and animal rights groups such as CAPS, PETA or the Born Free foundation claim that zoos are inherently cruel. They highlight animals housed in small cages for “our entertainment” and claim all should be released back into the wild.

But zoo design has moved a long way since the bad days of bare, concrete cages, and indeed innovative enclosures these days can closely replicate an animal’s wild habitats.


Primate paradise? ‘Tropic World’ at Brookfield Zoo, Chicago. Sam Ward, Author provided

In fact, most zoo animals, including Harambe the gorilla, have been born and bred in captivity. They have never experienced “the wild”, which many people assume is a wonderful and safe place, despite destruction of natural habitats for palm oil, threats from climate change or the increase in poaching.

The Conversation

Two ways capturing animals helps conserve them

Zoo conservation work can be “in-situ”, where money, expertise and sometimes staff are provided to protect animals and their habitats in the wild.

Large, charismatic animals such as pandas, tigers or elephants draw the crowds. These flagship species help to raise the profile and funds for in-situ conservation efforts for the not so well known species. For example, there aren’t many visitors who would be passionate about protecting frogs or other amphibians yet zoos have been instrumental in preventing the loss of a large part of the world’s frog fauna.

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