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Reader Mailbag: Don’t We NEED Zoos?

October 2, 2014

In response to Humanity Vs The Planet, Philip just posed a very legitimate (though depressing) question:

Tim, why do you advocate against zoos and aquariums? Do you honestly believe that things are going to get better? 7.2 billion humans on Earth with all of our garage and oil spills, radiation, by catch. Where are the animals supposed to live? What will the planet be like when there is 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion humans? Where will the animals live? African elephants have reached a tipping point, more are killed by poachers than are being born. The Yangzte River dolphin is extinct, there are only 50 Maui’s Dolphins left. The list goes on.

That had the benefit of forcing me to organize my thinking about zoos and aquaria (at least a bit!). And here is how I responded:

I do not have absolute feelings about zoos and aquariums. I am against for-profit zoos and aquariums for sure. And worry that the idea that zoos and aquariums can somehow preserve or substitute for animals in the wild will only hasten the demise of animals in the wild. And a part of me wants to say that if we are so short-sighted and self-interested as to destroy the environments the animals need to survive in the wild we don’t really deserve to be able to enjoy them in zoos and aquaria. Plus, I do not believe that our pleasure at seeing an animal on display in captivity should outweigh any suffering that animal experiences by being in captivity. So, you are correct, I am not really a fan of zoos and aquaria.

But there is one context in which I can support the work of zoos and aquaria: and that is in the preservation of the genetics that would allow us to reintroduce or repopulate an extinct or threatened species if we ever did change enough about the way we treat the planet to restore the environment they need to thrive in the wild. That sort of Noah’s Ark strategy, as much as I hate that it has come to that, is hard to dismiss. But for me to accept that as a sufficient rationale for zoos and aquaria, the captivity and display model would have to change dramatically to better serve the interests of the animals, and serve less the interests and desire of curious humans seeking amusement.

This also continues a conversation started by Carl Zimmer in the comments section of a post about zoos and the passenger pigeon.

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