"Zoos: Educators or Enslavers" by Jasmine Piñon
Imagine living life out in the wild, free to explore your natural habitat and enjoy life as you please. Now imagine being ripped from your home, family and everything you once knew just to be placed in an enclosed space where you are gawked at all day long for the entertainment of others. For thousands of wildlife species across the world, this is unfortunately a reality. Every year, at least 10% of the world’s population visits zoos and aquariums. That is around 700 million people who are contributing to the deteriorating physical and mental status of animals in captivity as they continue to fund and therefore, keep zoos and aquariums in business. According to an article published by the Leviathan Project, a Christian Animal Protection Project, “over 75% of primates held in captivity die within the first 20 months; many times due to depression and psychological problems” (Mental Health). Not only are animals in captivity suffering mentally, they are also suffering physically whether that be through self mutilation or violence inflicted by other animals. While there are some benefits to animals living in artificial settings such as conservation and the ability to educate the public, the overall harm being done to animals as they deal with the false pretenses of such education and conservation efforts as well as having to endure zoochosis and being forced into artificial families contributes to the deteriorating status of animals in captivity and calls into question whether modern zoos are more harmful than beneficial.
Often society portrays zoos as necessary because they are an innovative way to educate the public of various species as well as provide rehabilitation and conservation services. There is a plethora of species that would not be here if it weren’t for humanities efforts to bring in species on the brink of extinction and breed them before rehabilitating them and releasing them back into the wild. So many species are now thriving thanks to efforts like these. One notable species that was brought back from the brink of extinction was the humpback whale. An article written by Melissa Breyer, an editorial director and author for Treehugger stated, “Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been hunted to the brink of extinction; some populations dwindled to less than 10 percent of their original population before a hunting moratorium was introduced in 1966” (Breyer). The author continues to discuss the revival of the humpback whale species as she writes, “Despite their dire past, some humpback whale populations have recovered as much as 90 percent” (Breyer).
While having species come off of the list of endangered species is surely a positive, zoos don’t play nearly as big of a role in conservation as society likes to make it seem. In fact, a majority of modern zoos are not fulfilling the conservation and rehabilitation role at all. A National Geographic article on some of the criticism surrounding zoos stated, “David Hancocks, a former zoo director with 30 years’ experience, estimates that less than 3 percent of the budgets of these 212 accredited zoos go toward conservation efforts” (Fravel). The few zoos that do happen to be involved in conservation aren’t contributing nearly as much as the public has been conditioned to think. An article on statistics regarding animals in captivity included, “a minority of animals kept in zoos are threatened (just about 18% of captive animals are endangered)” (Isakov). Interestingly enough the article went on to say that endangered species are not meant to be bred and that it is the wrong way to go about saving an endangered species (Isakov). One of the biggest reasons people view zoos as valuable and necessary for society is because they allow for so many species to be brought back from the brink of extinction but these two facts challenge this in questioning how effective zoos really are at conserving species.
“Zoochosis” is a term that was recently coined to describe the stereotypical behavior of animals in captivity. The name is a combination of “zoo” and “psychosis” which is a “relatively common mental disorder that often occurs as a result of psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia” (Overview - Psychosis). Nearly 80% of animals in captivity have been affected by zoochosis in one way or another (Warda). As the percentage of animals who exhibit behaviors aligning with signs of psychosis continues to increase, the need to recognize the immorality of zoos and other artificial settings that keep animals in captivity becomes even greater. Animals in captivity are exhibiting behaviors that they would never be seen exhibiting out in the wild. Repetitive pacing, swaying, excessive grooming and head-bobbing are just some of the unusual behaviors animals are exhibiting. Animals held in captivity live lives of extreme sensory deprivation and are in no way content with the lives they have been forced to live. Self mutilation, vomiting, coprophagia (the consumption of excrement) are obvious signs of distress that have not been discussed nearly as much as it should be (Garlow). Society has failed animals time and time again, even failing to provide animals with any sort of humane treatment and in taking all of this into consideration, it’s no mystery as to why so many animals in captivity are driven to and suffer from psychotic breaks.
One issue that is surprisingly not common knowledge to the public is the fact that many animals in captivity are forced into artificial families. It’s an incredible marketing strategy for zoos and aquariums to market animals as “family” to attract more tourists and customers. One example of this is any of the killer whales from SeaWorld. One thing to note about killer whales and their pods is they under no circumstances leave their pods. Killer whales are very family oriented and when put in unfamiliar pods, violence is sure to occur and in many cases at SeaWorld, it surely did. In 2013 a documentary entitled Blackfish was released which included many different stories on killer whales who were forced into new pods with each other and acted violently towards one another. In one case, an orca named Kandu was fatally injured after deliberately ramming another orca by the name of Orky. In her attempt to injure Orky, Kandu broke her jaw and bled to death leaving her one old calf Orkid to be raised by the same orca she died attempting to hurt (Batt). An article discussing orcas in captivity wrote, “captive orcas also display aggression towards each other, as well as self-destructive behavior” (Orcas in Captivity). This is completely opposite of what goes on in the wild with whales from different pods, a BBC Earth news article included that, “when meeting killer whales from other family pods, they made contact with each other, swam in synchrony, and rubbed flippers much more often” (Bourton). Clearly in the wild, there is little to no animosity between different killer whale pods but in captivity you have whales who are forced together in small enclosures who often do not speak the same language and therefore cannot communicate with one another, creating a level of aggression that usually never occurs.
All in all, animals were not put on this planet to solely act as entertainment for humanity, they are living creatures with lives of their own and it’s incredibly inhumane for humanity to continue to take advantage of such highly intelligent creatures. Animals don’t want to entertain humans, they don’t want to be separated from their families, nor do they want to die and be put in unbearable conditions for another few centuries. It’s incredibly important to recognize the harm that animals are undergoing as zoos, aquariums and other artificial settings continue to remain open. Animals in captivity are dealing with debilitating mental illnesses and physical torment each day and continuing to ignore the fact that zoos remain open for society’s own guilty pleasure and not for the sake of saving animals, is continuing the cycle of mistreatment and undermining the work that animal rights activists have worked ages for. Considering the factors that contribute to the deterioration of animals in captivity, zoos will never be as beneficial as society once believed to be.
Batt, Elizabeth. “How Seaworld Turned Orkid into a Troubled, Violent Orca and What Will Happen If She's Forced to Perform Again.” The Dodo,
Bourton, Jody. “Earth News - Killer Whales Visit 'Social Clubs'.” BBC, BBC, 12 Aug. 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8188000/8188071.stm.
Breyer, Melissa. “9 Iconic Animals Brought Back from the Brink.” Treehugger, Treehugger, 22 Mar. 2021, https://www.treehugger.com/iconic-animals-recovering-4855579.
Fravel, Laura. “Critics Question Zoos' Commitment to Conservation.” Animals, National Geographic, 4 May 2021,
Garlow, Ariel. “Zoochosis and the Many Ways We Have Failed Zoo Animals.” One Green Planet, One Green Planet, 17 Dec. 2020,
Isakov, Filip. “19 Heartbreaking Animals in Captivity Statistics.” Petpedia, 12 Feb. 2021, https://petpedia.co/animals-in-captivity-statistics/.
“Mental Health of the Animals.” Leviathan, https://www.leviathanproject.us/zoos-2.
“Orcas in Captivity.” Dolphin Project, 12 Nov. 2021,
“Overview - Psychosis.” NHS -, PsNHS, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/psychosis/.
Warda, Gracie. “Opinion: Zoos Are Detrimental to Animal's Health: Fenton Inprint Online.” Fenton InPrint Online | The Student News Site of Fenton High School, 22 Nov. 2019, https://fentoninprint.com/15878/opinion/zoos-are-detrimental-to-animals-health/.
Jasmine Piñon is a 17 year old Senior at Empire High School in Tucson, Arizona. She is currently a part of an Early College Program where she is working to finish her Freshman year of college prior to enrolling at the University of Arizona where she plans on double majoring in Biochemistry and Business as well as minoring in Marine Science.