Are zoos good or bad for animals?

Courtney Dunn
October 1, 2022

While it may seem like an easy answer for regular zoo go-ers, many are unaware of the work modern zoos do or how much has changed since the zoo visits of their childhood.

When was the last time you visited a zoo in person? For many, especially with the pandemic, your last visit may have been several years ago – or even longer. It has not been unusual to cross paths with someone who had not even visited in decades.

We ask this question because a lot has changed for zoos, sanctuaries, and aquariums over just the past few years but especially in the last few decades. Zoos have improved significantly from simply collections into champions for animal welfare and conservation. The form these changes take vary from better welfare programs to even direct conservation action in the field.

If we could summarize these changes into one short list, it would be as follows:

  • Where laws are lacking, accrediting bodies step in to ensure accountability.
  • Species survival plans focus on threatened species to ensure sustainable breeding populations.
  • Reputable zoos & aquariums apply best practices in animal welfare and promote advances in animal welfare science.
  • Conservation education programs enhance the public’s understanding of wildlife and the need to conserve wild places.
  • Sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers provide a needed home for unwanted, neglected, or rescued wildlife.
  • Field conservation efforts focus on the long-term survival of species in natural ecosystems and habitats.
  • Dedicated and passionate staff commit to lifelong learning for the animals under their care.

Interesting in learning more? Keep reading for detailed answers to some of the most common questions about zoos.

What type of zoos are out there?

While we will be referencing the word zoo throughout this blog, we want to make clear there are a variety of different animal facilities which may fall under this common name for people unfamiliar with their individual purposes. These animal facilities range in focus, purposes, missions, types of animals housed and more.

The main types of different animal facilities are:

  • Aquariums
  • Rehabilitation Centers
  • Safari Parks
  • Sanctuaries
  • Wildlife Rescues
  • Zoos

Zoos, aquariums, and safari parks are places where animals live under human care for conservation or educational purposes. Sanctuaries are places of refuge for unwanted, neglected, abused, injured or abandoned animals. There are several kinds of sanctuaries housing almost every species of animal. Rescue centers differ from this type of facility in that the animals here are typically kept on a temporary basis and then released back into the wild. This is similar to the purpose and mission of rehabilitation centers. These are not black-and-white rules, however. Zoos may also rescue or rehabilitate wild animals while sanctuaries may conduct conservation research.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center was recently a temporary home for two elephant seals – Teton and Poly. Both have sense fully recovered and have been released back to the wild.

What does it mean if a zoo is accredited?

Many areas, including in the United States and Canada, lack sufficient laws or bylaws to protect animals to the full extent. Because of this, many animals are mistreated at the hands of individuals and organizations. Accrediting bodies provide an additional step alongside existing governmental regulations. The accreditation process typically includes a detailed accreditation application, which is thoroughly reviewed, as well as multiple day on-site inspections by a team of experts.

Accreditation processes and labels vary depending on what type of animal facility it is and where in the world it is located. The largest and most well-known accrediting body for zoos and aquariums in North America is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The Zoo and Aquarium Association does similar for those in Australia and New Zealand. And, lastly, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums serves as a central location contact for all of the regional and national associations throughout the world.  This list is not the end-all-be-all of accrediting bodies, however. There are several more reputable organizations throughout the world. We encourage all readers to search out those located in your area of the world.

For the sanctuary world, similar accrediting bodies exist with the largest being the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. GFAS supports the betterment of any sanctuary, rescue center or rehabilitation center no matter the size, location, number for any wildlife, equine or farmed animal in their care.

Wali, a five month old Sumatran orangutan, and his mother Sekali resting in their habitat at the Toronto Zoo. Sumatran orangutans are a critically endangered species.

Where do zoo animals come from?

One of the biggest misconceptions is where do zoos get their animals from or why do zoos move animals so much. Most of the animals within zoos and aquariums come from the zoos themselves through dedicated breeding programs aka population management.

This breeding is often led by Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) who look at the sustainability and conservation needs of entire taxa (that is – specific categories of animals such as birds or cats) and develop recommendations for population management. These groups will also take into account the conservation needs of these species. These TAGs use this information to manage Species Survival Programs.

Led by expert advisors from a variety of backgrounds, Species Survival Programs, otherwise known as SSPs, are a collaborative effort to maximize genetic diversity, appropriately manage the demographic distribution of species, and commit to long-term sustainability of populations in zoos and aquariums. These programs will use studbooks to relay this information to zoos, aquariums, and their partners in order to make informed pairings between animals. Because of these recommendations, zoos and aquariums will move animals from place to place at the natural age they would separate from their mother to help encourage healthy breeding.

For sanctuaries and rescue centers, permanent residents come from a variety of different places – from rescues to abandonments. The largest reptile sanctuary in the United States, the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, serves as a surrender facility for reptiles people can no longer care for.

Charley and Lucy, American alligators, were confiscated as illegal pets in 2003. They now call the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary Home. Photo taken by community member FloratheFlamingo.

How do zoos ensure animal welfare?

Animal welfare is a term used to describe an individual animal’s collective mental, emotional, and physical states over a period of time. This is typically measured on a scale from good to poor. Good welfare comes when an animal is not only considered physically healthy but also comfortable, well-nourished, and safe. Some examples of what leads to good animal welfare is the ability to express species-typical behaviours and form species-typical relationships as well as use of their species’ cognitive abilities. Just like humans, a wild animal’s mental and emotional states can vary from day to day – so welfare typically looks at these states over time.

Accredited zoos, sanctuaries, and aquariums identify and apply best practices in animal welfare and through promoting advances in animal welfare science. This is accomplished through a multitude of initiatives from promoting a common understanding of animal welfare in the community to assisting zoos and aquariums in identifying and applying best practices in animal welfare.

Marta, Amur leopard at the Santa Barbara Zoo, sleeping on a ledge within her habitat.

What is animal enrichment?

One fundamental change between the zoos of today and the zoos of the past is naturalistic habitats. The term “cage” or “exhibit” is now considered outdated as zoos focused on providing naturalistic environments for their animals to flourish in. Such habitats allow animals to be grouped in species typical groups such as troops for gorillas or herds for antelope. You can often find habitats such as this feature less human centric features and more naturalistic ones such as logs to scratch on, pools to soak in, and sand to dig in.

These naturalistic habitats are further backed up by species appropriate enrichment. Enrichment aims to enhance animals’ environments by providing them with opportunities that stimulate their natural behaviours. There are five main categories of enrichment which each focus on a different need. These categories are:

  • Sensory
  • Environmental
  • Forage/Feeding
  • Occupational
  • Play

You can read more about what each of these categories represent through two of our partners – the Toronto Zoo and the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.

Creating and implementing enrichment first starts with keeper staff looking at the natural history of an animal, for example, what natural behaviours are trying to be encouraged. An example of this in action is creating a puzzle box with ants at the end for a giant anteater to lap up. Providing opportunities for animals to use their natural instincts is just as important to their welfare as good nutrition and medical care.

Enrichment can come in many forms – even something as simple as a nest made of paper shavings for digging and play. Photo taken of the Orana Wildlife Park’s meerkats by community member HungryHippo38107.

How do zoos maintain animal health and nutrition?

When it comes to medical care, you may be surprised to hear that many zoos, sanctuaries, and aquariums feature full-scale veterinary hospitals. These veterinary hospitals are composed of clinicians, pathologists, technicians, and even specialized hospital zookeepers who all work together to maintain a zoo’s preventative health program. This means animals are able to get regular examinations, parasite screenings, and even regular vaccinations. You can read more about the Toronto Zoo’s efforts to vaccinate animals for COVID-19 here. For those without full-scale hospitals, contract veterinarians and hospitals provide the needed care.

If the fact some of these places have full veterinary hospitals, you will probably be equally surprised to hear they also have nutrition centers. Providing an animal their daily diet is more than creating a species appropriate diet. It also includes performing research that helps zookeepers make science-based nutrition decisions.

Just as medical practices help us live longer, veterinary care and nutrition as well as the advancements these fields provided by research studies have helped to lengthen the lifespan of animals under human care. Many animals now receive special diets and supplements. They may even receive physical therapy or chemotherapy if they get sick. It is these practices which have led to many zoo animals living far longer than they would in the wild.

A California sea lion resting at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Photo taken by community member GamerGal1992.

How do zoos educate the public about conservation issues?

Zoos contribute to conservation in more ways than one. Sometimes this takes the form of conservation education. Conservation education programs enhance the public’s understanding of wildlife and the need to conserve the places animals live. For AZA accredited zoos and aquariums, 180 million visitors including 51 million students learn about conservation issues through their programs. In the last ten years, these same institutions have also trained more than 400,000 teachers in how to teach students about environmental problems.

Our partners have a wide range of educational programs they offer for a variety of ages. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center focuses extensively on marine science and conservation as well as the impacts humans have on marine mammals. The center regularly hosts Camp Pinniped, a week-long program for kids, which investigates marine science through interactive activities and STEM oriented topics. Orana Wildlife Park focuses on motivating young people to discover how they can play a part in protecting local species.

The expert talks featured on Zoolife also fall into this category. With several talks happening daily, there is never a shortage of opportunities to not only engage with the staff from our partners but also learn more about the species they are working to protect. You can view our talk schedule and set reminders to tune in here.

In addition to direct conservation education programs, zoos and aquariums have moved away from grouping habitat’s together by animal type and focused more on biogeography. This type of exhibit planning showcases the species that would naturally be found in and around the same habitat types or regions of the world.

Kiwi conservation is of major importance at Orana Wildlife Park and the brown kiwi is bred here. Photo taken by community member RandomRabbit6703.

How do zoos help endangered species?

Zoos help endangered species in a variety of ways including reintroduction programs and rescue efforts.

Reintroduction programs are where animals raised or rehabilitated in a zoo or aquarium are released back into their natural habitats in order to stabilize, reestablish, or increase their wild populations. Some examples of  endangered species brought back from the brink due to such efforts include Przewalski’s horse, black-footed ferrets, golden lion tamarins, and Oregon spotted frogs. Perhaps one of the most famous reintroduction efforts is that of the California condor.

The California condor was the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1967. In 1982, only 22 California condors remained in the wild after agricultural chemicals (DDT), poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction decimated their population. These remaining birds were taken under the wing of zoos. Thanks to intense conservation breeding and management overseen by the California Condor SSP there are more than 400 condors in the world. The Santa Barbara Zoo’s condors are still part of the recovery program and wear wing tags that identify them as individuals.

The Santa Barbara Zoo’s condors are part of the species’ recovery program. Photo taken by community member Tealeaffe.

As made clear with the above story, reintroduction programs do not always involve far away species – more often than not zoos significantly help species local to them. The Toronto Zoo has been an important player in the reintroduction of Blanding’s turtles into the wetlands of Rouge National Urban Park. Orana Wildlife Park contributes to recovery programs for kiwi, Maud Island frogs, and numerous species of birds. The park grounds are also a safe breeding habitat and connecting wildlife corridor for over twenty native species such as korimako (bellbird).

Rescue efforts come in a variety of forms as well. As the first marine mammal rehabilitation facility in California, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center rescues marine mammals suffering from a variety of causes. These animals are rehabilitated and eventually, if deemed suitable, released back into the wild. The Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary participates in rattlesnake rescue and removal efforts. These efforts help teach the public how to coexist with wildlife – even ones they may be scared of.

What types of scientific research is conducted at zoos?

Zoos and aquariums participate in and support conservation projects that take place in the wild which lead to species recovery, relate veterinary care to wildlife disease issues, help manage populations, and more. Put simply – zoos save animals and habitats. In 2020, just within the AZA world alone, zoos and aquariums reported spending approximately $208.8 million on conservation efforts impacting more than 900 species in 115 countries.

Conservation research is not the only type of research conducted at zoos, however. Research projects look into a variety of topics from veterinary medicine to nutritional studies and even educational impacts.

Some research projects don’t even involve just scientists either. Citizen science programs have become more popular over the years, allowing members of the public to not only learn about native species but be involved in their direct conservation.

With over 90 years of experience working alongside koalas, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is dedicated to continuing work in the field of koala research, as well as across a variety of other wildlife species. Photo taken by community member Tealaffee.

Why should you support zoos?

By supporting reputable zoos and aquariums, you are helping these organizations continue the work they do to advance animal welfare, provide excellent animal care, and conserve wild places. Reputable organizations work tirelessly everyday to improve the care of animals who call their places home as well as that of their wild relatives. Staff at all levels, including zookeepers, never stop learning – with professional development being undertaken at all levels. Conferences, workshops, and webinars help these facilities identify and apply best practices across organizations.

Put simply – the zoo and aquarium world is always growing and improving. It’s a bright future for animals.

Want to help support Zoolife’s partners and learn about animal care & conservation from the comfort of your own home? Visit Zoolife today to support them through a Zoolife subscription!