One of the great defenses of zoos is that they provide invaluable education and information about their animals to visitors.
Zoos also claim that being able to see exotic and endangered animals inspires visitors to want to preserve the species in their natural habitat.
The question is, are these statements actually true?
To the credit of zoos, they have come a long way with their efforts to educate visitors. A hundred years ago, zoo animals were kept in tiny, crude cages with little to no effort made to educate visitors.
Most zoos today have attempted to recreate at least some aspects of an animal’s natural environment; to give visitors a better idea of where the animal comes from. Educational signs, interactive displays, and educational staff are employed.
When guests leave a zoo, the hope is that they will leave with a greater understanding and respect for the animals.
Education and Inspiration
Despite these efforts, very few visitors go to zoos with the desire to be educated. It is more of a spectators sport than an educational experience.
People want to see the baby animals because they do cute things, or maybe catch an animal doing something funny or amusing.
In 1991, The Washington Post published an article about a study by curator Dale Marcellini of The National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Over 5 summers, he followed 7,000 guests and concluded that “it didn’t matter what was on display … people [were] treating the exhibits like wallpaper.”
He recommended that “officials should stop kidding themselves about the tremendous educational value of showing an animal behind a glass wall.”
Visiting the zoo also has deep roots in tradition and culture.
It’s where your parents took you when you were a kid, so it’s where you will take your kids. You want to see your child react to and observe the same animals, in the same zoo that you grew up visiting.
Particularly for Christians, zoos offer a (seemingly) wholesome family experience.
It is surprising to see how many babies and very small children are taken to zoos.
Children are unable to form memories before the age of 3, some not until the age of 6. If a child is at an age where it will not remember what it has seen, a visit to a park or playground would be just as pleasurable of an experience.
Do the older children and adults that do remember their zoo experience become inspired to get involved in preservation and conservation?
The argument is that no one would ever care about or want to protect an animal they have never seen. Many children are obsessed with dinosaurs yet no child has ever seen one.
Scientists believe that we are at the beginning of a mass extinction of species.
It is estimated that animals are currently going extinct 100 to 1,000 times (possibly even up to 10,000 times) faster than the normal background extinction rate, which is about 10 to 25 species per year.
In other words, natural populations of animals are not able to replenish faster than they are being destroyed.
Major causes include: human overpopulation, habitat destruction, pollution, over-hunting, and overfishing.
Some species of animals that are kept in zoos are on the red list of critically endangered animals; proof that witnessing these animals in person is simply not enough to inspire people to want to save them.