As children, the prospect of going to zoos and seeing exotic animals live and in the flesh was exciting. When coupled with exclusive tours, one-on-one interactions with animals, and a lot of souvenir shops, zoos were basically a Disneyland for animal lovers.

Though, as we grow older, the reality of zoos soon has become unsettling. What we used to think were happy and healthy animals eager to do tricks were unfortunately just the opposite. If you love to frequent zoos, it’s really important that you know what you’re supporting. Here’s what you need to know:

There’s no telling where zoo animals really come from

Back in the day, animals were plucked off of their natural habitats and sold to zoos to be bred in captivity, where they supposedly lived out the rest of their lives. This in itself poses a problem because most of the time, young animals are separated from their mothers (since baby animals are main attractions) and sold off.

This means that the animal grows up not being able to learn any of its natural behaviors and may even lose its instinct to survive.

Baboon roadside zoo in Ontario Canada 2008
Image by Jo-Anne McArthur / WeAnimals

Nowadays, zoos claim that most of their animals come from other zoos. It’s a mix of exchanging between establishments, confiscations from illegal exotic animal owners, and of course, their own breeding programs. When zoo animals reach maturity and zoos no longer have use for them, they are very rarely returned to the wild and most often euthanized.

Zoo habitats are almost never suitable for the animals living in them

They’re either too small, overcrowded, or just not well-maintained. This, paired with the lack of proper socialization and stimulation, can lead to severe stress, anxiety, and depression for the animals.

If you’ve seen a zoo animal swaying, pacing back and forth repetitively, bar-biting, and self-mutilating, they were most likely distressed. This behavior is known as  “zoochosis,” and you can see it in every zoo.

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A malnourished lion in a Nigerian zoo

While some zoos have good intentions, it’s true that is impossible to provide for all the animals’ needs with the given parameters. Many zoo animals are not only suffering from severe emotional and physical stress, but are also malnourished and injured. There are many cases of these neglected zoo animals around the world.

Captivity is not the answer

Many argue that the purpose of zoos is to educate the public about nature with the hopes of people developing empathy for such animals. But is visiting a zoo and giving money to a place where animals are clearly suffering really the right way?

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Arturo, a polar bear from a zoo in Argentina. He died in captivity in 2016.

Supporting captivity encourages captivity. Though it’s hard to turn away from the animals in a zoo, it’s best to visit sanctuaries or rehabilitation centers where the welfare of the animal is put above human entertainment.

In this way, you can to immerse yourself in wildlife while knowing that the establishment is built around the animals’ needs.

Zoos won’t be around forever, but for now, you can try and do your part by not partaking in an industry that takes advantage of animals. Remember to stay informed and spread the news to inform other people. The animals really, really need it.


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