It wasn’t that long ago when Harambe, a gorilla, was shot and killed after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo—giving rise to a particularly dark meme in recent history. It’s incidents like these, and problems of overcrowding, that have called into question the general treatment and welfare of zoo animals everywhere.
Last week, the Points Guy shared how readers can find ethical zoos with suggestions that include finding reputable sanctuaries, accredited by international organisations. But when it comes to animals in captivity, often in confined spaces, we’re still faced with the question: Do ethical zoos even exist?
It’s a complicated issue and there are plenty of reasons to reconsider your next visit to a zoo, whether you support them or not. Here are a few reasons why you might want to make the extra effort to visit a reputable zoo or visit a wildlife animal sanctuary instead.
Many zoos pose possible health and psychological problems for animals
In an effort to maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding in zoo settings, most zoos use one of two methods: contraception or 'management euthanasia'.
In the instance of contraception, birth control may be used or hormones will be added to food. As Fast Company’s Brian Kateman writes, however, there are serious medical risks associated with the use of contraception among animals.
Some large cats given hormonal implants may develop tumours; elephants on birth control may have trouble restarting their reproductive cycles once they come off it.
Other zoos resort to euthanasia as a means of removing 'unneeded' offspring; Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark euthanizes some of its animals, for example.
The practice of keeping animals in confined spaces isn’t great for their well-being, either. “If you’ve ever visited a zoo, you may have noticed the way some animals—especially wild cats—tend to pace back and forth inside their cages,” Fast Company’s Kateman writes.
“According to zoologists, it’s thought that this repetitive behaviour (known as “stereotypes”) represents an attempt to cope with unstimulating or small enclosures.”
Mental health problems caused by confined or small enclosures is a growing area of study, with some researchers suggesting symptoms of depression and phobias in at least a few captive animals.
How to find a more ethical zoo
If you’re planning your next zoo visit, however, there is an accrediting organisation that can better ensure you’re visiting a more ethical setting.
The non-profit Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredits organisations based on animal welfare and conservation. Currently, there are 236 accredited aquariums and zoos from around the world.
According to a spokesperson for the association, AZA members donate millions to conservation efforts, too. “When you visit an AZA-accredited facility, your visit does make a difference,” they said via email. You can view this list and find a local zoo using AZA’s website.
Visit an accredited sanctuary
If you want to avoid zoos altogether, animal sanctuaries are another option. As National Geographic writes, wildlife sanctuaries take in abused, neglected or abandoned animals and are given more space; sanctuaries also do not breed animals.
“We strongly encourage people to visit sanctuaries rather than zoos, because sanctuaries do not have a for-profit model, whereas zoos do,” a spokesperson for Catskill Animal Sanctuary said on email. “For sanctuaries, the primary goal is to help animals, not generate a profit.”
Still, the label “sanctuary” can easily be abused. To find an ethical one, you should take a look at photos on social media; suitable sanctuaries should try to replicate animal’s environments and provide them with enough space and physical stimulation (like fields to grade or ponds to swim in).
And stay away from sanctuaries that allow you to make physical contact with animals, like adult petting zoos; generally, this is a good indicator the place isn’t as reputable.
At places like Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, one such accredited organisation in High Falls, New York, you can feed farm animals on its 150-acre property.
To find a reputable sanctuary, visit the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ website, which similarly accredits these groups based on their treatment of animals, like a given sanctuaries policies on tours, animal acquisition, and breeding.
You can visit sanctuaries like these and know that the animals are taken care, as best as possible.