Science and Nature

Two elephants in captivity

Are Zoos Ethical?

Zoos, as you might imagine, have a considerable history. The first modern zoo was opened in Paris, France, in 1793. The early objective were entertainment and education, and those certainly remain true today. In more recent time, conservation has also become a primary objective. It is fair to ask, though, if zoos are ethical. Whether or not you view zoos as good or bad probably has quite a bit to do with the quality of zoos you are familiar with. There are undoubtedly some zoos and exhibits that offer animals a questionable quality of life. But on the whole, how do the pros and cons of zoos stack up?

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Pros of Zoos


Zoos are a terrific source of entertainment for people of all ages. Zoos provide many children with their first introduction to animals beyond domesticated pets, and unlike many other child-friendly excursions, the entertainment factor of zoos can last a lifetime. The San Diego Zoo, the largest zoo in the United States, welcomed more than 4.0 million visitors in 2018.


The educational and entertainment value of Animal Planet, National Geographic and other such programming (Meerkat Manor, anyone?), is legitimate, but there is a notable, visceral reaction to seeing animals in person. The smells, the unedited footage, the unfiltered sounds all contribute to an experience that video footage can’t replicate. Many zoos will also play an active role in education by holding information sessions and public feedings. But it’s not just zoo patrons who learn more about wildlife. Professionals working in and with zoos also have a great learning opportunity, which leads to the next pro:


The ability to study animals in a safe, controlled environment gives researchers a chance to learn about animal diets, reproductive habits, social tendencies, and indeed their full life cycle. This knowledge can help environmental scientists protect and manage animal populations in the wild.


The current extinction rate is shocking. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, dozens of species go extinct every day, and as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species could be heading toward extinction by the middle of the century. Zoos can provide a safe haven for vulnerable species by providing a controlled, stable environment with reproductive support. They can also draw attention to the plight of endangered species and increase support for conservation efforts in the wild. Granted, a vast majority of the species fighting extinction will never be considered candidates for zoo exhibits, but the benefit for those we do see is still real.

Cons of Zoos

Animal Dependency

While many animals are able to breed successfully in captivity, the offspring who grow up in the zoo environment never have the opportunity to learn the survival skills needed for life in the wild. As most will never be reintroduced to native habitats this is not always a big disadvantage, but it does change a fundamental part of the nature of the animal. It also means that captive breeding will also be limited as a strategy for reintroduction as a method of population growth.


Yes, this was listed as a pro as well, but the value of the education provided by zoos is debatable. Some people will argue that what they really teach children is that animals exist solely for our entertainment and that they belong in captivity. They may counter the argument that zoos teach children to be more empathetic toward animals by pointing out that children often have a natural empathy for animals whether they have seen them in person or not.


No matter how good a zoo is, it’s just not possible for a captive habitat to fully replicate the experience of an animal living in the wild. The zoo may indeed be safer and more stable in some instances. But those benefits come at the expense of a fully natural environment that supported the evolution of the animal in the first place. There are also ethical considerations of keeping animals in captivity, particularly when the enclosure is sub-par. At the very least, zoos subjugate animals to a position beneath the status they may enjoy in their native setting. We should ask ourselves if our ability to capture and display animals means that it is right to do so.


For some people, the fundamental concept of a zoo is unethical. The popularity of zoos shows us, though, that many more people are comfortable with the idea. This could be because they have not given it much though, or because they believe the pros outweigh the cons. Questions of ethics are rarely answered in concrete terms. With regard to zoos, the advantages of education and species protection are notable. It seems that zoos can be ethical if they uphold high standards.

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