Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media
A very sad looking gorilla at a zoo in Germany.

Are zoos ethical? 4 things we need to stop telling ourselves

Are zoos really educational? Do zoos focus on conservation? And are the animals in zoos happy? Read on to find out whether zoos are ethical.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated February 22, 2024

Since the eye-opening documentary ‘Blackfish’ hit screens, the world has woken up to the cruelty of keeping marine animals, like Tilikum, confined to tanks. But what about other animals in captivity?

We hear a lot of things to justify keeping animals in zoos. But are these justifications based on fact, or are they simply what zoos would have us believe? Here are 4 things we hear about animals in zoos, and why we should think twice about them.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

An Owl sitting in its cage in the zoo
Owls are typically solitary animals who prefer to hunt and explore at night. The majority of owl species are not endangered in the wild.

MYTH 1: Zoos exist for conservation not profit

Whilst some zoos may contribute in small ways to conservation projects, the vast majority of animals in zoos are not on the endangered species list, and the ones who are will likely never be rehabilitated to their natural habitat.

Former zoo director David Hancocks estimates that less than 3% of a zoo’s budget goes to conservation, while the majority goes towards “hi-tech exhibits and marketing efforts to lure visitors.”

The truth is that most zoos exist primarily for profit. One of the biggest draw cards for zoos is baby animals. Babies will often be bred even when there isn’t enough room to keep them, inevitably resulting in “surplus” animals in zoos. Surplus management strategies are one of the best-kept secrets of modern zoos.

In 2014, the world reacted with shock and outrage when a healthy 2-year-old giraffe named Marius was killed and cut up in front of spectators at Copenhagen Zoo. His body was then fed to the lions.

In response to widespread criticism, Copenhagen Zoo’s Scientific Director Bengt Holst defended the decision, saying that the zoo had a surplus of giraffes and that this is something that’s “done every day”, just not in the public eye. Just a short time later, Copenhagen Zoo was in the news again for killing four healthy lions to make room for a new male lion they wanted to breed. The relevant zoo standards in Australia would allow a similar judgement to be made about ‘surplus animals’ in zoos here, but these ‘management’ decisions are rarely made public.

Zoos also routinely trade and relocate animals who they deem to have outlived profitability or who no longer fit into breeding schemes. Trading animals with other zoos can be extremely stressful for the animals who are relocated, as they leave behind social bonds and surroundings they have grown accustomed to.

Just like SeaWorlds and other marine parks, for zoos, the interests of animals usually come second to attracting visitors and making money.

FACT: Most zoos exist for profit.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A women and a child waving hands to a jaguar who is pawing at the glass of their enclosure at a zoo.
A jaguar paws at the glass of the enclosure at a zoo in France – being confined and watched by spectators is far from natural for big cats – and most other animals.
Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media

MYTH 2: Zoos are the best way to learn about animals

A zoo can teach you a lot about how animals behave in captivity but will teach very little about the behaviour of animals in the wild. Even though most modern zoos make efforts to offer animals a more natural environment, most captive animals in zoos are unable to live in a way that they would naturally, and some may even be on medication to alter their behaviour. (See point 4.)

Perhaps those who visit zoos recognise this. A study of visitor behaviour at four zoos in the USA found that only 6% of visitors said they go to a zoo to learn more about animals, while 86% of visitors said they went to the zoo for “social or recreational purposes”.

In the early days of zoo popularity, television was far from everyday reality for people. Today, with enlightening and informative nature documentaries, interactive online educational tools, and legitimate animal sanctuaries, we have the opportunity to learn about animals by viewing many of them in their natural habitat.

“Learning” about animals by keeping them locked up is not only ineffective, but it is also obsolete. Click here for a list of 10 amazing places to see animals in the wild and here for must-watch docos.

FACT: The best way to learn about animals is in their natural habitat, online or by watching a nature documentary.

Much to their (zoo's) embarrassment, death is a constitutive part of life, something they produce not only accidentally – but at the very core of their functioning.
Dr Matthew Chrulew, Curtin University academic and zoo expert

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Two giraffes standing in the zoo and in the background there is city skyline
Giraffes at Taronga zoo look out over Sydney city, instead of the savanna. The common giraffe (and most subspecies) are not endangered in the wild.

MYTH 3: Zoos are a ‘normal’ part of society

There is nothing natural about a penguin, giraffe or elephant living in the middle of a city. We’ve come to accept this as part of normal society, and when things go wrong we’re reminded that a city zoo is no place for an animal.

In 2015, a flood in Georgia destroyed enclosures at the Tbilisi Zoo and saw dozens of captive animals accidentally freed onto the streets, including lions, bears, wolves and a hippo – this freedom was short lived…

“Some 20 wolves, eight lions, white tigers, tigers, jackals, jaguars have either been shot dead by special forces or are missing.” – Mzia Sharashidze, Tbilisi Zoo spokeswoman.

If we look back in history we see that keeping animals in captivity has left a trail of disasters

  • 2022 A Swedish zoo ordered three chimpanzees that escaped to be shot and killed, claiming ‘there was not enough tranquiliser to subdue all of them’.
  • 2022 Animals trapped in zoos in Ukraine during the war are unable to be evacuated and dying. Animals in zoos already suffer psychological distress, and the terror of war only exacerbates it.
  • 2022 A snow leopard named Rilu died at a United States zoo after contracting COVID-19.
  • 2018: The lions at London Zoo are so inbred that 2 out of 3 lion cubs born are dying.
  • 2018: A Eurasian lynx named Lilith escaped Borth Wild Animal Kingdom in Wales and was shot dead by order of the local authority. A second lynx, Nilly, died the week earlier when she was asphyxiated by the catch pole during handling.
  • 2017: A white rhino named Vince was shot dead, and his horns hacked off by intruders at Thoiry Zoo near Paris.
  • 2017: Government inspectors found that nearly 500 animals had died in less than 4 years at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, UK. The inspectors cited “overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, lack of suitable animal husbandry and a lack of any sort of developed veterinary care” as welfare concerns and recommended that the zoo’s license renewal be refused.
  • 2016: A 17-year-old gorilla named Harambe was shot dead at Cincinnati Zoo when a young boy climbed into the enclosure. Opinions are divided as to whether the boy was in any danger from Harambe before he was killed by zookeepers.
  • 2015: A female gorilla named Julia, who had lived at Melbourne Zoo for 20 years, was attacked and killed by a younger male gorilla named Otana, who had been transferred to the zoo from the UK.
  • 2015: Keepers at Duisburg Zoo in Germany shot dead a male orangutan who tried to escape, saying that a sedative would have taken too long to take effect.
  • 2015: Dozens of animals — including lions, tigers, monkeys and crocodiles — died from hunger or thirst at the Khan Younis Zoo in the Gaza Strip when they were left without care during the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.
  • 2012: A polar bear in Buenos Aires Zoo overheated and died. (Another heat-stressed and depressed polar bear named Arturo remained held at an Argentinian zoo and, despite public pressure, the zoo Director refused to have him relocated.)
  • 2008: A leaked memo revealed that a zookeeper at Melbourne Zoo had stabbed an elephant, Dokkoon, more than a dozen times with a sharp metal spike. The same memo exposed that a male gorilla, Rigo, had been kept in isolation for 16 years, and four seals suffered partial blindness from the chlorine in the tiny pool they were kept in for up to three years while a $20 million dollar enclosure was built.
  • 2004: A 13-year-old male gorilla, Jabari, escaped from Dallas Zoo and was shot and killed by police.
  • 2002: Flooding enclosures in Prague Zoo led to an elephant and hippopotamus being euthanised to ‘save’ them from drowning.
  • 2000: An 18-year-old sloth bear named Medusa died of dehydration when Toledo Zoo officials locked her in a den to hibernate, not knowing that her species does not hibernate.

The COVID-19 global pandemic was also tragic for animals kept captive in zoos and aquariums. Without ticket sales, maintaining these captive animals became economically unviable or impossible in some cases, with some even slaughtered to feed others — a tragic extension of usual “surplus management” euthanasia practices discussed below. And for those who did survive the pandemic, sadly, they’ll spend every day of the rest of their lives in “lockdown”.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

An orangutan looking through the bars of a zoo enclosure with a heartbreaking, sad expression.
We share 97% of our genome with orangutans – still, these sensitive, social animals are kept behind bars for the sake of 'entertainment'.
Image credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media

We have been born into a society that accepts animals in zoos as commonplace, but the invention of the zoo dates back thousands of years – to an era when even people who ‘looked different’ were also put on display. We now have unlimited options for kinder entertainment, and not to mention a greater understanding of compassion, animal sentience, and the importance of freedom and autonomy. In today’s society, ogling at animals in zoos behind glass seems crudely outdated. Certainly, it’s unnecessary and rarely (if ever) in the animals’ best interests.

Costa Rica has recognised this and, in 2013, declared that it would be closing all its zoos and releasing the animals who are able to be rehabilitated into the wild. (The others would be cared for in sanctuaries or live out their lives in nature parks.) Which will be the next country to make this compassionate decision?

FACT: There is nothing “normal” about animals in zoos. Wild animals belong in the wild, not captive in cities.

The only creature on earth whose natural habitat is a zoo is the zookeeper."
Robert Brault, Author

MYTH 4: Animals in zoos are happy & don’t have mental health issues

Animals in captivity across the globe have been documented displaying signs of anxiety and depression. In fact, psychological distress in animals kept in zoos is so common that it has its own name: Zoochosis.

Zoochosis can include rocking, swaying, excessively pacing back and forth, circling, twisting of the neck, self-mutilation, excessive grooming, biting, vomiting and coprophagia (consuming excrement).

These traits are largely uncommon amongst healthy and happy animals in the wild. When kept in captivity, animals are deprived of the ability to express their natural desires, and the effect this can often have on their mental and emotional health is tragically clear in the form of zoochosis. Such behaviour, when exhibited by confined or disturbed animals in other situations, is often referred to as ‘stereotypic behaviour’ and is recognised by scientists as a clear indicator of severe animal welfare issues.

What’s even sadder, is that to counter these problems, zoos internationally have been known to give drugs to affected animals. In her book Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman says that the practice of putting animals on anti-depressants is surprisingly common. “At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a psychopharmaceutical had been tried.”

One case Braitman shares is of a polar bear named Gus who lived at Central Park Zoo. Gus began compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool – for up to 12 hours per day. An animal psychologist determined that Gus was bored. And not surprisingly, given that his enclosure was less than 0.00009% of what his range in the Arctic would be.

Despite being born in captivity, he would still have felt predatory impulses. In fact, when he was first moved to the zoo, he would entertain himself by ‘stalking’ small children. But the zoo did not want children getting frightened, so they built a barrier to stop this. Gus was given thousands of dollars worth of behavioural therapy, the nickname “bipolar bear“, and doses of Prozac. His compulsive swimming eased off but never really went away. Gus died in captivity in 2013 at age 27.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A polar bear in the zoo submerged in the water
Gus peers through the glass wall of his tiny, unnatural enclosure. In the wild, he would have travelled thousands of kilometres per year, walking and swimming large distances. Photo: Johnia/Flickr
Image credit: Johnia/Flickr

Similarly, it has been revealed that SeaWorld (USA) trainers give psychoactive drugs and anti-depressants to some of the marine animals held captive there. Since the ‘Blackfish’ documentary exposed the truth about keeping highly active and social animals like orcas in captivity, SeaWorld has seen a significant decline in attendance. Society is recognising that there’s nothing fun about sad animals.

FACT: Living in captivity has been found to lead some animals to neurosis and depression.

You can help spare animals from captivity

Humans have a great capacity for kindness towards our fellow species. When we see an animal suffer, we jump to their aid, (just like the awesome humans in this video did).

We have the choice to show our respect for animals by simply letting them live a natural life, rather than contributing to an institution that breeds them for a life in captivity, and keeps them on display in unnatural enclosures, all for profit. You can make a difference in the lives of animals in zoos by choosing animal-friendly alternatives to zoos, such as:

NOTE: We acknowledge that every organisation has different animal welfare policies; this article is intended to inform the public about zoo practices that exist and the common issues animals in captivity experience. We hope that it will encourage people to ask questions and to seek out organisations that align with their own values about the treatment of animals.