Are Zoos and Other Animal Attractions All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

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Recently, before a crowd of horrified zoo visitors, a lioness was killed by a male lion in the exhibit enclosure they’d shared for three years. Dallas Zoo veterinarians and animal behaviorists say they’re stumped.

Though it happens in the wild (albeit rarely) when females are sick or acting unusually, 5-year-old Johari was reportedly in good health and no behavioral abnormalities had been reported.

One day later, a Dama gazelle at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., suffered a fatal accident when he ran into a barrier inside his enclosure. Zoo officials explained that he was spooked when a Grevy’s zebra attacked a zookeeper in an adjacent enclosure.

The zookeeper was reportedly not authorized to be within the enclosure, but the chain of events was unclear. When the dust cleared, one animal was dead of a broken neck, the zookeeper had been mauled, and one angry zebra was said to be “upset” in the wake of the entire bewildering episode.

Zoos might be baffled by these two cases, but the reality is that aggression in captive animals ­­— toward humans, other animals, each other, or even toward themselves — is no stranger to the captive animal industry. Almost every species of marine mammal, primate, cat, wild dog or bear, for example, must be meticulously screened and carefully introduced to the community and captive environment, respectively.

Consequently, policies and procedures surrounding any kind of aggression tend to be scrupulously observed in zoo and animal park settings. After all, aggression in captive animals (and its attendant illness and mortality) has long been associated with the stress of confinement and other factors related to captivity.

Given an emerging awareness of the plight of captive animals in everything from Chinese circuses to swim-with-the-dolphins facilities, it makes sense that facilities offering animals as an attraction and source of funding — whether they’re for profit, not-for-profit, government-run, scientific institution-affiliated, good or bad — are starting to feel some heat from the general public.

Are Some Animals Just Not Right for Captivity?

Consider Blackfish, the popular documentary about captive Orcas released on DVD earlier this month. While Orcas can be extremely dangerous even in the wild, the documentary's exposure of aggression to humans and other Orcas in captivity portrays the challenges of keeping these creatures in any facility safely. 

A truncated lifespan and the dorsal fin collapse these animals experience offer some physical evidence that Orcas can be negatively impacted by captivity. But it’s the rapidly expanding body of research regarding the intense importance of social lives to wild marine mammals that reveals the most serious animal welfare issues inherent to captivity. Indeed, any kind of long-term confinement of these animals is likely to be untenable.

Which is arguably true for a great many species. After all, unless their habitats have been completely lost, the ideal place for any given animal is his natural home… not a zoo. There’s no argument there.

Still, among the many reasons these facilities offer for the animals' being there, the greater purpose appears to be education.

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