It has become apparent to me lately that a growing number of people seem to be in favor of no longer keeping animals in zoos or aquariums and instead releasing those that are currently in captivity into the wild. Perhaps this is due to such films as Blackfish (which, according to at least one of the former Sea World trainers that they interviewed, portrayed the opinions of the trainers inaccurately), or due to a greater awareness of the decreasing population of animals in their natural settings. Whatever the cause, there are several very good reasons as to why shutting down zoos and aquariums and releasing these animals into the wild is an extraordinarily bad idea. As a biologist, I feel it is my duty to inform people of at least a few of these reasons so that they will, at least I hope, turn aside from this folly.
Born and Raised in Captivity
Just the other day, I happened to run across an image on The Meta Picture that I had clicked on because I saw a beautiful white wolf and was curious to see what the caption on the image said.
It turned out to be a screenshot of a Youtube video that showed two women presumably doing an educational program with the wolf as the object of the program. I was surprised and quite displeased to see that a caption from the comments section below the video had been edited in over the bottom of the screenshot that read – and please, pardon the fact that I had to edit the language – “eat them dumb b*****s and escape you majestic creature of the wild.” The utter lack of knowledge that the comment implied dumbfounded me. Of course these ladies had not kidnapped this wolf as a pup from a wild pack and raised it to be a show animal for children, yet that seemed to be exactly the situation that the commenter was implying had happened.
This seems to be a fundamentally incorrect but very prevalent idea among people. Somehow, just because the majority of these animals live in the wild, that means that all of them must be “wild” creatures. However, the majority of the animals that are currently in captivity have never seen or experienced “the wild” in any way. It is true that zoos used to take animals from the wild for their exhibits, but this is an extremely rare practice today, and most of the animals currently on display were born and raised in captivity from parents who were also born and raised in captivity.
Animals Need Survival Training
The first and perhaps most important point to make is the fact that releasing animals such as these into the wild is potentially more “cruel” than keeping them in a zoo. To give a more human example of how this would be the case, we do not simply throw a person into the collegiate system without ever having given them prior training in school. Imagine what would happen to the poor individual who had to suddenly start attending an ivy-league college but who had absolutely no prior scholarly training. They would have no idea what would be expected of them, would fail miserably at their classes, and would be kicked out of college.
This is essentially what happens when animals who have never had to survive in the wild are suddenly placed in a situation where they have to be completely independent. They will either have to learn to quickly survive (a rare occasion that usually only happens after they’ve undergone intense “training” for survival in the wild from professional release organizations), or they are quickly picked off by those animals who have been in this environment all their lives. Therefore, it is unwise to release captive animals into the wild.
Home Away from Home
The other idea that many people seem to hold is the fact that zoos somehow exploit their animals. While this may have been true of zoos in the past before animals truly began to be appreciated as majestic creatures rather than circus acts, zoos of today rarely do anything that remotely exploits their animals. They are given exhibits that are designed specifically with their comfort in mind, enrichment activities to keep their wild instincts as intact as possible, and diets that mimic as closely as possible their diets in the wild.
Many would argue that venues such as Sea World do still exploit their animals as nothing more than circus acts, but organizations such as Sea World have contributed more to breeding and research of aquatic species than many other organizations combined. The same can be said of zoos with regard to terrestrial animals. Part of the way they fund these programs is showing off the animals through performances. And, to make up for the fact that the animals do shows, they are treated extremely well.
Occasions in which the animals are treated badly generally occur because of individuals in the organization who were behaving badly rather than because of any policy of the organization. Thus, shutting down organizations such as these would result in far fewer programs of research to benefit both the animals in captivity and animals in the wild, eventually resulting in animal populations that go extinct because there are fewer programs in place to help them and protect them.
It is my hope that people consider both sides of the argument on this issue. Doubtless, it would be wonderful if all the animals that are currently kept in zoos and aquariums could be released into the wild to help repopulate those areas in which wild populations have declined, but the world is entirely too dangerous for them to do so at the moment. Until the world becomes friendlier to the existence of both wild animals and their captive counterparts who have the potential to be released, zoos and aquariums serve as an ark to preserve these species. And as such, they should be respected for all the good things that they do for these animals, rather than condemned.