Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on July 19, 2013, the highly-acclaimed, yet incredibly controversial documentary Blackfish has raised concern surrounding our culture’s preoccupation with animals in captivity. While zoos and aquariums have often been touted as opportunities to educate the public and conserve endangered species, Blackfish cast a shadow on what captivity means for these animals by shedding light on its potentially detrimental effects.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting the zoo, especially as the Animal Planet-obsessed child I was growing up. I’ve even been fortunate enough to attend SeaWorld a couple of times and have definitely seen my fair share of Shamu shows. However, the Blackfish aftermath coupled with the sense of guilt I’ve always felt for our furry friends stuck behind bars has had me wondering: are we benefiting from zoos for the wrong reasons?
One of the biggest problems I have with zoos is simply a matter of habitat. Species like the killer whales featured in Blackfish, as well as many other popular zoo inhabitants, are wide-roaming animals by nature. The pure spatial needs of large land-dwelling species like elephants, giraffes and big cats, as well as birds and even larger aquatic animals cannot possibly be fulfilled within captivity, solely due to dimensional restrictions. Additionally, in many ways, the man-made structures of concrete, metal, and glass used to confine these animals exposes them to unnatural surroundings that don’t at all resemble their natural territory. These elements alone create a questionable environment for a wild animal to exist within.
Physical aspects aside, another potential issue is population viability. One of the most proclaimed benefits of zoos and aquariums is the ability for conservationists to stabilize and build populations of threatened and endangered species. In theory, this is a constructive endeavor for the animal kingdom, as animals should be able to be raised in captivity then released into the wild to help prevent extinction. However, in reality, this is often not the case.
Aside from the fact that zoologists have struggled to get certain species to reproduce in captivity – such as pandas, gorillas and snow leopards – there is also the issue of genetic diversity. Because there are a definitive number of each species in zoos, there is a limited number of genetic pools to be combined. Although the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) has set up Species Survival Plans (SSP) to help regulate and encourage diversity among captive populations, inbreeding occasionally occurs. This not only impresses on the health of those animals directly affected, but also the ability of the population to grow.
There have also been a number of issues when it comes to reintroducing these species into the wild. An article from Born Free states that while release programs have been attempted for many species, the most successful cases have been those in which the animals were originally born in the wild and captured–in instances of rehabilitation–then reintroduced after a period of time. Captive-born animals tend to struggle to adapt when released, due to the fact that they have no understanding of geographic knowledge like where to find food, water and shelter. These processes cannot be properly simulated in captivity. This is detrimental to the process of building upon and maintaining threatened species, as it proves nearly impossible for them to exist outside of human care.
Perhaps one of the biggest underlying issues of zoo-based conservation is the fact that zoologists aren’t focusing on the right species. In a Jan. 15 article by Science Daily, with research by the University of Southern Denmark, scientists discuss the problem our random selection of animals to be conserved is posing. Many endangered species are currently not represented in zoos, meaning a large portion of species that should be receiving conservation efforts are getting no attention at all. For example, none of the 84 species of endangered insectivorous mammals are represented in zoos. In fact, only 92 of the world’s 201 endangered mammals can currently be found in aquariums or zoos. If the goal is truly to protect the threatened, why are so many being ignored?
While zoos and aquariums make a great pastime for those interested in the animal kingdom, it is becoming increasingly difficult to support their endeavors. Due to unnatural living conditions and questionable population benefits, I don’t believe zoos are currently providing the resources they claim. A focus on conserving these species’ natural habitats and populations in the wild would produce a much more sustainable, and healthy option for our feathered and furry friends with whom we share our planet.
Kaitlin Dewell is a senior in mass communications. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.