Over the last few weeks, a number of UK zoos have revealed that their animals are being impacted by the cost of living crisis.
In September, the owner of a “zooquarium” named Sealife in Essex said he may have “no choice” but to kill his animals due to skyrocketing bills. In the same month, Drusillas Wildlife Park in Sussex confirmed that its animals’ lives could be impacted by increasing costs. “It all comes down to their welfare,” the owner said. “We have to be able to keep them at their natural temperatures to sustain their exotic bodies.”
The situation facing thousands of captive animals is hugely concerning. While it’s by no means the fault of zoo owners that we’re in a cost of living crisis, the predicament has highlighted the cruelty of keeping animals for profit. These animals aren’t seen as sentient beings with a right to life. As soon as the going gets tough, and they’re no longer profitable, they become disposable commodities.
Profit over welfare
Animals should not be living in zoos at all. While many may have you believe that they exist for the good of animals, they have repeatedly been shown to put profit before welfare.
According to a study by Bristol University, more than three-quarters of British zoos fail to meet the minimum standards of animal wellbeing. It found that 76 percent failed to meet at least one basic requirement regarding health, housing, or treatment.
This disregard for welfare can have tragic consequences. In 2017, South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria sparked outrage after it emerged that nearly 500 animals died in under three years due to improper care. Causes of death included lack of veterinary care, malnourishment, hypothermia, and general neglect.
And the problem doesn’t just lie with small zoos. ZSL London Zoo – the world’s “oldest scientific zoo,” which has an excellent reputation in the UK – held a series of late-night events “for adults” this summer. Paying customers drank alcohol and listened to live music at a time the zoo was usually closed. A similar event had previously been canceled in 2015 after a reveler reportedly poured beer over a tiger.
There is little doubt that due to loud noises and disturbance during their resting time, these nights impact animals.
Are zoos cruel?
Even if zoos do appear to take care of animal welfare, there is no ethical way to exploit any living being for profit against their will. Zoo animals did not choose to be there, and they are forced to live a wholly unnatural life.
Due to the fact that paying customers like seeing baby animals, zoos will often prioritize breeding over the welfare of older animals. According to PETA, zoos have been known to euthanize healthy “surplus” animals because they can no longer breed. Captive animals will also often not be allowed to stay with their families, as younger ones can be sold off to other zoos.
Animals are regularly seen engaging in stress-induced behaviors including swaying, pacing, and sometimes even self-mutilation. According to one study, these stem from “the frustration of natural behavior patterns, impaired brain function, or repeated attempts to deal with some problem.” Animals are sometimes given antidepressants, tranquilizers, and antipsychotic drugs to try to conceal their distress from the public.
Enclosures are often small and cramped, and don’t allow animals to engage in hunting, foraging, nesting, traveling, or most other activities they normally would. According to Freedom for Animals, tigers and lions have around 18,000 times less space in zoos than they would in the wild, and polar bears have one million times less.
Why is the public slow to accept this cruelty?
In recent years, due to social media and the release of films like 2013’s Blackfish, the public has thankfully been waking up to the fact that places like SeaWorld and elephant attractions are businesses of cruelty.
But the same can’t be said about zoos. They are generally perceived to be not only acceptable but pleasant, wholesome establishments.
Zoos have done an excellent job of PR-ing themselves as being altruistic businesses, and much of this is due to their apparent “conservation” efforts.
While some zoos do breed endangered animals (the only remaining South China tigers are in captivity, for example), they are rarely released back into the wild.
As zoo architect David Hancocks previously stated: “There is a commonly held misconception that zoos are not only saving wild animals from extinction but also reintroducing them to their wild habitats. The confusion stems from many sources, all of them zoo-based… in reality, most zoos have had no contact of any kind with any reintroduction program.”
According to a 2020 study by Born Free and Freedom for Animals on zoos in England and Wales, only 15 percent of animals kept in zoos are threatened.
“It is a simple fact that the vast majority of animals kept in zoos are not endangered or threatened and are there simply to provide public entertainment,” conservationist Damian Aspinall told the Guardian at the time.
The fight to scale down zoos
While an immediate ban on zoos wouldn’t be viable due to the huge numbers of animals who live in them, a gradual phase out process has been highlighted as a possible solution.
Aspinall previously proposed a plan to close zoos over the next 25-30 years, starting with species “clearly not suitable for captivity.” In the next 10 years, he suggests, small urban zoos that are less than 50 acres should be considered for closure.
Earlier this year, Born Free launched a campaign to ban elephants from being kept in UK zoos.
There are currently 50 elephants being kept in 11 zoos in the country. According to a spokesperson, their “longevity, physical ailments, psychological ailments, and very low breeding rates for calves” means they are unsuited to zoos. If the campaign is successful, it would be an excellent start.
While there are some zoos that may treat their animals better than others, and make some strides in the area of conservation, it doesn’t take away from the fact that fundamentally they are businesses of cruelty. All animals – regardless of size, popularity, and obvious ailments – deserve to live a life free from captivity.