Thoughts on science… The dirty truth behind zoos

Several weeks ago, as families fled to shelters and Irma wreaked havoc across South Florida, one Miami resident was left behind to fend for herself: Miami Seaquarium’s 37 year old orca, Lolita. The whale, which was captured off the coast of Washington state nearly three decades ago, was left with nothing but a tin roof to protect her for the duration of the storm. During this time, Lolita was vulnerable to a number of potentially fatal injuries including trauma from flying debris, exposure to contaminated floodwater, stress and PTSD. In photographs of the tank after the storm, Lolita is barely visible in the pool of murky, unfiltered water.

Miami Seaquarium states that their animals are a part of their family, but if that is the case, why would they not have an evacuation plan in place to protect this highly intelligent endangered animal? The unfortunate truth is that zoos and corporations like Miami Seaquarium often prioritize profit over their animals’ quality of life.

Zoos weaken their animals’ quality of life through the enclosures that they are housed in. While enclosures are built to mimic an animal’s natural habitat, the animal often ends up living in a completely artificial environment. These inadequate, confined living spaces put the animals under high levels of stress and anxiety, resulting in psychosis or “zoochosis.” This tends to happen with larger species such as bears, lions, tigers and cheetahs. The most common symptoms of “zoochosis”- pacing, swaying, bar-biting, and circling- can be seen in most zoos and are easily dismissed as natural behaviors. Zoos often respond to these signs of distress by pumping their animals with antidepressants.

Animals are also deprived of quality care. An undercover film by the Captive Animals Protection Society titled “No Place Like Home,” exposes terrible living conditions in zoos, including animals packed into small enclosures and untreated and dead animals. The National Zoo in Washington D.C. is reported to have overcrowding as well as multiple animal injuries, escapes and deaths.

The notion that zoos exist for conservation purposes is misleading. Through captive breeding programs, endangered animals are forced to reproduce in unnatural and stressful settings. Over time, breeding programs have proven to be an ineffective form of species rehabilitation. It is also important to note that because these animals were raised in unnatural settings, their instincts to mate, defend their territory and search for food are greatly repressed; for this reason, many of these animals are not fit to return to the wild. In addition to this, zoos rarely ever release animals back to their natural habitats. In an article on, Benjamin Beck, former associate director of biological programs at the National Zoo, stated that in the last century, “only 16 of 145 reintroduction programs worldwide ever actually restored any animal populations to the wild. Of those, most were carried out by government agencies, not zoos.”

Dismissing all zoos as corporations that do not prioritize their animals’ quality of life would be unfair to certain zoos that work hard to keep their animals happy and healthy. In fact,  Environmental Science teacher Brian Rapoza is a member of the Zoo Miami Foundation and asserts that Zoo Miami works hard to provide their animals with the best possible care. The key is not to avoid zoos altogether, but rather to identify zoos that are defective and not support them. Regardless, for those who wish to avoid corporate zoos and support a noble cause, animal rehabilitation centers and rescues are a great alternative. Local wildlife rescues include The Everglades Outpost and Safari Edventure, where visitors can interact with snakes, alligators, wolves, kangaroos and a toothless lemur named Kenya.