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Are Zoos Good or Bad for Animals?

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Zoos are great, right? You get to be up close and personal with some amazing animals that you’d pretty much never get to see in the wild. Clearly, zoos are a win for people. But when it comes to the animals, zoos might cause more harm than good. Should zoos exist?

TEACHERS: Guide your students to practice civil discourse about current topics and get practice writing CER (claim, evidence, reasoning) responses. Explore lesson supports.

How did zoos become a thing?
Humans have been capturing and displaying exotic animals for thousands of years. The earliest known collections date back to 3500 BCE in Egypt, where rulers kept hippos, elephants, baboons, and different species of large cats. Now back then, that didn’t mean that your average Egyptian could go check any of that awesomeness out. These early zoos were really just a way for kings to flex on other kings. Modern zoos, where the public can come and watch animals exhibiting their natural behavior, didn’t really become a thing until the early 1800s. The longest continuously operating zoo in the world is the Vienna Zoo, which has been going strong for more than 260 years.

What are the arguments in favor of having zoos?
Zoos may be great entertainment, but their big goal is to educate the public about wildlife and what we can do to protect them. Zoo animals are sort of like ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild. Zoos also contribute to scientific research. “Zoo” is short for zoological park, and zoology is the scientific study of animal biology and behavior. In addition, zoos work really hard to save animals that are threatened in the wild. Zoos can take at-risk animals, breed them in captivity, and then reintroduce them back into the wild.

What are the arguments for NOT having zoos?
Zoos have their problems. Not all zoos are created equal. Some are clean and well staffed, others aren’t. There are some in the richest cities in the world, and there are some in conflict zones. What this means is that not all zoos have the resources to properly care for the animals they house. And for many critics, no amount of education or research justifies keeping animals captive. That captivity can be REALLY bad for both physical AND psychological health. And while zoos have been really helpful is saving endangered animals, it doesn’t work out for certain species. For example, most large carnivores like lions and tigers that are bred in captivity die when released into the wild. It turns out that they haven’t developed the natural behaviors they need when they’re out on their own and have to fend for themselves.

Do we need zoos? (The Atlantic)


Why zoos are good (The Guardian)

The case for the end of the modern zoo (New York Magazine)

Zoos and their discontents (New York Times Magazine)

Stress and lack of exercise are killing elephants, zoos warned (The Guardian)

Most Captive-Born Predators Die If Released (National Geographic)

Captive Breeding Success Stories (PBS)

Quantifying the contribution of zoos and aquariums to peer-reviewed scientific research (Facets Journal)

Evaluating the contribution of zoos and aquariums (Conservation Biology)

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