Why Zoos?

Some time ago, I wrote a post about a co-worker’s successful captive breeding project at the zoo where I am a keeper. One of the first comments was from someone who was saddened about the animal being hatched into captivity. I explained that there is wild habitat to which this endangered turtle may one day be repatriated, so captive breeding can in the long run save the species.

I run into the anti-zoo attitude from time to time, sometimes even from zoo guests. I have been involved with zoos for a large part of my adult life, and sometimes I forget what I didn’t know. Let me share with you some of the things I have learned over the years. Even if I don’t change anyone’s mind about captivity, at the very least perhaps we can open a dialogue.

Not all zoos are created equally.

The little menagerie down the road that boasts a zonkey, or maybe even a liger, has little in common with a facility like The National Zoo. It’s not just a matter of size or budget, either. It all boils down to accreditation. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is the most prestigious accrediting body with the most stringent guidelines, the most current of which can be found here. If you are concerned about animal welfare but would like to visit a zoo, choose one from the list of 142 facilities currently accredited by the AZA.  In the rest of this post, the term “zoo” refers only to accredited facilities.

Accreditation incorporates more than you might think.

Accreditation looks at everything from exhibit size to employee satisfaction and everything in between. For example, AZA requires enrichment for all animals. Enrichment is defined as anything that gets the animal to engage in natural behaviors and stimulates them mentally or physically, and ideally 50% or less comes from novel foods. There’s only so  much they can or should eat, after all.

Big cats love scents, especially those that are musk-based. Have old perfumes or spices you are going to throw out? Ask a zoo in your area if they can use it.

Puzzle feeders are also popular. Animals in the wild aren’t intended to eat out of a food bowl. They spend most of their day searching for food. Keepers replicate this experience whenever possible. Hiding portions of their regular diet around their enclosure keeps the animals busy and engaged. When we had cheetahs at my zoo, we conducted cheetah chases. After chasing a lure, the animals were tossed meaty bones. It was fun for the guests, but it was really fun for the cheetahs. For my tortoises, I made a raised feeder because in the wild, they wouldn’t just eat off of the ground. They would stand with neck extended to dine on shrubs.

why zoos tex_stands

Not only is this feeder enrichment, it is also physical therapy. Tex has weak hind legs, but he stands square to get his honeysuckle!

Zoos don’t breed their animals for money. 

PETA’s website for kids will tell you that zoos do exactly this, but this statement is false. Accredited zoos do not buy or sell their endangered animals. They do exchange animals fairly frequently, in keeping with breeding recommendations. Non-endangered animals may be purchased, but only from reputable sources.

Zoos can’t breed their endangered animals whenever they want. 

Zoos often house animals that are participants in the Species Survival Plan. The SSP is basically a dating service for about 161 endangered species. Each SSP animal has a family tree recorded in a database. Matches are made based on Mean Kinship Coefficient, which shows the degree of relationship between the animals (the lower the MK, the better) and how well-represented an animal is in the gene pool.

What this means for zoos is that most years they don’t have babies. A lion that is bred in 2016, for example,  will still be raising her cubs in 2017. If she has 3 cubs, she has made a significant contribution to the gene pool, and her number may not come up again for four or five years, if ever. Even if a zoo is fortunate enough to have a breeding recommendation, breedings work only about half the time, for a variety of reasons.

Zoos are major contributors to conservation.

In order to have SSP animals, for example, zoos agree to support in-situ conservation. By purchasing a ticket to a zoo, you are helping to support the conservation of lions, tigers, and bears in their natural habitat. My department is currently working with Guatemalan Beaded Lizards (Heloderma horridum charlesbogarti), and by doing so contribute $1500 annually to the conservation project.

Most zoos set aside a portion of their budget for conservation work. At my zoo, employees have the opportunity to nominate conservation projects we believe in. Last year, I successfully nominated Association Mitsinjo, which not only supports conservation of Malagasy amphibians, but the community as well. They offer everything from food banks to job training.

Zoos don’t just support exotic animals. 

My zoo, for example, works with several native species, including Red Wolves (we just had our first pup in 23 years!), Louisiana Pine Snakes, Bog Turtles, and Black Bears, though we do not breed the latter. Our late Director of Herpetology founded a project with critically endangered bog turtles 30 years ago, and the program continues today. I’ll list the highlights of that particular project in a later post, but it is one of two species that we breed for re-release.

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A pile of baby Louisiana Pine Snakes (Pituphis ruthveni). Their eyes are milky white because they are getting ready to shed. Once they shed, they will be sent to Louisiana for release.

So what questions do you have? I will try to answer them in Part II.




  1. Love that you wrote this. I had no idea there are accreditations involved with zoos and aquariums. It does explains a lot…

    I am one of those instinctively uncomfortable by the thought of captive animals. As a kid I saw too many heartbreaking situations at the zoo. Yet I have had amazing experiences going to zoos and aquariums with more natural habitat as an adult. Videos are wonderful but don’t convey the reality of seeing the magnificence of a living breathing creature in front of you.

    Maybe there always has to be a bit of angst – concern for the animals along with recognition of knowledge gained and and minds awakened… to keep the balance and keep us from using animals as toys for entertainment. The demise of circuses has been a good thing. And I’d put Sea World in the same category of animal entertainment as a means of profit.


    1. I do firmly believe that there are some species that are problematic to keep in captivity. Cetaceans are one. It is the responsibility of institutions to provide the highest quality of life for the animals in their care, and creatures that have the intelligence of a 3-year-old child simply MUST be provided with more. Elephants are another example. Since standards were past requiring protected contact (keepers work animalsf rom behind barriers), it is far more difficult to give them the attention that they need. Facilities with large amounts of space, Disney and San Diego, for example, can more easily provide enrichment through a naturalistic environment. Other facilities that were designed for direct contact and sometimes 8 hours a day of training and contact, have less space and now fewer opportunities to entertain their animals.

      I need to interject here that my opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my zoo.


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