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Treatise: Zoos as a prison, spectacle, and refuge

While zoos can be educational, many of them merely push people to ogle animals whose wildness have been stripped away for the sake of entertainment.

For many, a visit to the zoo is nothing short of magical. The sheer thrill of seeing creatures that one may only ever encounter in classrooms and storybooks has filled their hearts with wonder. However, the tragic death of the elephant Mali last November 28 has sparked a renewed debate about the ethics and practicalities of holding animals in captivity.

Zoos often tread the fine line between creating grand exhibits and educating their visitors on biodiversity issues.

Checkered past

The impulse to capture, keep, and showcase animals is not new. According to wildlife biologist Winnie Kiiru, the public’s fascination with wild animals was evident even in ancient civilizations. The Roman empire, for instance, staged events pitting gladiators against lions to represent their dominion over nature. 

The modern zoo as we know it took shape in the 19th century. These zoos lumped together different kinds of species, expanding beyond fearsome animals like tigers and gorillas to include reptile houses, aviaries, and insectariums. Unlike earlier collections that served as status symbols, the new zoos claimed to promote science and learning. The animals were often presented in taxonomic order for comparative study.

At a glance, there seems to be a vast divide between the crumbling ruins of the colosseum and the polished tiles of modern zoos, but the ties between the two are unbroken by history. While modern zoos have educational value, this function is peripheral to the business of entertainment. “Zoos, aquariums, [and] theme parks back then acted in the public interest. And that really is the crux of the issue—they are primarily for public interest,” Kiiru explains.

In reality, these facilities poached animals, trained them, and threw them in cages for the public to gawk at. One example is dolphins. Between the 1930s and 1960s, an estimated 1,500 dolphins were plucked from the ocean to fill aquariums and the growing marine park industry. Due to mistreatment, many of these intelligent creatures committed suicide by holding their breaths.

The elephant in the room

Until now, there are zoos that do little more than celebrate people’s ability to parade exotic specimens in a mall-like compound. By valuing human amusement over animal welfare, these facilities can turn into exploitative and harmful environments. Instead of creating opportunities for people to connect with other species, the zoo can merely encourage them to ogle caged otherness.

The Manila Zoo is no exception. Mali spent most of her life in a cramped, barren enclosure. She also showed signs of stress and depression while living in solitary confinement—a torture for social animals like her. Instead of addressing these glaring issues, the zoo is more concerned with finding another elephant to replace her. In a press conference the day after Mali’s passing, Manila City Mayor Honey Lacuna shared that the Sri Lankan government is willing to give another elephant to Manila Zoo. 

If the zoo accepts the offer, it needs to be redesigned so that the animal will flourish in captivity. Although the zoo was renovated from 2015 to 2021, many of its new facilities and services cater to people instead of the animals. These include a museum, a restaurant, and a new parking area for visitors. More effort must be made to expand the enclosure and have it mimic the animal’s natural habitat.

A leap forward

Some may argue that zoos are a lost cause. Instead of wasting money to rehabilitate them, they should be banned altogether. But this is unrealistic. A future without animals in captivity is impossible to imagine without simultaneously addressing global problems like climate change and capitalism.

While it is tempting to reduce animal ethics as a binary of good and evil, zoos can vary widely on how they treat their animals, how much space they are given, and how the animals are obtained. For every story that casts zoos in a bad light—the Copenhagen Zoo publicly dissecting Marius, a two-year-old giraffe, in 2014; the Cincinnati Zoo shooting Harambe, an endangered gorilla, in 2016; and Vince the rhino’s poaching at Paris’ Thoiry Zoo in 2017—there are heartwarming tales too.

The Philippine Eagle Center (PEC) in Davao holds itself to stunningly high standards in its treatment of wildlife and protection of animal rights. In 2023, the PEC launched a native tree planting program that aims to cover 1,200 hectares of land and restore bushlands near Philippine Eagle nesting sites. In collaboration with indigenous communities, the program promises to benefit not only the Philippine eagles but also the broader ecosystem.

Other countries have also built zoos to protect animals from being hunted down to extinction. Several zoos across the United States, for instance, are responsible for reviving the wild Arabian oryx and the golden lion tamarin. In Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, there is even an on-site wildlife hospital to save sick and injured native species.

Despite their history, zoos can play a role in alleviating the biodiversity crisis. To accomplish this, the concept of keeping wildlife in captivity would have to shift from human voyeurism to animal conservation. As marvelous as zoos can be, they can also create moral problems within their walls, failing both their visitors and the animals they came to visit. Without proper research and rehabilitation, animals under their care will have no satisfactory or ethical endings, remaining to be just an extravagant display of a utopic, human-controlled nature.

Amanda Palmera

By Amanda Palmera

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