Walking into my local zoo, I felt excitement. I knew it wouldn’t be as exciting to me as the last time I visited, when I was as an elementary student on a field trip, but I had no doubt that I would find no shortage of cute, fluffy animals to fulfill my happiness for the day. I prepared myself to see red pandas, my personal favorites, and the giraffes that I always picture to be so happy.
What I found was not quite what I expected. The giraffes were kept inside a tall but narrow enclosure as the weather was too cold for them to stay outside, the penguins floated on a piece of plastic ice as it was just warm enough for the ice to melt, and there was little grass to be seen anywhere as it had not yet grown back after the harsh winter. I can still hear the pained roar of the tiger, still see the hopeless look in the eyes of the zebra, still feel the anxiety and hopelessness of the leopard as it paced around its cage. Many of the animals looked utterly depressed, quite in contrast to the humans around me, all smiling with churros and selfie sticks in hand.
It was a contrast that seemed illogical to me; so many people either did not care or did not notice what was to me the blatant unhappiness of the animals. I left the zoo with a pained and guilty heart. I had gotten my fill of fluffy animals. The meerkats seemed content enough in their small, windowed room as they climbed and perched on top of rocks with their tiny arms held at their chests, and my red panda swung playfully upside down on his little hut and practically made silly faces at his audience.
Still, I knew it wasn’t right for these animals to be kept under these conditions. The standards for this zoo were much too low, but about the same as the ones that govern animal enclosures around the world. Animal sanctuaries can be a place of recuperation and rescue, but no animal should be held captive except when necessary. Especially under these neglectful conditions.
Depression in Animals
Humans rely on animals as a source of happiness in more than one way: we watch cats spaz after laser pointers until they disappear behind furniture; we cuddle with our dogs who love us in a way that nothing else can; and some counselors even rely on animal-assisted therapy as a complementary form of therapy.
Unfortunately, humans don’t always return the favor. Scientists have researched depression in animals and have found many signs that indicate depression in them. Animals can show symptoms of depression through anhedonia (the loss of interest in pleasurable activities), changes in sleeping patterns, and changes in social interaction with other animals.
Mental health issues in people have only recently been taken seriously, but the same can’t be said for animals. Though the National Geographic reports that they have not yet been able to definitively prove depression in animals since animals can’t directly talk to humans, the evidence in favor of it is strong. Nonhuman primates in particular show human-like expression of emotion that trained observers can identify as depression, and this can be seen in other animals, especially in individual cases.
For example, in one case at an East Coast zoo, a female spotted leopard’s behavior drastically changed after its partner died. The 16-year-old animal was enclosed in a 12-foot-by-24-foot area and spent entire days lying on a eucalyptus tree that made up one of the very few features in the enclosure. The leopard also licked her tail until she was left with a bald spot and showed no interest in various treats the zoo provided for her.
This type of sad behavior is not limited to individual animals undergoing an emotional loss such as this leopard, but is widespread among zoo animals. In fact, the term “zoochosis” is used to describe “a repetitive, invariant behavior pattern with no obvious goal or function” that is only observed in captive animals. Caged elephants usually exemplify this by swaying, which can wrongly be confused as a playful, cute behavior. Unfortunately, what may be perceived as dancing is in reality a way for elephants to deal with the stress of living in a confined living area.
International Animal Enclosure Policies
Zoo animals exhibiting signs of depression emphasize that animal enclosure policies do not sufficiently meet basic living requirements for their inhabitants. Furthermore, animals that are not only on display but are also available for interaction are often abused. It is well known that zoos have come a long way in terms of the treatment of their animals, but the battle is far from over. The regulations for animal enclosures starts at an international level and tapers down to local legislation,
If the point of zoos was simply to enhance the lives of wildlife, there would be no reason to hold healthy animals captive. However, even last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved 18 elephants to be brought in from Swaziland to be exhibited and used for breeding.
In addition to countries bringing animals into zoos unnecessarily, some zoos around the world practice culling, the selective slaughter of healthy animals for population control. The New Yorker recently published an article on Danish zoos that have recently received backlash from around the world for culling. In 2014, a giraffe was euthanized, publicly dissected, and then fed to lions at the zoo. In 2016, a young, healthy lion was similarly dissected in front of a crowd.
In Denmark, culling is seen as an opportunity for education and providing extra meat, and though the practice was met with worldwide opposition, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) referred to culling as a management tool. EAZA also stated in response to opposition “that culling of animals is one of a range of scientifically valid solutions to the long term genetic and demographic sustainability of animal populations in human care.”
Internationally, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) regulates the trade, import, and export of about 5,000 animals and their products. Participation in CITES laws is voluntary, and there are currently 183 parties to the convention.
Voluntary regulations make an important part of animal enclosure rules, but it makes it difficult to maintain a decent standard for the enclosures; only 2.3 percent of the world’s zoos are regulated, according to American Humane. This association has “developed the first-ever independent, scientific and evidence-based third-party humane certification program focusing solely on the well-being of the animals living in these institutions.” The American Human states that zoos all around the world, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia, are stepping forward to be audited to meet these standards.
Conflict of Interest
Research has found that the size of cages has a direct impact on the animal’s health and, despite the regulations in place, are not big enough for some species. Though some animals benefit from sanctuaries and don’t develop the necessary skills to survive in the wild, and the purpose for some zoos is species preservation and reversing animal endangerment, zoos shouldn’t exist unless they provide a better environment than what animals would otherwise live in. The only reason a wild animal should be put in an enclosure in the first place is if it was confronted with danger and needs to be protected.
Containing animals without proper cause in cages that don’t meet their needs is cruel and only speaks to the base desire of humans to view the animals for entertainment. The best way to protect wild animals is to protect their natural environments and respect their space. The Galapagos Islands exemplify this, as they place extensive animal and environmental protection laws while offering unique opportunities to experience unusual flora and fauna. The Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo in Chongqing city in China similarly allows for people to see animals without caging them. This zoo reverses the roles between captors and captives, where the animals roam free and the visitors step into a caged truck to separate themselves from the animals.
Similarly, National Geographic recently opened an exhibition called Encounter: Ocean Odyssey, in New York City. The key factor for this marine biology exhibit? It features no live animals, but instead screens the creatures using National Geographic’s archives of footage and animation from the Game of Thrones technology crew. The goal of the redefined aquarium is to enhance the scientific education for the public while respecting the health and safety of aquatic animals, and 27 percent of the ticket sales will be put towards conservation.
Though humans love animals, sometimes it’s best to do so from a distance, or at the very least put their interests before ours. By reinventing the concept of animal exhibitions we can put the focus on the well-being of animals instead of our own pleasure. There is no such thing as a zoo animal. All animals were born to live in the wild — hence the term “wildlife” — with the exception of a few domesticated breeds. Even so, we label certain species as “zoo animals,” as if they were born to live their lives in cages, when the cages we put them don’t meet the basic requirements for any animal to live in.
Photos are pexels public domain
Guest Author Bio
Geo Sique is a writer from Boise, ID with a bachelor’s’ degrees in Communication and French and a background in journalism. When she’s not travelling outside Idaho, she loves rock climbing, hot springs, camping, and exploring the world around her.
Website: Georgette Siqueiros