Are Zoos & Animal Captivity Outdated Paradigms?

There’s been a lot written about zoos and other captivity-oriented facilities in the U.S. over recent years. This past June, shockwaves were heard far and wide when Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo’s 450-pound gorilla was shot and killed after a 3-year old boy fell into his habitat enclosure. Elsewhere, Sea World will no longer breed orca whales due to human deaths resulting at their water parks, while the National Aquarium decided to retire its dolphins to a seaside sanctuary.

Safe Havens

Experts are now weighing in on this issue regarding what else can be done for not only captive animals, but those on the endangered species list as well.

Joe Gaspard, director of conservation and research at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium notes: ““If we think it’s tough going on a day-to-day basis for humans, it’s a tougher world out there for animals. The sad truth is that many just don’t thrive in the wild anymore.”

Gaspard’s belief is that zoo organizations are not the only solution, but they do provide safe havens from poaching and habitat loss caused by human encroachment [see my previous post titled, “Extinction Threat Of Our Elephants Is Shameful.”]


“In totality, zoos provide more funding for conservation than all the well-known conservation organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund and others,” says Ken Kaemmerer, the Pittsburgh Zoo’s curator of mammals. “By supporting us, you play a part in conservation in the field.

“There are cooperative efforts among zoos, but it’s up to each institution to say what we do best and what are the needs, to determine what species we exhibit,” Kaemmerer says. “For example, our zoo may make a value judgment to focus on elephants, because we do well with them, we have enough of them and we’re also breeding them,” says Kaemmerer.

“One thing people don’t know is that we have the second-most elephants between the zoo and the (International Conservation Center, International Elephant Center, in Somerset County) of any zoo besides San Diego. Right now we’re trying to breed four female elephants and, to my knowledge, nobody else is trying to do that,” adds Kaemmerer.

The long-term plan for the Pittsburgh facility is to expand the facility to add other threatened species, possibly including cheetahs, black rhinos and zebras.

Return to the Wild?

While justification can be made for keeping animals in captivity, the statistics belie the need for such facilities, as they are a poor substitute for an animal’s natural habitat. African elephants live 3 times longer in the wild than they do in captivity and in 2008 a government funded study in the UK realized that 75 percent of the elephants in captivity were overweight, and only 16 percent could walk normally.

So, what are your thoughts readers? Can Zoos do a better job? Conservancy sanctuaries? Or should there be more of a focus on helping animals survive and live longer lives in the wild?