Zoos: Unlock the Cages of Cruelty

A zoo is a facility that confines animals in enclosures, to be put on display for humans. Australian zoos, are codified as “animal display establishments” by the NSW Government, and are primarily governed by two acts at the Commonwealth level, the Quarantine Act and the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Imports and Exports) Act 1982. Each state and territory, however, is a distinct body in terms of zoo related legislation. Further to this, there are separate pieces of state legislation governing wildlife protection and animal welfare, further problematising the regulatory enforcement of these vital issues.

Globally zoos are not only seen as a site for pure entertainment and amusement, but as beacons of conservation and education. This redefinition is an attempt to seek redemption from the inherent wrongs in confining upwards of 2,000 animals, each in environments inappropriate for their welfare and livelihood at best, and entirely destructive and cruel at their worst. A zoo creates the illusion that visitors are immersed in the natural environment of the animal, however, the zoo itself completely erases the wild nature and natural behaviours of the animal. For educational purposes, the General Standards for Exhibiting Animals in New South Wales expressly states that each enclosure must have identification and provide visitors with information about the animal in captivity, whilst showcasing the “conservation messages”.

As John Berger keenly observes, “nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal”. Instead, what we see is the inevitable result of cruel and interminable confinement.


Unnatural Life

Some of the most obvious and well-documented issues for animals kept in captivity are the fact that it is inherently unnatural and the vast majority of captive animals exhibit stereotypes. Although zoos go to great lengths to mimic the natural habitats of animals, they remain artificial environments and generally provide significantly less room than the animal would have in the wild.

There is a litany of problems associated with keeping animals in unnatural captivity. Some of these include:

  • Temperature: zoos house animals from substantially different climates, such as the arctic, tropics, desert, and the forest. It is impossible to create suitable climatic conditions for all animals. In a study which reversed the roles, placing people in a “human zoo” to raise awareness of Great Ape conservation. People were held for a week in an outdoor enclosure that was formerly used to confine orang-utans. The researchers noted “a universal and immediate complaint made by participants was heat discomfort” despite the efforts made to ease this issue.
  • Diet: providing captive animals with sufficient and nutritionally relevant and balanced food is a primary welfare concern for zoo animals. Animals in captivity may be subject to an insufficient variety of food, or food that is not normally part of their diet. Added to this vital issue is the fact that simply feeding captive animals a diet that affords the necessary nutrients is not enough; the diet should incorporate “environmental enrichment”. That is, the way that food is presented has a direct impact on captive animal welfare, and has been seen to reduce the rate of abnormal behaviours.
  • Feeding patterns: zoo animals are fed once or twice daily. In the wild, many animals constantly feed during their waking hours and their digestive tracts are suited to this.
  • Inbreeding: There is frequent inbreeding in zoos due to the lack of diversity in potential mates that occurs in the wild. The dangers and elevated mortality levels associated with this have been known for decades and are considered to be inadequately managed by institutions undertaking captivebreeding..
  • Freedom:Zoos claim to relieve animals of the viciousness of surviving in the wild, and that living in their natural habitat is a false freedom. However, evolution shows us that animals adapt to suit their natural environment, from their social and mating lives to hunting and gathering food.


Stereotypies are another issue that is of primary concern relating to captive animal welfare. A stereotypy is a repetitive, often senseless behaviour that many people would have seen exhibited by animals in zoos or circuses. Captive animals frequently display stereotypies due to stress, boredom, loneliness, frustration and the inability to carry out their natural behaviour (stereotypies are also seen in factory farmed animals for the same reasons). Until the early to late 1990s, the majority of studies on the welfare effects stereotypic behaviours have on captive animals were focused on “farm animals” or those confined within laboratories. Due to this lack of concerted study, attempts to prevent stereotypies were near non-existent. Although interest in this area has since grown, the fact remains that animals kept in captivity are subjected to tremendous stress and are often suffering psychologically due to this.

Case Study: captive American black bear

A study of a single male American black bear (Ursus americanus) revealed that two primary behaviours that the zoo environment suppresses precipitated stereotypic responses: mate-seeking behaviour and foraging behaviour, both of which are further effected by seasonal changes. The study found the results so damning that the authors felt confident to state “zoo bears in general” probably react in the same manner.

Studies of captive animal welfare

Whilst welfare issues relating to captivity in animals have been the subject of ongoing research and anecdotal reporting, two issues that have not been accounted for in as much depth are worthy of additional attention: the impact of zoo visitors on animal welfare and behavior, and the psychological impact of confinement.

  1. i) The impact of zoo visitors on animal welfare and behavior

In near-total confinement settings such as zoos, animals are repeatedly exposed to unfamiliar people and frequently have sparse prospects for refuge. This constant exposure and the stress it involves can lead to conditions under which confined animals are effectively forced into close proximity with visitors, making negative effects on their welfare and well being unavoidable.

A 2015 study at both the Melbourne and Werribee Zoo led researchers to conclude that animal learning, both personal and social, is crucial and has a significant effect on zoo animals’ reaction to visitors. The study notes that small species in particular were more disposed to negative effects, as they are likely to identify “humans as predators,” whilst also providing that “species-specific factors” also play an important role in how they react to humans. Meerkats, for example, are a popular enclosure at many zoos, and have had children’s storybooks written about them, and even a stylised television soap opera. Whilst other mammals, particularly social primates, are more acutely sensitive to harmful effects from human visitors due to the species overlap of “mutually recognisable visual gestures” that are perceived as intimidating (the human smile looks like a hostile display, for example), meerkats do not share this characteristic. In the wild, meerkats develop complex social skills to fend against and prevent predation. Even in captivity, meerkats react with defensive behaviour and issue “alarm-calls” when they hear helicopters and planes, an incriminating fact when we remember the concerts and fireworks at Taronga Zoo.

Research has proven that these skills and their behavioural consequences can be effectively “passed down” to young, inexperienced meerkats. Several anecdotal reports support this. In South Africa, so-called “meerkat habituators” spend hours with meerkats in attempts to acclimatise them to human contact so they can be used in the tourism industry. In this way, meerkats appear to be more prone to accepting human contact after they have been exposed for enough time, or, alternatively, they witness this from a young age. This proclivity has inevitably been picked up on by the zoo industry, who, seeking to capitalise on this comparatively trusting nature, have begun offering “meerkat experiences,” in which people can effectively walk beside these mammals native to the Kalahari Desert.

Such species-specific examples are important. Studies of mandrills found that they exhibited more intimidating behaviours when large numbers of visitors were nearby, whilst cheetahs appeared to show none of these. Little penguins (eudyptula minor), exhibit increased aggression, huddling and other behaviours suggesting avoidance of visitors when studied using a closed zoo exhibit and an exposed exhibit. They also spent a larger amount of time behind enclosure features, effectively hiding from visitors positioned at the viewing area. The researchers concluded that the presence of human visitors or a property of their behaviour was experienced by the penguins as “fear-provoking”.

“It is possible that social primates may be particularly susceptible to negative effects from visitors because some species share mutually recognisable visual gestures with humans that could be perceived as threatening, such as the aggressive bared-teeth display that closely resembles the human smile”

A similar study by an Australian research team at Melbourne Zoo concluded that visual contact and stimuli from visitors could be particularly stressful for several primate species. The policy regarding primate exhibition in NSW decrees that “enclosures must be constructed so that the enclosed animals can rest at least 2 body lengths above the eye level of any member of the viewing public,” but adds the damning exception that if the public is positioned behind glass and in an enclosed building the level may be lowered to eye level. As vision is a key sensory modality in primates, they are “highly attuned” to visual stimuli, as shown by the fact that a controlled experiment of capuchin monkeys comparing their levels of stress and displays of aggression or vigilance when vision between the animals and the visitors was obscured or remained transparent. The study evaluated both behavioural markers and physiological factors, concluding that the obscured vision element resulted in distinct declines in aggression and ultimately determined that “reducing the capuchin’s ability to view visitors improved their welfare”.

  1. ii) The psychological impact of confinement

Over a decade ago an article was published in Science magazine that argued that apes used in laboratory experimentation and entertainment industries were “clinically appropriate subjects for psychiatric treatment”. The authors argued further. They claimed that such treatment was “a moral imperative

For decades it has been acknowledged that captivity results in abnormal behaviour and psychological disturbances, however there has been a reluctance to attribute such ‘human’ emotions to other animals[50]. To do so would call into question a wide range of instances in which humans treat nonhuman animals in ways that would, imaginably, cause such a reaction. Even though we are told and reassured that the differences between us are great enough to allow cruel treatment, we are simultaneously told that it is because they are so similar that the facts we amass from experiments and studies are empirical and relevant.

Studies into the effects on the psychological welfare of captive animals are becoming increasingly common. For example, a detailed analysis of a 12-year-old captive-bred Asian elephant was recently conducted in Nepal. Based on a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation, endorsed by a further five mental health professionals, the findings revealed that “PK” is suffering from Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). Other accounts liken the turmoil and suffering animals endure to war, leaving survivors potentially sensitive to suffering from PTSD. This has been thoroughly investigated in elephant culture. Whilst some animals survive these traumas, they are likely to suffer residual psychological damage, including depression and behavioural dysfunction.

This diagnosis is not limited to elephants. Animals have the capacity and propensity to experience severe emotional and psychological stress, resulting in acute disturbances that generally resemble PTSD in humans. This disorder has been observed in a number of species, from captive wolves to kangaroos.

A study conducted in 2008 endeavoured to ascertain whether chimpanzees kept in confinement, primarily in laboratories and zoos, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study analysed chimpanzees taken from laboratories in the United States and rehomed at a Montreal sanctuary. Using the “cross-species evaluation” of symptomatology developed in 2006, the researchers concluded that “a diagnosis of Complex PTSD in chimpanzees is consistent with descriptions of trauma-induced symptoms,” meaning that chimpanzees are capable of, and do, suffer from PTSD.