The Ethicality of Having Animals in Zoos
Alfredo Medrano
The University of Texas at El Paso

The ethicality of zoos is a topic that has been talked about for many decades. Many people have

set opinions on the topic but fail to realize the full scope of the ethicality of zoos. The aim of this

literature review is therefore being done to provide information about the ethicality of the

captivity of animals and as well provide information in order to come to an educated conclusion.

A survey was conducted to come to a conclusion if it is ethical to have animals in zoos, and as

well if humans should be allowed to keep animals within zoos. The results of the study found

that the majority of the people who were given the survey thought that zoos were not ethical and

humans should not be allowed to keep animals in zoos. This data suggests that humans are

against zoos and would want them to find better ways to have animals within a man-made



Is Having Animals in Zoos an Ethical Decision
All of us enjoy going to the zoo and seeing many exotic and breath taking animals; but is

having animals in zoos an ethical decision? Millions of people have been to zoos all across

America, however, have any of these people actually considered having animals in cages ethical?

These owners of the zoos make hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping all types of animal’s

captive practically their whole lives, just to entertain humans for a few hours. These animals are

being withheld and deprived from their natural habitat in the wild, most of them being unable to

ever experience freedom outside of the concrete walls. These animals held in captivity are

subject to being abused, neglected, or possibly mistreated, however, if they were in their natural

habitats they would be care free from the evil actions in which humans will bestow on them.

While many animal rights advocates believe that wild animals are happy only when they

are free, many professional animal behaviorists argue that certain animals can flourish in the

captivity of established and accredited zoos (Rudy, 2011). They believe that zoos are actually

helping these animals stay alive and that they are also protecting them from the possibility of

becoming an endangered species, and from inevitably becoming extinct. These animals will also

be safer because they may only be able to live in captivity due to the fact that their habitats are

being destroyed by humans. As well these animals would learn enrichment and they would be on

a set diet in which they would also have a veterinarian on site for any injuries and checkups.

This debate on the ethicality of having animals in zoos is a hotly contested one due to all of the

factors to take in account when examining the issue.

Below is a set of questions which will help look further into the ethics of having animals

within zoos. The intended audience for this research is zookeepers and also anyone who has ever

visited a zoo.

1. How many endangered animals are living within zoos?
2. Are zoos more beneficial for animals or humans?
3. What is the overall welfare of the animals that inhabit a zoo?
4. Should we be allowed to keep animals within zoos?

Using all of the information gathered by research, I will investigate the ethical issues

behind the decision of keeping animal’s captive within zoos, as well as the negative or positive

impact it has on the animals themselves.

How many endangered animals are living within zoos?

According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) approximately 750,000

animals are in the care of AZA-accredited zoo and aquarium professionals. Of those 750,00

animals, there are 6,000 species of which 1,000 are threatened or an endangered species.

Looking at this statistics that are provided to us by the AZA we can infer that these 1,000

threatened or endangered species of animals are within the zoo in order to survive and not

become an extinct species. Zoos that handle these animals are in fact taking on a huge

responsibility by having a species of animal in which they will care for and help thrive within an

enclosed artificial habitat. This being said, these zoos are providing a safe, adaptive environment

where these 1,000-endangered species of endangered animals will learn enrichment retunes

where they will be able table to thrive and in time become an un-extinct animal.

Many people would agree that saving a whole species of animal is an amazing moral

thing that humans are doing to help animals survive in this world, right? Wrong, according to

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), they concluded that unless animals in the

wild are protected, captive breeding won’t make a difference. These zoos are providing a safe

space for these animals to breed, but once these animals become un-endangered they will have

no habitat to be released back into. Humans, along with zoos, have to face the root of the reason

why animals are becoming endangered, such as poaching, habitat destruction, and animal trade.

It is estimated that an animal population in captivity can only continue to bred for 100 years.

(Henn 2015) These populations of animal will thus become too inter-bred to be genetically

viable. A species that is too inter-bred to be genetically viable will then suffer the consequences

of losing their natural traits as a wild animal. They will then solely depend on the care of humans

in order to survive and will never be able to successfully thrive in their natural habitats in where

they originally derive from.

Above is a graph that depicts the number of extinctions of animals as well as the years

that the animals have gone extinct. It depicts the number of extinction from 0-500 animals and

the year of extinction from 1500-2000’s. This data that is depicted in the graph is relevant to the

number of endangered animals that are living within a zoo because it shows us that the number

of endangered animals went from 450 in the nineteenth century all the way down to 0 in the

twentieth century. We can predict from this data that the high awareness of animal extinction will

keep the number of extinct animals at 0 if humans maintain their high awareness for endangered

species. Also, the environment that the zoo provides for endangered animals will also help the

number of extinct animals stay at 0 if these zoos are successful at keeping these animals in good

health and spirit.

Are zoos more beneficial for animals or humans?

Many accredited zoos believe that zoos are beneficial for both animals and humans, such

as the Saint Louis Zoo. These zoos are benefitting both humans and animals by conducting

research to help improve animals lives who are captive and as well provide new information to

researchers within zoos. This research being conducted is helping animals by giving them an

environment that resembles their natural habitat in the wild. They will be able to express their

natural traits as if they were in the wild. This is highly beneficial to the zoo animals because they

are able to express themselves and conserve their natural instincts. These zoos are providing

animal with opportunities to learn, interact and exhibit natural behaviors (Utah Hogle Zoo). The

Utah Hogle Zoo has Enrichment and Training programs to encourage natural behavior from

animals that are under their care. These environments provide researchers opportunities to study

the way these animals would live in the wild. This can give researchers a better understanding of

how these animals live and why animals behave the way that they do. This information that is

gathered can be translated and communicated within the wildlife community to help conserve

these animal’s natural habitats. These observations give humans a better understanding of the

way these wild animals live, and from this we can help keep these animals alive for thousands of

years to come. However, given this information on how wildlife is able to thrive within their

natural habitats, humans must do more to help save these ecosystems of which we all depend on.

The Wild Care Institute states that there are three key ingredients in conservation success:

“wildlife management and recovery, conservation science, and support of the human populations

that coexist with wildlife.”

This information that is provided to us from observation and research can then be

addressed to the public. These zoos that conduct research can educate the public on all of their

findings which then they can use to help save animals themselves. The zoo provides a unique

environment where everyone can learn about animals. This exposure to wild animals that

humans are able to get from zoos provide the public with information where they become aware

of all the other living species that are on this Earth. Visitors learn through formal classes,

lectures, camps, teacher workshops, distance learning zoo tours, and basic observation at the zoo

(Saint Louis Zoo). There was estimated to be a total of 12 million student learners on field trips

being educated about zoo animals. All of these ways in which humans acquire information can

then make one of them to take action to help animals thrive within zoos. This will allow humans

to make connections with these animals. These connections with the animals will then inspire

humans to take an initiative to help these animals co-exist with them at zoos and as well in their

natural habitats. They inspire entire group of people to fight for the basic right of animals in zoos

and as well in the wild. These people who want to make a difference can then form support

groups such as the Animal Justice Project, Cruelty Free International, People for the Ethical

Treatment of Animals and many more. These animals within in zoos are then being benefitted

from these people who see the unethicality of having them contained in an artificial environment.

Some people argue that if zoos were effective venues of education, presumably the

hundreds of millions of annual zoos visits would result in an epiphany of concern for animal

rights and conservation within the people who visit them (Linzey 2013). Also, some people

argue that the way animals are conveniently observable within our cities, might miseducate the

delicate way that these creatures live. As well as the way we observe these animals, it could be

argued that our spectatorship is demeaning and as well decontextualizing animals who are in

captivity. We become so accustomed to observing trapped, displaced animals within a man-made

habitat that we will never truly know or compare it to the way that these animals behave within

their natural one. This misinterpretation of the imagery of animals will thus harm animals rather

than benefitting them. This will evidently lead to the harm of humans as well if something is not

done about the “education” of animals in captivity is not done.

Zoos also are beneficial to humans because they bring in a revenue. Without these

animals, humans would not be able to earn a revenue to start with. So in reality, the revenue that

zoos are making is evidently all profit. Despite this, the demographics of the impact that zoos

have in the economy is that they are accredited to contributing more than $17.4 billion to U.S

economy in 2014 (AZA). They supporting more than 176,000 jobs in the U.S and serve more

than 183 million annual visitors. These zoos are providing humans with billions of dollars in

revenue that will support and benefit the economy. In the aspect of money, humans are highly

benefiting from it but the animals are not. These jobs that zoos provide also help humans make

money to support themselves and even their families. From all this data given humans are highly

benefiting from these captured animals being on display. There is absolutely no benefit for these

animals in a system that revolves around money. The only benefit that these animals would get is

the renovations and upgrades to their artificial habitats, but this would be miniscule compare to

the benefit that humans are acquiring.

What is the overall welfare of animals that inhabit a zoo?

In order to determine the welfare of an animal, we must be able to understand and

identify what the welfare of animals really means. The welfare of an animals is not just its

physical health but it’s the animals’ mental well-being too. The way in which welfare is typically

described is often based on the five freedoms which are; freedom from thirst and hunger,

freedom from fear and distress, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain and suffering, and

freedom to express normal behaviors (Kagan). The only way that we would be able to assess the

welfare of these animals without causing any unwanted stress is by observing the animals’


The overall welfare of animals that inhabit the zoo depends on the animal itself. Each

animal has their very own level of welfare while in captivity. However, this welfare can depend

on the way in which their caretakers handle their everyday situations. To Ensure the well-being

of animals will require knowledge, expertise, and commitment, as well as comprehensive and

robust programs of measuring, implementing, and evaluating animal care and welfare practices

(Kagan). The caretakers of these captive zoos must be able to recognize an animals emotional

state at any given time and be able to react appropriately to ensure an animal is happy within

artificial habitat. If the caretaker fails at recognizing an animals emotional state, that animal

could be at risk of having a shorter lifespan due to its needs not being met. Dr. Stephanie Allard

at the Polk Penguin Conservation center said, “Animal welfare is understanding the needs of the

individual how they experience their world and the responsibility that we have to make that

world as amazing as we possibly can.”

Ultimately, we cannot determine the overall welfare of animals that inhabit a zoo.

However, we can try to make every animal that is captive happy so they can live long,

meaningful and productive lives.

Should we be allowed to keep animals within zoos?

I conducted a survey in which I asked 50 participants to answer 3 questions about zoos

and the ethicality of zoos. This survey was handed out and conducted at The University of Texas

at El Paso Tuesday April 11, 2017morning between 10am-12am. The two questions that I asked

were, 1. Have you been to the zoo? 2. Do you think it is ethical to have animals in zoos? 3.

Should we be allowed to keep animals in zoos? What I hoped to find out by conducting this

survey was what is the opinion of the general public about the ethicality of having animals within

zoos? As well as if we can conclude from the findings if humans should be allowed to keep

animals in zoos. From the questions asked 31 participants in the survey answered yes to the first

question and no to the second and yes to the third, 14 answered yes to the first question and

unsure for the second and unsure for the third, and finally 5 answered yes to all three questions

that were asked. The majority of people who have been to the zoo believe that having animals in

zoos is unethical. We can conclude from this information that the majority of people who have

been to the zoo think that having zoos is unethical. These results can conclude that the

community in majority would be against the decision of keeping animals in zoos. I can infer

from the data that the people being surveyed would want zoos to find a way to better display

animals and as well want zoos to provide them with a better environment. I believe that these

results may be helpful when designing a larger scientific study about the ethicality of having

animals in zoos.


The debate about the ethicality of having animals in zoos is a hotly contested one due to

all of the factors to take in account when examining the issue. We have to take into account the

endangerment status of the animal, if it is beneficial for the animal, the overall welfare of the

animal, and as well if it’s the right thing to do as a human. The information about both arguments

being made in this literature review are able to provide information to base your own judgement

and opinion on. This literature review can serve as a knowledge base that you can refer to at any

time in order to draw conclusions about the ethicality of having animals within zoos.


Rudy, K. (2011). Loving Animals: Toward a New Animal Advocacy. Minneapolis, US: Univ Of

Minnesota Press. Retrieved from

Georgia J. Mason, Species differences in responses to captivity: stress, welfare and the

comparative method, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 25, Issue 12, December

2010, Pages 713-721, ISSN 0169-5347,

Don't zoos help to preserve endangered species? (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2017, from

Henn, C. (2015, May 29). Can Zoos Really be the Key to Bringing Endangered Species Back

from the Brink? Retrieved April 10, 2017, from


Dawkins, M. S. (2004). Using behaviour to assess animal welfare. ANIMAL WELFARE

Extinct Species Charts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from

Saint Louis Zoo. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2017, from

Georgia J. Mason, Species differences in responses to captivity: stress, welfare and the
comparative method, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 25, Issue 12
December 2010, Pages 713-721,

Detroit Zoo Center for Zoo Animal Welfare- Penguin Welfare Project (Video)

Kagan, R., Carter, S., & Allard, S. (n.d.). A Universal Animal Welfare Framework for

Zoos. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18(sup1), S1–S10.