Zoo Misconceptions

Zoos are bad

This is an all too common but rather a stupid statement. It is exactly the same as saying all hotels are bad, all peanuts are bad or all apples are bad. There are bad hotels, bad peanuts and bad apples but they are not all bad. Not all zoos are bad.

I would be the first to admit that there are bad zoos. In my travels I have seen several. Bad zoos though tend to fall into two camps. Those which are bad through commercial 'penny pinching' and those which are bad through ignorance. Happily the picture is changing and fewer and fewer of these zoos now exist. Education is the key. Understanding existing problems and putting them right. Zoo closure is not usually the answer.

Ask any good professional zoo keeper if they would prefer it if there were no zoos and they would say "yes, in a perfect world there would be no zoos." Unfortunately it is not perfect. There is greed and habitat destruction, poaching and unregulated hunting AND not everyone can afford to go on an expensive holiday to see animals in the wild.

A Zoo Note

No one would deny that in the beginning that zoos were primarily a place of entertainment. Entertainment is still important today but in the guise of EDUtainment...that is educating visitors in an entertaining way. It is doubtful that anyone ever visits a zoo to learn...though many teachers leading school parties may lean towards this ideal. If zoos can teach people then they can make a difference.

Then there is Conservation and Research but it goes beyond this. In many parts of the world the zoo is a safe venue. Zoos are non-political, non-religious, non pornographic. Zoos can be meeting places.

Zoos are not safe

Zoos are as safe as you make them. Accidents do occur as in every industry but they are very rare. Zoos place a very high priority on safety of staff and especially of visitors.

Accidents usually only occur when visitors or staff do something really stupid like climbing into an animal enclosure or over a safety barrier. This is not that different to stepping in front of a car or train. Don't do it and you will be fine.

In the very very very rare incidence of an animal escaping it is not out to bite or eat anyone. It is disoriented and frightened and within seconds misses the security and familiarity of its enclosure. Walk away calmly and you will be fine. Leave the security drill to the staff.

There are exceptions...yes of course there are. This would be when someone spent time taunting and teasing an animal. What would you do if you were a taunted animal and suddenly found yourself on the other side of the fence?

Zoos are cruel

Just where did this stupid notion come from? Define cruelty. How are they cruel? The good modern zoo is an excellent place for animals. Great care is taken to ensure the animals are as 'happy' and as comfortable as possible. Generally speaking the zoo keeping staff that look after the animals are not that well paid. They do the work because they care about animals. Really care! They certainly care more about the animals than those on the outside who jump up and down condemning zoos and in reality know nothing about them, or for that matter, the animals either. Why should being a faded movie star or pop icon make them an expert on zoos, animals...or anything else except perhaps acting or pop? If you are one of those people who believe that riding horses is cruel and cats and dogs should not be kept as pets then I have no argument. If you have vegeterian 'principles'...well I reckon 30 % of zookeepers are vegetarian. I have worked in zoos for 49 years. I am not a cruel person. I abhor cruelty as do the many people I have worked with over the years.

Rhino at the Cleveland Zoo

Photo by:   http://www.flickr.com/people/yvonne_n_1968/
Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/people/yvonne_n_1968/

Zoos force the animals to do tricks

No they don't. It is not in a zoos interest to force an animal to do anything. Circuses teach animals to do tricks. Zoos teach animals to exercise their bodies. Sometimes this is simply for the benefit of animals but also at times to show a visiting public something of the animals ability and intelligence. In this case it would be for entertainment or rather 'EDUtainment'. No-one visits the zoo to be educated, they go to be entertained. Good zoos know this and use subtle tricks to educate visitors while they are there.

Bad zoos do nothing at all. Really bad zoos simply entertain.

Gorilla Man Interview

Zoos Take Animals From The Wild

Actually they don't, or rather very rarely. Most animals captive in zoos today were born there or in another zoo, they don't know the wild. Zoo's would only take animals from the wild today to improve the genetic pool for breeding programmes for animals already held captive. This could be important or we may lose species altogether.

They will sometimes take in wild rescued animals which are young, sick or injured and care for these before returning them back to the wild. Even quite small zoos like the Welsh Mountain Zoo do fantastic work with the rehabilitation of seal pups.

Conservation Centres, Sanctuaries, Rescue Centres and Wildlife Parks are better

It is actually all in a name. They are all exactly the same thing. Animals kept in captivity...for whatever purpose. You can read more on this by clicking on 'Is it A Zoo?'

It is actually an ignorant statement to declare that one prefers a Wildlife Conservation Trust to a Zoo if only years before it was...the only thing which changed was the name. It is not only outsiders who make this mistake. I once met two staff from a Wild Animal Park in the South of England who thought they did not work in a zoo. Wild Animal Parks are zoos.

One of the most stupid statements I have read was in a report where it said the animal had been removed from a zoo and "released into a sanctuary". It was simply one enclosure to another.

There are a huge number of absolutely pointless rescue centres. These will hold animals like White Tigers or other creatures of questionable parentage. The worst crime here is they often breed from such animals. Animals held in captivity need to be properly managed for the species as a whole. They need to be part of an official Breeding Programme. If they are not then it is NOT a good zoo. It is a BAD zoo.

So called Rescue Centres which maintain animals which are of questionable genetics which should never be bred from are a complete and utter waste of time. They pander only to the vanity of the the humans who run the place. For such places to condemn zoos is laughable.

The anti-zoo groups use a play on the word 'Sanctuary'. There are of course 'Wildlife Sanctuaries' which cover hundreds or thousands of square miles of genuine 'wild' environment. These are NOT where 'rescued' animals go. They go to a 'Sanctuary' which is just a zoo by another name.

There is also an obvious lack of fairness by those on the anti-zoo side. This is borne out by the fate of the 'Taiping 4' Gorillas. True enough they were illegally sent to a zoo in Malaysia. How much anyone knew and who exactly were the guilty parties is irrelevant at this point. Rightly and justly the animals were returned to Africa and settled into a zoo in South Africa. They obviously could not be returned to the wild. Well you would have thought the South African Zoo was to blame and zoos in general by the huge flurry of correspondence that was generated. Ultimately the four animals were sent to Limbe Wildlife Centre. Not a 'zoo' you note (but of course it is)...all in the name. As of January 2009 only two of these Gorillas remain alive. Stress caused by moving them has been suggested as one possible cause of death. Yet there has been no voice from the anti-zoo's who I personally blame. (It is interesting to note that none of the 'Taiping 4' Gorillas appears on their website).

Warthog at Kansas City Zoo

Photo by:   http://www.flickr.com/people/jamiedfw/
Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/people/jamiedfw/

What about Safari Parks?

Again they are the same thing. People wrongly assume that they are better than a traditional zoo. This is not the case. In the eye of the beholder the animals appear to have so much space whereas in reality they don't.

Visitors would quickly complain if they could not see what they had paid to see and only saw a dot in the distance so animals are 'trained' to stick to an area where they can be easily seen. Usually right next to the road.

Zoos smell

What if they do? It does not mean they are dirty. Smell or scent plays a major part in the lives of most animals. If zoos were to remove that odour simply to make YOU feel better...now that WOULD be cruel.

Zoo animals need more space

This ain't necessarily so. Read more about zoo territory. Take look also at The Perfect Zoo Enclosure. I once worked in a zoo which provided several hectares for their large pride of lions. The lions had the option to go anywhere within this space. They didn't. They remained in one small corner. I flew over the enclosure several times during the years I was there and I never saw a footprint outside of the 'hang out' corner. On rare occasions when a female was going to give birth did she seek out a more secluded spot.

Why do zoos keep animals that are not endangered?

Why not? One of the roles of zoos is education and so it gives visitors the opportunity to see common species as well. It also allows staff the opportunity to learn how to successfully maintain such animals. They may be common in the wild today but the situation could change tomorrow. It is important though that non-endangered animals should be viable. It is important not to fill up valuable space with cast off's and misfits.

Space utilised by these animals may later be used to house endangered species as and when needed.

Primates Face Extinction Threat

Zoos are not preparing animals for return to the wild

To do so at the present time would be a pointless waste of time. Zoo animals are enriched to keep body and mind active but right now lions do not need to be given live food to 'learn'. The wild is in a mess. It is shrinking. There is not enough room to return most species.

Some zoos do return species into protected areas. Even to areas where the species has previously disappeared. Whatever returns are made we are still keeping a captive 'back up' population.

More than 60% of Zoo Animals have head damage due to banging into bars.

What total utter rubbish. A lie propogated by the anti -zoo fraternity.

Breeding in Captivity should be banned

If this is your school of thought then you must really hate our planet. There are people out there just like you who would prefer to see entire species die out rather than breed animals in zoos. I believe it is a very mean, one sided and selfish attitude to take. 


What happens to animals rescued from zoos.

I can only talk a little personal experience on this one but be sure they are NOT returned to the wild.

I well remember a zoo in the North of England being closed down due to pressure from an anti-zoo group. I am not denying that a lot could have been done to improve the situation...a bit of a cash injection.

The cash was available because the anti-zoo group built new enclosures at a different location. Quite good enclosures too. The animals were located here...but it wasn't called a zoo. It was now called a Garden. The staff, though well meaning lacked the expertise and knowledge to provide proper care for the species they had inherited.

After a year or so the animals were moved from the 'Gardens' to a Rescue Centre. Again the people were very good hearted but the enclosures the animals were given were worse in many ways to some of the slum zoos I have seen in S.E. Asia.

And where were the anti-zoo group? They did not give a damn after they had closed the zoo.

Then there are the tigers 'rescued' from zoos by the anti-zoo groups and 'returned' to India? Returned? They have never been there. They are hybrid tigers which, if they were to escape into the wild, would do positive harm to tigers naturally occurring in the area. What are these groups thinking about? Do they have some airy fairy idea that the tiger was pleased to be back home? Ha! It does give one a bit of an idea of how removed such groups are from reality.

These are the same people who complain about zoos spending money on building new enclosures instead of spending it on protecting animals in the wild. Talk about 'pot calling the kettle black.'

Columbus Zoo

Photo by:    http://www.flickr.com/people/bigdog3c/
Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/people/bigdog3c/

Zoos Routinely Remove Animals for Hand Rearing so they can be Used for Publicity

To a degree this is true. BAD zoos do it all the time so they can have cute photos of baby Tigers, Orangutan's and others. It is very rarely necessary and is not good practice and inevitably leads to a lot of trauma for the animals in later life. Being 'humanised' they have difficulty integrating with their own kind. Some can never go back and lead sad and cruel lives alone.

GOOD zoos will sometimes remove animals which have been abandoned and all efforts made to try to ensure the animal knows exactly what it is so they may be returned later. It is no fun and having gone through the school of 'hard knocks' with hand rearing I believe it is often better to euthanase. If an animal is being hand reared then I believe it is fair enough to use it for a little limited publicity to encourage visitor numbers.

Where things go really wrong are with animals like 'Knut' the Polar Bear who was overexposed to the degree that it is extremely unlikely he will ever be able to mix again with other Polar Bears.

At the other end of the scale and at high levels of ultra stupidity we have zoos in Asia having piglets being nursed by tigers. Each of the piglets dressed in a tiny tiger costume. I have seen this as well as Tiger, Pig and Domestic dog all living together in the same enclosure. I won't say happily because I strongly doubt that. Pointless rearing...or rather there is a point because uninformed visitors, Westerners and others think it is wonderful.

Some smaller animals may be reared and used as animal ambassadors in educational displays. I believe this is fair enough.

Zoos kill their surplus animals

This is an emotive subject. I agree that it sometimes happens and indeed should and must happen as part of a properly managed breeding programme. The breeding programme is for the management of the species as a whole and not for the benefit of one particular animal.

I would prefer to use the word euthanase to kill though I agree they are the same. Killing an animal is quick and it is painless. There is no terror or torture. The people who carry out such procedures genuinely care about the animals they are putting to sleep.


Newspapers have the nasty habit of using headings like "zoo animals put to death" or "executed" or "Shot" because they know they will sell more papers that way.

Consider too the countless millions of dogs and cats that are quietly 'put to sleep' each year. All surplus to requirements.

Euthasia is a management tool used alongside birth control and sex segregation it is not the only method used.

Remember that animals die in the wild all the time. It is kill or be killed for many species. Within a protected zoo environment man has to take a kindly hand.

Why would zoos want to euthanase animals?

The Wild is a cruel place and nature has some harsh realities to even out the numbers. Usually more or less equal numbers of males and females are born. One male is more than enough to mate several females. Males fight and one is injured or forced out to live alone and become a target for the first predator to come along. Zoos act as that benevolent and kind predator.

Some animals are born defective. To breed from them would be harmful to the breeding programme. To keep them would take up a space in the programme that could be taken by a better suited animal.

Are animals which die fed to other animals?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends on the circumstances and the animal concerned. An autopsy is usually necessary and sometimes the body is required for research or as a museum specimen. If the animal was chemically euthanased then it could not be used for feeding to anything. At one zoo rescue centre I visited in China a bear unexpectedly died. After post mortem it was buried with dignity. All the staff attended the 'funeral', some weeping. A poem was read out and this, along with small gifts from the staff were buried along with the bear.

All staff in zoos care about animals which die, whether they are deliberately killed or die of natural or unnatural causes. People deal with death (which is as natural as birth) in different ways. 

Conservation in Action

A Final Word

I am pro zoo. I am anti anti-zoo. I am always willing to listen to the other side of the story. I am prepared to change my mind on any issue be it politics, religion, little green men or zoos. I look at everything from both sides.

In 49 years of zoo work I have yet to change my mind on zoos. We NEED zoos....but GOOD zoos.

San Diego Zoo

Photo by:  http://www.flickr.com/people/oscalito/
Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/people/oscalito/

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Comments 25 comments

chris 7 years ago

Peter,Once again an excellent hub! I can only agree with you on this one!

love, Chris

Emily 7 years ago

Thank you so much for this. Its fantastic. Im doing a debate at school and really needed some different opinion points for rebuttal etc.

Thanks again.

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 7 years ago from South East Asia Author

Thanks Emily, I hope your audience are open minded enough to listen to what you have to say. In my experience most anti-zoo people just will not listen to reason.

rudy socha 7 years ago

Hi Peter,

Great article. I would like to add one point. Today more than 90% of the world's population lives in urban and suburban areas. 95 plus percent of the population will never swim underwater in an ocean or stay in a wilderness area overnight.

Having animals wander through your backyard or birds stop at your birdfeeder does not provide a true understanding or appreciation of wildlife.

Zoos and aquariums have the opportunity to teach the public and instill a sense of wildlife appreciation and inform them about the plight of the animals in their natural habitat.

Zoos and aquariums represent the best opportunity to familarize and educate the next the public.

Rudy Socha


Zoo and Aquarium Visitor


Avriel.Ng 7 years ago

Haha, this is well written :)

Heather 7 years ago

well versed

wow 7 years ago


Venkat 6 years ago

Im doing a debate and this is by far the best article i've stumbled across and its right to the point. Awesome article and thanks for all the help!

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia Author

Venkat - Thank You. Pleased I could help. Please point others towards the article.

quelo 6 years ago

I´m not agree i´m sorry, but we really don´t need zoos what we need is to maintain animals safe in the wild. I know today it is imposible, but breeding programmes don´t have any substance if the animals will never be release again. What will we do with animals in jails?, only to look at them, learn? (we could learn more seeing a documental), and have a place to go in the weekends. I don´t have any doubts that the people who works in the zoos loves the animals, bur there is no excuse to maitain them in captivity. If they born in the zoos is because they parents were put in the zoos when they were free, besides which is the objective to the breedings programmes if they won´t be able to be release in the wild to restore the natural balance?. I agree with some of yours statements but the main point about cruelty is not true, you are talking from your human point of view, the animals maybe don´t suffer, but they are in a jail and never ever will live a different thing. You know how exactly an animal think?, how you did this?. Could the mind of the animals change in two or three generations so they don´t desire anymore to be free?, please read more about evolution. And the most important thing is that the zoos that you describe are only a few in the world, there are thousands zoos that are terribles and they are no the exceptions. are the rule. Please explain why in the safari parks the don´t have more space?.

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia Author

quelo - thank you for your comments. You are right I am writing from a human point of view and from a human who has worked forty years in zoos. A human who hates bad zoos and can see the immense value of good zoos. I am a bit of a pessimist but would like to think that we could return viable populations to the wild one day. Right now though the wild is in a mess...we are unable to protect it properly! We can protect animals in zoos. If you can move away from the idea that a zoo is a prison or jail and recognise its enclosures and cages as territories then you may start to view things a little differently. Please read The Perfect Zoo Enclosure It may help a bit.

bobby 6 years ago

defending keeping animals in cages and small areas? What kind of sick people are you? ?

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia Author

bobby - not a people but a person and not sick. Someone who genuinely cares about animals and their welfare.

Tammy Root profile image

Tammy Root 5 years ago

This is a great hub Peter!

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 5 years ago from South East Asia Author

Thank you Tammy. I intend to add to it as more incorrect assumptions turn up.

Ellen Vossekuil profile image

Ellen Vossekuil 5 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

This is a fantastic article. I would like to see some mention of the money and time that zoos and zoo keepers devote to conservation. Money that they would not have if people were not paying to see animals at their facility.

And I would like to respectfully state that anyone who thinks that all animals wish to be "free" don't really understand animals or their needs. Animals should be allowed to express themselves and their insticts and wills, but a good zoo can give animals all the opportunites to do those things, without the horrible risks. As a keeper, I want animals to be able to live in the wild. But there's no wild left, and we have to deal with that problem and protect the animals we have before we can even think about getting rid of zoos.

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 5 years ago from South East Asia Author

Thanks Ellen. You are so right. Good zoo staff give their own time freely along with the blood and tears and bruised relationships. I lost a girlfriend (who I was quite keen on) once because she could not come to terms with the time I devoted to the job.

Brittney3255 5 years ago

Great article!!! As someone who is working toward that elusive paid zoo keeper position, I am confronted with concerns from friends and this article makes some great points to bring up. I feel people who consider zoos to be 'jails' or 'prisons' and that the animals suffer are in themselves are just as guilty as they say keepers are for assuming an animal is happy in their enclosures. When they say animals are imprisoned, I think they assume they are locked in a room and some food is slid under the door once a day like in a human concentration camp. I wish all the nay sayers could work for a day in a zoo and see the devotion that keepers and other zoo staff have for the animals and the lengths they go to to make the animals happy and healthy both mentally and physically.

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 5 years ago from South East Asia Author

Thank you Brittney3255 - Many years ago we used to have school kids dumped in the zoo for work experience. I say 'dumped' because it was not where they wanted to be or what they wanted to do. Several of these admitted they were anti-zoo. After a day working with the animals and alongside the keepers ALL of them changed their opinion. One I know has quite a senior zoo position today. Animals in good zoos are happy and healthy.

Voz1 4 years ago

Great article.

As a grad student in Wildlife and Fisheries, I can add a few more things.

Most anti-zoo people make decisions entirely based on emotion and philosophy instead of concrete evidence and facts. Look closely at their arguments, and you'll find that they are made up almost entirely of fiery angry vocabulary, and not much else. They very rarely (if ever) provide any empirical evidence to support their claims.

Also, I read a peer-reviewed article once (provided in the link below) that found that most people who are anti-zoo either (1.) have never been to a zoo or (2.) have only been to one zoo in their entire lives, and by sheer bad luck, that one zoo turned out to be a bad zoo. These latter anti-zoo people must have been appalled by the less-than-adequate conditions, and falsely concluded that ALL zoos are as bad for the animals as the one they visited.


mickeyy21 4 years ago

I agree with you completely but I have a debate at school and I must argue for the opposite side... I was wondering if you know any sources that would help me. Thanks

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 4 years ago from South East Asia Author

mickeyy21 - I have read dozens such arguments over the past couple of years but could not point you to particular source without an hour or two research and I'm sorry I do not have the time right now.

Ewa Narkiewicz 3 years ago

thank you for a great article. Many zoo keepers also go on to work in situ doing valuable conservation work, using the skills they have learnt working in zoos! People who are anti zoo are generally people without any practical animal husbandry or conservation skills. They are good at anthropomorphizing but I have yet to see how that alone has improved the lives of any animals in captivity or the wild.

Shaddie profile image

Shaddie 3 years ago from Washington state

Excellent hub. We do need zoos :)

Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 3 years ago from South East Asia Author

Thanks Shaddie...we need good zoos.

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