The Sad Animals in Zoos Myth
“Aw, that polar looks so sad. He doesn’t like this cage”. “Poor monkey, so bored with nothing to do”.
Have you ever made a comment like this? Have you ever heard someone say this at a public zoo or petstore? The answer is likely to be yes. Despite unfamiliarity with the species in question, or even that animal as an individual, this is a common occurrence and a blatant example of the conflict with anthropomorphism.
- Captive Animal Logic: Sad Animals at BIG CAT RESCUE | Photo Tour!
Funny pictures of Big Cat Rescue's (anti-zoo extremists) SAD feline residents.
Mistaking both 'sad' and 'happy' expressions
Most people who do not spend significant time around non-domesticated animals often lack the ability to detect an animal’s mood. Even I, before finally adopting a dog, found the behavioral patterns of that species to be foreign.
The more animals I became in charge of caring for, the more I learned about them; things that books and even documentaries failed to do. This experience is simply irreplaceable. However to different extents, ‘wild’ animal behavior will vary significantly with animals raised by or around humans, but in caring for animals you will come to understand the species’ capabilities (and limitations).
Canines look sad when their head touches the ground
My "sad" dog
Is this what people want to see?
There have been many times that my mother would perceive that my spotted genet was “calm” and try to pet him, but I would quickly intervene because I saw a nervous animal preparing to bite.
People often misunderstand both sadness, aggression, and even happiness in animals. Animal rights movements often speak of the ‘fake dolphin smile’ that will be glued on the faces of bottlenose dolphins even as they attack helpless porpoises in the wild. When many animals such as dolphins, dogs, and even snakes open their mouths, they appear to have this particular expression --> :D
Wild lion transformed to 'depressed zoo lion' with bars
Zoo or the wild?
Challenge! Which animals are miserable because of their lack of freedom? The “sad” animals in the following pictures are either in the ‘wild’ or captivity, (some traditional zoos and others in spacious ‘sanctuaries’ that most people approve of). Guess which one is which. No cheating, if you’re familiar with these animals, where they’re located, or the fauna which surrounds them to help you guess, it doesn’t count!
Other animals naturally look sad, and sometimes even downright depressed. Some animals need not do anything in particular, but for most animals, the simple act of laying down with their head on the ground will give them the appearance of being miserable.
Therefore, any animal that performs this typical resting posture may upset people wth pre-exsisting anti-captive animal sentiment. Add on seeing this through cage bars, and it is totally heart breaking.
1. A Colobus monkey, about to cry?
Some animals that often look sad.
But what are cage bars to an animal? To a human in our society (and probably all others), cages bars are more than a barrier. They represent loss of freedom, eternal confinement, lack of dignity, and criminality, among other things. This is why a cage can provide the same amount of space, but people will feel better about enclosures that lack bars and instead have moats or see-through glass. Animals do not possess our evolved, cultural aversion to cage bars. Most animals (or non-humans, for lack of a better term), perceive a barrier but do not associate the same emotional intensity with these structures. Humans on the other hand project their emotions with cages (or tanks) to animals.
3. Savanna Baboon
On the flipside, the human’s psychological state may even trick humans into thinking too highly of an animal’s enclosure. The turquoise, clear water tanks that cetaceans are kept in may look inviting to us because they remind us of pools, tropical oceans and oasis, but recently this view has been challenged with more scrutiny by people who study their natural behavior.
4. Polar Bear
So why do I provide examples of the opposite effect? It is important for all of us, from casual observers to scientists who study animal behavior to purge our inherent desire to see ourselves in the animals, both for the unfair criticism of zoos and well-being of all captive animals (not just zoo animals). Sometimes something as simple as the boney structure of an animal’s jaw can make it ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ to the human brain.
Some other zoo visitors point out that an animal seems sad because it’s not as lively or interesting as the animals they’ve seen in the wild or in documentaries.
There are some possible logical explanations for this. Most documentaries tend to show animals doing interesting things, being more active and doing things such as hunting or forging, playing, swimming, and other entertaining behaviors.
Most animals do not do this all day. If you see an animal in the wild, it’s likely that said animal is more alert having seen you or being in the situation in which it will be out of its comfort zone, and thusly more alert. In not too many circumstances can you approach an animal unhabituated to humans during its ‘down time’, and at the zoo, you are seeing animals that are 100% acclimated to the constant stream of human visitors. And at times they may look, or may possibly even be ‘bored’.
6. African Elephant
Sometimes animals get bored. It will probably happen less in the wild since most wild animals have the daily occupation of surviving. But in some circumstances, if they are bored in nature it isn’t likely to occur in a human’s presence.
Regardless, being bored in captivity can be an issue as well a luxury. Zoo animals have their essential needs taken care of and can afford to be ‘bored’ just like you, your dog or your cat (perhaps your boredom led you here). Too much boredom however, defined by a lack of stimulus, is a welfare issue.
However, your minute-long visit of witnessing what you perceive as a ‘bored’ animal does not necessarily mean the animal is always in this state. You could be seeing an animal resting, or a certain part of the day where it is just not as active because its been fed, or is in the portion of the day where keepers aren’t dropping by. Take into account also the natural history of an animal and the percentage of time it may spend not moving. Casting judgment on the animal welfare standards of a particular zoo by a short observation is hardly fair.
Sometimes animals get sad..
Just like in your daily life, there are highs and lows for animals. It is possible that sometimes animals can be 'sad' about something, or stressed due to some change in their environment.
Animals do have their own lives outside of your zoo visit, and many things may be going on that could result in an animal(s) not being in the best mood while you're viewing it.
Is it ever OK to judge a zoo exhibit?
Yes, as long as you take an informed approach. It is important for the public to discern right from wrong and object to poor animal welfare...BUT...the tricky part is fairly determining that this is taking place when you aren't exactly an expert on how a specific animal should be kept or its normal behavior.
Each species has unique needs, and animals are also individuals with different histories. For instance, stereotypical behavior may occur in animals that were rescued from poor environments that will persist in their new location (occurrence of these behaviors are complicated, more on that later). Please refrain from taking a 'know-it-all' approach after taking a quick glimpse of the animal. Also, do not assume that an animal doesn't have access to more space other than what is visible before you. Always listen attentively to the people who deal with this animal day after day, as they are likely to have far more insight. Don't profess to be an animal mind reader, and be objective. Beware of emotional projection.
More by this Author
Was it ethical for the Copenhagen Zoo to euthanize Marius, a two-year old giraffe, due to lack of space for conservation efforts?
What do we learn from visiting zoos? Is it ethical to have zoos for education?
Profiles of the small and medium-sized exotic or wild cats that are sometimes kept as pets in the United States.