‘Ban zoos!’ demand animal rights activists

Harambe: The 17-year-old gorilla was named after a Rita Marley song. © Cincinnati Zoo

When Harambe the gorilla was killed to protect a child who had fallen into his enclosure, there was global outrage. But as the grief fades, a new debate has arisen. Do we need zoos at all?

Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio, in May. A three-year-old boy fell into the Gorilla World habitat. Crowds gasped. His mother screamed. A rare silverback lowland gorilla named Harambe approached. In the agonising ten minutes that followed, he cornered the child, held his hand — and dragged him ‘like a ragdoll’ through the enclosure.

Terrified that the boy would be hurt, the zookeepers made a crucial decision: they shot and killed Harambe.

The boy is fine. But almost 500,000 people have signed a petition condemning the act, blaming the parents for not watching their son. Some talked of ‘Justice for Harambe’. There was a candlelit vigil to honour his life.

Now the debate has turned to a much broader question: should he have been in captivity in the first place?

Keeping wild animals for entertainment is almost as old as civilisation itself: the oldest menagerie site that we know of can be found in Egypt, and it dates back to 3500 BCE. For centuries, wild animals stalked the Tower of London and the parks of Versailles as part of royal collections. And for the last 150 years or so, zoos have been open to the public for education.

But increasingly many see them as a hangover of a bygone era. Conditions may have improved since the days of cramped cages and cruel keepers, but lions still have 18,000 times less space than they would in the wild. For polar bears, it is a million times less.

Is it any wonder that zoo animals often show signs of depression and OCD? In the UK, while lions spend 48% of their time pacing in distress, around 54% of elephants have ‘behavioural problems’.

And yet zoos say that keeping some animals in captivity is worth it. Yesterday in Time magazine, the chief executive of the American Humane Association argued passionately that ‘zoos are not prisons.’ They help scientists to study animal diseases, and have pulled endangered species back from the brink of extinction. ‘Go see for yourself,’ she said.

Wild things

It does not matter, say activists: zoos are wrong. Conservation projects should take place in the wild, where the animals can flourish. And in the 21st century it is senseless to gawk at wildlife in small, unnatural habitats when there are so many amazing documentaries — and, if we can afford them, safaris — that show creatures as they are meant to be: free.

Television is just not the same, say zookeepers. Nothing can compare to the amazing experience of seeing animals in real life: the sounds, the smells, and the sense of wonder as an animal turns its head and looks you in the eye. As we slip into a ‘sixth extinction’, it is crucial that the next generation is inspired to save as many species as possible. Zoos play a vital part in that.

You Decide

  1. Did the Cincinnati zookeepers make the right decision?
  2. Should zoos be banned?


  1. Imagine you have been given two lions as a gift. Design an enclosure that would allow them to live the best life possible.
  2. Find out about a conservation project at your local zoo and produce a report assessing how it could impact the animal world.

Some People Say...

“It is better for animals to die in the wild than live in captivity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How much should I worry about how animals feel?
For a long time, scientists have been sceptical that animals ‘feel’ anything. Talking about them like people (known as anthropomorphism) was a bit of a faux-pas. But recently there is a growing movement which argues that animals can have complex and unique internal lives, just like humans. If that is true, we may need to think very hard about how we treat them.
Are zoos really so bad?
It depends on the zoo. Many are staffed by devoted animal lovers who try to provide the best environments possible. But there are exceptions. Earlier this month, a popular attraction known as the ‘Tiger Temple’ in Thailand was closed when authorities found 40 dead cubs in its freezers. It is believed they were bred to fuel the illegal endangered animal trade.

Word Watch

Silverback lowland gorilla
An endangered species generally found in the rainforests of central Africa. Highly intelligent, they have been known to use tools in the wild and learn sign language in captivity.
Tower of London
First established in 1210 the royal menagerie included everything from elephants to kangaroos to ostriches. After several attacks, the animals were eventually sent to the London Zoo in 1832.
The French king’s royal menagerie was established in the 1660s, and became a model for other monarchies throughout Europe. After the revolution, the remaining animals were moved to a public menagerie.
150 years
London Zoo was the first modern zoo, opening to the public in 1847. Similar zoos in Melbourne and New York opened in 1860.
Obsessive compulsive disorder.
Endangered species
Red wolves, the Arabian oryx, and the black footed ferret have all been saved by conservation programmes in zoos.
Sixth extinction
The theory that Earth has been through five major extinctions in its history, and is currently experiencing its sixth — this time, humans are to blame.

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