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Debate: Zoos

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Should we ban the keeping of animals in zoos?

Background and context

The claim that animals have ‘rights’ was first put forward by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in the 1970s and has been the subject of heated and emotional debates ever since. There are many contexts in which the question of ‘animal rights’ comes up. Should we farm animals? If so by what techniques? Should we eat animals? Should we hunt and fish them? Is it morally acceptable to use animals as sources of entertainment in the context of zoos, circuses, horse racing etc.? Often the same organisations that campaign on environmental issues (e.g. Greenpeace) are also concerned for the welfare of animals: both sets of concerns derive from a commitment to the value of Nature and the Earth. The question of animal rights might well come up in a debate on biodiversity, and is one with so many political and social implications that it is also worth having in its own right. This debate is about the ethical principles at issue; the separate debates on biodiversity, vegetarianism, zoos, blood sports, and animal experimentation deal with more of the concrete details.


Endangered: Are zoos a poor means to protecting endangered species?


  • Most of the animals that you see in zoos aren't endangered. While some argue that zoos are a means to protecting endangered species, the reality is that very few animals in zoos are actually endangered. In other words, this is really not the reason why zoos exist and so should not be put forward as a justification for them.
  • Zoos are not capable of sustaining all endangered species. According to the World Conservation Union which keeps records of endangered species, there are 5428 threatened animals on a recent 'red list'. Yet the ICUN says that even if the world's zoos pooled their resources, they could only expect to sustain about 2000 species in captivity.


  • Zoos help protect endangered species. Zoos are a good place to house endangered species, help them breed, and help move toward their reintroduction back into their natural habitat.
  • Zoos help breed endangered animals. If natural or human factors have made a species' own habitat a threatening environment then human intervention can preserve that species where it would certainly go extinct if there were no intervention.
  • Zoos can raise awareness of endangered species. Visitors to zoos may raise their awareness of endangered species by being directly exposed to them.

Are zoos beneficial because they conserve endangered species?


  • Zoos help breed animals in captivity. One of the main functions of zoos is to breed endangered animals in captivity. If natural or human factors have made a species' own habitat a threatening environment then human intervention can preserve that species where it would certainly go extinct if there were no intervention. There are certainly problems with trying to conserve endangered species in this way but it is right that we should at least try to conserve them. And as long as animals are treated well in zoos there is no reason why conservation, education, and cruelty-free entertainment should not all be combined in a zoo. There is also, of course, a valid role for breeding in different environments such as large nature reserves.


  • Zoos have low success rate at conserving endangered animals. They do not have a very high success rate – many species are going extinct each week despite the good intentions of some zoos. This is partly because a very small captive community of a species is more prone to inter-breeding and birth defects.
  • Breeding of animals need not take place in captivity. Captive breeding to try to stave off extinction need not take place in the context of a zoo, where the public come to look at captive animals and (often) see them perform tricks. Captive breeding programmes should be undertaken in large nature reserves, not within the confines of a zoo.

Is it okay to get zoo animals to perform tricks and do live shows?



  • Zoo animals are not there to do tricks. Zoo animals are supposed to be protected animals and they have rights. Their role in life should not be to entertain the public.
  • Zoo animals are not circus animals. Zoo animals are not circus animals and therefore should not be performing tricks. Not that it's really okay for any animals to perform tricks. Zoo animals are supposed to be protected and it is wrong for them to entertain crowds by performing tricks. It is not natural for animals to perform tricks.

Is 'animal research' a bad excuse for keeping animals in zoos?


  • Animal research does not need to be conducted in confinement. As above, research into animals (when it respects their rights and is not cruel or harmful) may be valuable, but it does not need to happen in the context of confinement and human entertainment. Also, the only way really to understand other species is to study them in their natural habitat and see how they interact socially and with other species of flora and fauna.


  • Animals in zoos can be studied more closely and without cruelty. As above we should take a 'both-and' approach rather than an 'either-or' approach. Animals can and should be studied in the wild but they can be studied more closely, more rigorously, and over a more sustained period of time in captivity. Both sorts of study are valuable and, as in point 4, there is no reason why this should not be done in the context of a cruelty-free zoo as well as in other contexts.

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See also

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