Jordi Casamitjana, a vegan anti-captivity campaigner, explains why vegans should never support zoos and public aquaria
This one was a request from a reader.
I don’t think I would ever need to write an article about “why vegans should not eat bacon” as it would be pointless and even patronising. But it seems I have to write this one about zoos, as there have been quite a few discussions happening deep into the caverns of vegan echo chambers in which vegans have been dragged to constantly explain to other “vegans” why not supporting zoos is as essential for veganism as not supporting the dairy industry.
It is possible that those asking for such explanations are just very new vegans who are still learning what veganism is all about — which is fair enough and we should gladly help them. Or they may be people who call themselves vegan, but they don’t follow the definition of the Vegan Society to the full (which seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation), but just partially (such as excluding the exploitation of animals for clothes only worn at the top half of our bodies, or only those exploitations that happen during weekends, or only those perpetrated by upper-class landowners, or only those involving food). In that case, if they just happen to be plant-based people that entered veganism via one of the five gateways (i.e. the health gateway) and are willing to explore the philosophy further, we should be patient and hope that, with time, they will embrace it fully and therefore will understand what it entails without requiring further explanations. Or it may even be people who have been already vegan for some time, but carnism still has a strong grip on them after a long indoctrination, and may have rationalised the consumption of some animal products (such as mussels or honey) or the support of some forms of animal exploitation (such as horse-riding or zoos). For these, a stronger anti-carnist antidote will be needed.
As I have been vegan for over 20 years, I have worked in anti-captivity campaigning for a long time, and I even was, technically, a co-director of an establishment with a zoo licence, those helpful vegans tired of giving such basic explanations often tag me hoping I could add some comments and relieve them from the task. I often do, but recently I got this reply added to the comment I posted on Facebook: “could you make this comment shareable, please. It is very powerful. Publish it as an article on Vegan FTA.”
I decided to oblige.
The Basic Reasons to Oppose Zoos
This is the comment I posted on Facebook that sets up my opinion about zoos — the one some vegans wanted me to share in an article:
“I am a zoologist and I used to lead the Zoo Check department of the Born Free Foundation. I have investigated more than 200 zoos, many of which belong to BIAZA and WAZA, the international zoo federations. And yet, I found that most of their conservation claims to be false. Most are still profit-making businesses using conservation propaganda to attract more visitors. I have yet to find any zoo where animals did not suffer unnecessarily, including the most “prestigious” zoos.
This is why we ethical vegans are against zoos, not only individually (as we may be against McDonald’s or KFC) but as a concept. We are against the keeping of wild animals in captivity other than for the direct benefit of the animals involved as a temporary emergency treatment, such as in wildlife rehabilitation centres (where there is no breeding, no visitors, and no husbandry experiments, and most animals are truly aimed to be released into the wild as soon as possible, and because of this are always kept close to the wild habitats where they evolved in, in the right physical and social environments with minimal human interaction). Zoos don’t do that.
In fact, they do the opposite of all this. They breed animals on purpose bringing more wildlife to a life of suffering. They all have visitors (most of them paying visitors allowed to get too close to the animals and disrupt them). They all do experiments with the animals with different types of husbandry methods and foods, often very unnatural ones. The immense majority of the animals are not aimed to be released back into the wild, and most of those who they claim are, are never released and will die at the zoo. Most animals are kept far away from the environment where their species evolved in, in other countries with the wrong climate, the wrong vegetation, the wrong neighbouring animals and the wrong habitat for them. They all keep them in enclosures hundreds or even thousands of times smaller than their minimum natural home rage, often without the right companions. They deprive the animals for life of the right space, stimuli and choice, and because of this, animals suffer a great deal, often getting mad. And they all lie to the visiting public and give wrong “lessons” to children claiming to be educational. Zoos should be phased out.”
In this article, I will unpack some of my assertions in this comment.
The Three Zoo Lies
There was a time that zoos could do whatever they liked and did not hide their true nature: freak shows that exploit animals for profit. But when the Enlightenment came along, this European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that celebrated reason over superstition and tradition, philosophers started to question the use of animals by humans. The animal rights movement began, and, gradually, the idea of going to watch captive wild animals kept for entertainment lost its acceptability to some. So, zoos needed to find some new excuses to hide their true intentions. The Zoological Society of London, founded in 1826, justified London Zoo as “the advancement of zoology and animal physiology and the introduction of new and curious subjects of the Animal Kingdom”. That was the research excuse flourishing at the time collecting-type science was also flourishing. Over the years, other excuses were developed, and they ended up enshrined in law. For instance, in the European Zoo Directive, where EU nations were directed to licence all their zoos and to apply some criteria about which ones would be allowed, and which not. The Three Zoo Lies come from those criteria.
If you look at most jurisdictions in the world, they often have laws that say zoos are OK, as long as they do some conservation, education or research. In Europe, the inclusion of these three criteria in law came in 1999 with the European Zoo Directive (Council Directive 1999/22/EC), which defines zoos (also known as zoological collections) as permanent establishments where animals of wild species are kept for exhibition to the public for 7 or more days a year (except for circuses and pet shops). It sets the following criteria to license an establishment as a zoo:
- Participating in research from which conservation benefits accrue to the species, and/or training in relevant conservation skills, and/or the exchange of information relating to species conservation and/or, where appropriate, captive breeding, repopulation or reintroduction of species into the wild,
- Promoting public education and awareness in relation to the conservation of biodiversity, particularly by providing information about the species exhibited and their natural habitats,
- Accommodating their animals under conditions which aim to satisfy the biological and conservation requirements of the individual species, inter alia, by providing species-specific enrichment of the enclosures; and maintaining a high standard of animal husbandry with a developed programme of preventive and curative veterinary care and nutrition,
- Preventing the escape of animals in order to avoid possible ecological threats to indigenous species and preventing intrusion of outside pests and vermin,
- Keeping of up-to-date records of the zoo’s collection appropriate to the species recorded.
Preventing animals to escape, keeping records, and keeping the animals under conditions that allowed their survival is something zoos had already been doing to run their profit-making business and entice enough visitors. But now they had to demonstrate they were doing three new things: conservation, education and research.
This led to the creation of the PR departments of each zoo, and bigger ones representing the zoo industry, aiming at convincing the authorities — and the public — they were doing all this (even if they did not do it in reality, or they only did it tokenistically). Umbrella organisations such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), or the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) were created for this purpose — and to help them trade wild animals among themselves so they never run out of inmates, even when countries would eventually begin to ban their capture from the wild.
Zoos became very good about lying. They convinced many people that they were now conservation, education and research institutions even if they were still the same profit-making freak shows they once openly admitted being. Therefore, many animal rights people chose to dedicate their work to exposing these lies, and the anti-captivity movement began. I joined it at the turn of the 21st century.
The Anti-Captivity Movement
Organisations like Freedom from Animals (formally CAPS, the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, founded in 1957), Zoo Check Canada, PETA, the Animal Protection Agency, and the Born Free Foundation, have been at the front line of the anti-captivity movement, which believes wild animals belong to the wild, and aims to abolish zoos, circuses with animals, and the keeping of wild animals as “pets”. Not all anti-captivity people belonging to these groups are vegan, but all vegans should be anti-captivity.
In the year 2000, I became the Zoo Check Scientific Researcher and Co-ordinator of the Born Free Foundation, and I was set the task of exposing the three lies (and many others the zoos were relying on to counter the increasingly hostile attitude of the public gradually learning about wild animals from documentaries and discovering how much they suffered in captivity). I did that with a series of undercover investigations and annual reports of their findings. Under the collective titled Zoo Health Check, I produced the reports with comprehensive video data obtained from inspections my colleagues and I did to random samples of UK zoological collections (and therefore, the results were representative of the entire population of zoos in the UK. The first report I co-authored about this (covering a random sample of 104 collections, representing 25% of all UK zoos), was titled Official Zoo Healthcheck 2000. A study of UK Zoological Collections. It already exposed two of the three lies. Here are some of its conclusions about them:
Conservation Lie (“We breed animals in captivity belonging to endangered species and return them to the wild to save their species from extinction”).
- Less than 5% of the taxa (species or sub-species) kept in British Zoological collections were classified as endangered or worse by IUCN.
- Less than 3% of the taxa in the UK zoological collections were part of any 2000 European Endangered Species Programme.
- Less than 1% of the UK zoological collections were directly involved with the reintroduction of any of their animals classified as ‘endangered or worse’ back into the wild during the year 2000
Research Lie (“We are scientific institutions that make advances in zoology through researching the animals we house”)
- All the scientific papers published from 1977 to 2000 about research made on all Large Zoos and Safari Parks in the UK in 2000 only represent 0.05% of the zoological papers published during the same period.
- About 2% of all papers on zoological matters published between 1977 and 2000 all over the world are about captive animals in zoological collections.
- The majority of the UK zoological collections did not produce any published research in the 24 years before 2000.
- The average UK zoological collection produced a single scientific paper every 15 years.
The conservation and research work at zoos was so small and tokenistic that claiming that zoos are conservation or research institutions was such an exaggeration as claiming that a supermarket is a hospital or a university because once a customer collapsed and staff gave CPR while waiting for an ambulance, or once a till operator told a tourist about some interesting historical fact of the town.
As far as the education lie is concerned, another investigation I did after I left Born Free and became a freelance animal investigator shows some light. This one was on UK public aquaria commissioned by Freedom for Animals (then CAPS) and was conducted in 2004. The study, which covered a random sample of 31 aquaria visited representing 55% of the total, concluded:
- 83% of the UK public aquarium visitors do not read the contents of live exhibit signs except perhaps the animals’ names, and 95% of the visitors do not read the entirety of exhibit signs.
- 41% of the individual animals seen in UK public aquaria have no signs identifying which species they belong to.
- Less than half (45%) of the UK public aquaria offered talks or special events to the visiting public in spring 2004, less than half (45%) offered education packs, and almost a quarter (23%) of the UK public aquaria did not even have a website.
How can zoos be educational if they keep wild animals captive in unnatural environments, eating unnatural food for them, behaving abnormally, mixed with the wrong kind, and look differently than they would look in the wild (overweight, underweight, losing hair or feathers, etc.). How can it be educational if keepers are trained to lie about what the repetitive behaviour the animals show means, how did they get there, and what is going to happen to them? Institutions based on deception cannot be seen as paradigms of education. Children learn about real animals in zoos as you could learn about Paris by glancing from a distance at a gift paper that once wrapped a made-in-China plastic miniature of the Eiffel Tower.
And the proof that zoos teach the wrong things and don’t have the educational value their advocates claim they have can be found in any child who has visited any zoo. Ask them to tell you anything the animals they saw in the zoo normally do in the wild, and then ask the same question regarding a dinosaur they have never seen anywhere, as there isn’t one alive. Ask them what they know about Green Iguanas (the most common reptile found in UK zoos, and the most common exotic wild animal in UK zoos in the year 2000), and then ask them what they know about Tyrannosaurus rex. I rest my case.
And we are talking about the UK, which “invented” the concept of the modern zoo with the opening of the London zoo in 1826, and it is supposed to have the most advanced zoo industry in the world following the most strict regulations under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 and the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. Well, in 2011 Freedom for Animals commissioned me a study of the UK zoo licensing and inspection system covering the period between 2005 and 2011. The results published in the 244-page-report titled ‘Inspecting Zoos’ (and the summary report ‘A Licence to Suffer’), based on Freedom of Information requests covering over 200 zoological collections, 1,500 pieces of correspondence, and 738 official inspectors’ reports, were astonishing:
- 70% of local authorities missed at least one inspection of zoos they had licensed
- 74% of inspection reports identified reoccurring unsatisfactory issues
- 95% of zoos should have had legal enforcement action taken against them at some time between 2005 and 2011. Only two instances of the correct enforcement action were identified.
- 89% of zoos were in non-compliance with EC legislation for zoos
Some years have passed since I did all those investigations and studies, but there is nothing I have seen since that suggests the zoo industry has changed its strategy and it doesn’t lie anymore on those issues. The lies worked then to attract visitors, so why would they stop them now if they still need them to survive?
And any research done more recently arrives at similar conclusions to mine, showing very little improvement. Although some punctual advances have been achieved (after a daring campaign there are no longer cetaceans in captivity in the UK, and dolphinariums are beginning to close in other countries), and the awareness of the problems of captivity within the industry is growing (there is an increasing recognition that elephants should not be kept in zoos as their suffering is more obvious), overall, the improvements have been very small covering only a handful of species from the thousands kept in zoos. And the three lies continue to dominate the zoos’ propaganda machine while zoos remain profit-making entertainment establishments deceivingly disguised as education, research, conservation or even animal welfare facilities.
Another study on UK public aquaria from 2014, and another in 2021, confirm my 2004 conclusions showing that little has changed in all this time. A 2011 study of EU zoos found that 70-75% of animals kept in them are not globally threatened in the wild. There were over 5,700 species of all animal classes held by members of EAZA alone, which represents only about 8% of all zoos in Europe, but only a little over 200 of these species were in managed breeding programmes. Only 8% of the 355 species in the EU zoos were listed as having either a European Endangered Species Breeding Programme (EEPs) or European Stud Book (ESBs). A 2018 study of Welsh zoos concluded that only 9% of species kept in them were endangered, and 84% of mammals, 95% of birds, 93% of reptiles, and 79% of amphibians kept in Welsh zoos were not endangered. Even in 2022, there is evidence of how zoos are still taking animals from the wild and driving species to extinction, as has been the recent case of Namibian elephants.
These lies are even attracting some plant-based people who have chosen not to become vegan and continue supporting zoos. I guess, as they say, a leopard can’t change its spots.
Animals Suffer in Zoos
Ethical vegans try avoiding harming, physically or mentally, any sentient being of any species (and this includes wild animals, of course). A sentient being is an organism capable of perceiving the environment through senses, processing the information from the senses with a nervous system to assess available choices, and as a consequence moving using muscles accordingly, depending on whether the experience was positive or negative. Captivity does three bad things to sentient beings: it reduces their available space to move, it reduces the number and quality of stimuli their senses receive, and it reduces the amount of choice they have in their everyday life.
If you reduce the number or quality of the stimuli below what evolution has shaped their senses to detect, you reduce the choices from what evolution has shaped their nervous system to process, and you reduce the space under what evolution has shaped their bodies to move around, you will transform the animals’ entire lives into a negative experience for them. This is what zoos do. They are unethical factories of negative experiences for all types of wild animals, and such experiences span from discomfort to pain to madness to death.
Regarding the limitation of space, in 2003 I did a study to quantify it. Using data from a random sample of UK zoos, I calculated the difference between the enclosure size of mammals kept and the minimum home range the animals would have in the wild. I arrived at these conclusions:
- Mammals kept in UK zoological collections during the period 2000-2001 were confined in enclosures that, on average, had an area 100 times smaller than their minimum home range in the wild.
- Mammals with a body mass bigger than 100 Kg (megafauna) kept in UK zoological collections during the period 2000-2001 were confined to enclosures that had an average area 1000 times smaller than their minimum home range in the wild.
- The results of this study suggest that if a human being naturally living most of his/her life in a small village of about 1 Km square was confined in a space with the same spatial restrictions that wild mammals kept in captivity have in UK’s zoological collections, this human would be living in a space approximately of the size of a telephone box.
Imagine a pig confined for months in captivity in a tiny space not being able to move much. That is a factory farm. Now imagine the same pig confine in the same space for 20 years. That is a zoo. Pigs are slaughtered at 10 months of age or so, but they can live up to 20 years. Wild animals have not been bred for generations like domestic animals have to tolerate captive life better, so for them, the zoo enclosure may feel as restrictive as the crate on the factory farm. An Asian elephant’s minimum home rage is about 100 km2 to 300 km2. This is the minimum space (not the average space) they need to have a normal life. Now think about the size of the elephant enclosure of the last zoo you have seen. I rest my case, again.
And this is just space. Stimuli and choices are as important. It’s not surprising that animals get mad in zoos. After having visited more than 200 zoos I witnessed many animals showing clear signs of distress, and what could be described as mental disorders caused by their life in captivity (sometimes referred to as ‘zoochosis’). The most common way to identify these psychological problems is by observing ‘stereotypic behaviour’ (abnormal repetitive behaviour with no apparent function). Some of the cases I witnessed were horrible: the moon bear unable to stop repetitively licking his paw for the rest of his life, the Siberian chipmunk constantly doing summersaults backwards, the llama twisting her neck every few seconds; the chimp who was bald as he had pulled out all his hair in despair, an elephant bobbing his head up and down non-stop, big cats of all types leaving a visible trace engraved on the ground after endlessly pacing up and down through the same path forever, a lizard hitting his nose against his reflection on the glass, and the ray unable to stop spiralling through the tank.
The examples were endless. It didn’t matter how big or small the zoo was as I always could find cases of animals showing how ‘negative’ their experience of all the wrongs in captivity was for them. I even quantified it. In the 2000 study of UK zoological collections mentioned earlier, I found 16 types of stereotypic behaviour performed by 66 different species. I also found that 45% of the zoos had at least one case of an animal showing obvious stereotypic behaviour. More than 80% of the Large Zoos and Wildlife/Safari Parks visited in this study showed at least one case of possible stereotypic animals. Regarding the 2004 study on public aquaria, I found that 90% of UK public aquaria kept aquatic animals who showed stereotypic behaviour (because, despite popular belief, fish suffer in captivity as much as mammals do). And this is the tip of the iceberg. Only the worst cases manifest this type of behaviour, and some species, such as polar bears, elephants, chipmunks or rays, are more likely to show it. The majority of animals endure their suffering without expressing it in a way easily detectable through a short visit.
How anyone, especially someone claiming to be vegan, can ignore such widespread and disturbing suffering?
Zoos Are One of the Least Vegan-Friendly Places on Earth
A vegan, by following the definition of veganism of the Vegan Society, believes in the following four principles: 1) Ahimsa, the principle of “do no harm”, or “non-violence”; 2) anti-speciesism, not discriminating against individuals because of the species they belong to; 3) Animal sentience, accepting all animals of any species are sentient beings; 4) anti-exploitation, accepting that all exploitation of animals harmed them in one way or another. People who support zoos knowing what they do to animals are violating all these principles.
If you think about it, which other place other than a zoo you can see a wider variety of animals suffering around lots of people not even realising they are suffering? Staff working in an abattoir know that what they do is cruel, and the animals suffer. They choose to ignore it because that’s their job. Farmers of factory farms also know that cows suffer when their calves are removed from them, but they accept this suffering because they made it part of their livelihood. But the average zoo visitor is completely lost in a fantasy not even seeing the obvious. They see an elephant rocking in madness and they think he is dancing. They see a tigress pacing in frustration, and they think she is having an afternoon’s stroll. They see a pufferfish distressingly fighting its reflection and they think she is having a game. They see a recently born chimp starting her life sentence behind bars and they think one day she will be back in the jungle.
And after walking from cage to gage laughing at the misery of literally thousands of animals, and sometimes watching the animals eating the flesh of others — how many animals are killed to feed the zoos’ inmates? — these visitors go to the cafeteria to eat a few of them for lunch too (because the meat served in zoos can be seen in its “alive” form in the zoo’s petty farm enclosers or fish tanks). Some may even be wearing some of the animals they watched on their body in the form of shoes, wallets, belts, hats, or jackets. And may not even notice that some of the monkeys they are mocking are of the same species used to test the pills they swallowed in the morning.
When they talk to the keepers, they will be taught the animals in the cages are being “sacrificed” for the benefit of their species. They will be taught about captive breeding programs, and about how the individual animal’s suffering doesn’t matter, only the preservation of the species does (because if a species gets extinct, you could no longer see it in the zoo, no matter how much you pay). They will learn the true meaning of speciesism, the discrimination of individuals because of the species they belong to. All prisoners in the zoo prison are there only because of the species they belong to. They are all prisoners of the entertainment industry. And if you believe the three zoo lies, then they are prisoners of the conservation, education and research industries.
In a big enough zoo, you will be able to find almost every victim of every type of animal exploitation there is. All of them were sentenced to life behind bars for just looking different from the average human of the area (yes, the average human, as there was a time when even humans from other races were kept in zoos). You will find the bears, mink, and foxes victims of the fur industry. You will find the rabbits, rodents, and primates victims of the vivisection industry. You will find the elephants, lions, and seals victims of the circus industry. You will find the pigs, birds, and fishes victims of the food industry. You will find the parrots, chipmunks, and terrapins victims of the exotic pets industry. You will find the giraffes, rhinos, and zebras victims of the hunting industry.
They are all there, “exhibited” as collectors’ trophies, bread to perpetuate their suffering generation after generation, restrained to show humanity’s dominion over Nature. And if visitors grow tired of “watching” some of the animals because they become boring or are too many of them, they may be killed and fed to others because, after all, they are just “goods” administered by the zoo’s owners.
Zoos are places where, through captive breeding, animals of all sorts are born directly as victims of humanity, and in a macabre twist are kept alive as long as possible so they can be “watched” by as many voyeuristic humans as possible. They are reduced to “exhibits” for cash. They are no longer considered beings. They are considered “sights” that people pay to see. And the rarer the sight, the more they can charge for. That’s their job for life. They have become visitors’ “images” stored on their memories or cameras, and after years of this torment, they will eventually become empty images with nobody inside anymore.
If an alien had visited our planet and, when back home, had decided to create a museum of “Carnism” on her planet to show what this bizarre human concept means, it would probably look like a simulation of a zoo. It would show perfectly how indoctrinated people no longer see the suffering of others. It would show perfectly what speciesism is (one species keeping all the others in captivity, watching them with a compassionless sense of superiority). It would be a museum of human stupidity and arrogance.
If you call yourself a vegan, would you support vivisection because of all the medical “research” it does on rats and monkeys? Would you accept the hunting of lions and elephants because of all the “conservation” trophy hunters claim to finance? Would you accept farming animals for food because of the “education” farms provide to schools when they visit them? Would you use a fur coat from a captive-bred leopard? Would you support any company that breeds and kills any animal for profit? Would you buy the idea that the animals in the agriculture and vivisection industries can be sacrificed because they exist for a good cause and have been bred for a particular human purpose? Would you accept that if people prefer to eat animal flesh rather than fake meats, cow’s milk rather than oak milk, or chicken eggs rather than tofu scramble, these are perfectly valid choices as choosing to visit zoos rather than genuine animal sanctuaries, because all these products come from perfectly legal activities regulated under strict animal welfare laws set to guarantee “minimum animal suffering”?
If you answer ‘no’ to all these questions but switch to ‘yes’ when they refer to zoos and the animals they keep, there is something very wrong with your reasoning.
All zoos exploit animals, and all vegans are against animal exploitation.
Wild animals belong to the wild.
Vegans do not support zoos.