Why I’m Conflicted About Taking My Kids to the Zoo

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While the zoo may sound like the perfect family friendly outing, I’m not so sure about zoos. Sometimes during a zoo trip, I wonder what I’m really teaching my kids. Part of me enjoys seeing wildlife in person and another part feels guilty to see creatures held captive for my family’s entertainment.

Having a family zoo membership this year has given me ample opportunity to consider the ethical implications of visiting zoos. Most zoos promote themselves as educational opportunities. Their purpose is to increase human knowledge with the goal of better protecting animal populations in captivity and in the wild. Honestly, for that goal, animals do not need to be on display for the general public, but without having visitors, most zoos could not afford to operate.

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Whenever I question whether or not we should go to zoos, I keep coming back to this: animals are not people, and anthropomorphising them isn’t a true reflection of their experience. Additionally, life in the wild isn’t a perfect Eden. While it’s easy to assume life would be better for animals in the wild, that’s not necessarily true. Nature is brutal. In the wild animals face numerous struggles such as overpopulation, disease, predation, and habitat loss. All it takes is watching a nature program to see that freedom for many animals is being another animal’s dinner. I’m not sure that’s better than being in a zoo.

Because I know captivity is complicated, I try to make the best of our visits by focusing on learning.

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With my kids, I build vocabulary and encourage letter and color recognition by pointing out signs and reading them aloud. I try to use zoos as conversation starters, so we move beyond “look at that cute animal.” We talk about classification by discussing how animals are similar and different. We talk about geography and make use of the maps on display. We also talk about the condition of the animals and why they might feel certain ways. I like seeing the wonder in their faces as they experience new things and zoos are a great place for this.

However, I know that many people do not go to zoos to learn.

Just last week a drunk woman was injured trying to pet a tiger in a zoo. This is not a rare happening. Zoogoers antagonize animals every day from tapping on their displays to shouting at them to throwing trash and, in some cases, attempting to get in their habitats. Even when zoogoers enter restricted areas and find themselves attacked, the animals often suffer consequences such as euthanasia when they were only acting in their nature. I can’t say that zoos shouldn’t exist because of the bad behavior of a minority, but I hate thinking that animals spend their lives having idiots taunt them.

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Just as better zoos have adequate staff to help control visitors, they also have more humane enclosures. These zoos tend to have ample learning opportunities available such as creature chats run by the zookeepers that help engage visitors and provide entertaining outlets that breed respect and compassion for animals. Zoos like these are the reason I still go to zoos despite some of my concerns. I’ve come to especially enjoy behind the scenes type events like the one in these photos where my son had many one-on-one conversations with keepers and the animals on exhibit were only a small part of the outing.

Because there are aspects of captivity I don’t like, I avoid zoos that have poor enclosures and don’t focus on education. I want my family’s zoo experiences to be as positive as possible for us and the animals.

Do you take your family to zoos? Why or why not?