The concept of modern zoo where people can observe animals in captivity, is nearly two centuries old. The first zoo opened in London in 1828 and it was originally meant to be a place to collect animals for scientific study. Zoos are supposed to educate public about conservation issues, inspire people to protect animals and their habitats, provide endangered species a secure environment to live and breed, after which they are supposed to be released back into the wild to increase genetic diversity.

However, the growing commercialism of many zoos have raised concerns among animal activists. Many people want zoos to be abolished as they feel that animals should not spend their entire lives in captivity simply to fulfill human’s wish to see them. They also claimed that zoos are unable to provide the amount of space animals have in the wild and zoos are camouflaging their cruelty with conservation claims.

There was an incident when a gorilla was shot to ensure the safety of a child who had wondered into the enclosure. That sparked a backlash and a fierce debate on whether wild animals should be held in captivity in the first place.

This is particularly the case for those species who roam larger distances in their natural habitat. As a result, animals in zoos suffer tremendously, both physically and mentally. They often display neurotic behaviour, like repetitive pacing, jumping, bouncing, swaying and bar biting. A typical polar bear’s enclosure in the zoo is one million times smaller than the area they would naturally roam in the ocean.

Tigers and lions have around 18,000 times less space in zoos than they would have in the wild, and because of that, they spend 48 percent of their time pacing in boredom. To say this adversely affects the animals is an understatement. Bristol Zoo was also hit with criticism for hosting night parties after footage of stressed up lions were released to the public.

Wild elephants have long life spans and typically live 60 to 70 years of age whereas captive elephants have significantly lower life spans than their wild counterparts and are usually dead before the age of 40. The baby elephants are taken away at a very young age when they should still be with their mothers. The elephant’s spirit is then “broken” using the phajaan process, which is designed to break the elephant’s spirit and force them to accept human control. The process is horrific and performed on baby elephants. They are shackled, starved, and beaten. They learn to fear the hooks and nails that will be used to control them in the years to come. Many elephants do not survived this process.

When they are not working, elephants are restrained at all times, both feet are shackled together, usually on very short chains restricting any movement in any direction. In some cases, they have chains with spikes. If an elephant were to misbehave, it is chained by the neck too.

In Thailand, elephants are trained to paint. A paintbrush is inserted into its trunk with a bar going horizontally so it does not fall. It is an uncomfortable experience for the elephants as their trunks are full of nerves endings. The trainers will hold their ears which have nails in them so they can inflict pain to control how the elephants paint. Very often, the elephants are hit with bull hooks.

A female elephant known as the ‘saddest in the world’ died after living alone in a zoo in Spain for 43 years after it was captured and separated from its herd at 3 years old in India. It was reported to suffer from depression. Elephants are social animals like humans and are known to develop strong bonds within family units and no animal should live in loneliness. In 2020, ‘The loneliest elephant in the world’ finally got the green light to escape the zoo it was kept in for 35 years in a Pakistan zoo and be released into a wildlife sanctuary to find a better life and companionship in Cambodia.

Supporters of zoos argued that zoos help to conserve endangered species but it has been found that 40 percent of lion cubs die in zoos compared to 30 percent in their natural habitat. In Thailand’s Tiger Temple, 40 tiger cubs were found dead in a freezer in 2016.

Furthermore, life in a zoo does not prepare animals for the challenges in the wild. Two rare lynxes died of starvation after being released into the wild in Colorado, even thought the area was full of hares, which are a lynx’s natural prey.

At the moment, many animals are taken by force from the wild. In 2002, the UK government allowed 146 penguins to be captured from the South Atlantic where they had to endure a seven day long boat journey. Those who survived the grueling ordeal were given to a wildlife dealer in South Africa before being sold to zoos in Asia.

Zoos also mutilate animals. Tragically, birds in zoos are prevented from flight, one of their most natural behaviours. Not only are they kept in cages, they are also physically mutilated by zoo staff. Pinioning was often carried out without any anesthetic.

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World Animal Protection (WAP) has criticised the popular honeymoon islands of Bali, Lombok and Gili Trawangan in Indonesia for being among the worst destinations in the world when it comes to animal cruelty in captivity. Half of the animals are starving and do not have enough water. Many are forced to entertain visitors and several animals died from eating sweets, plastic, cigarettes, ice cream thrown by the public. One orangutan and a baby were living in a filthy cage no bigger than a telephone box. In a zoo in Bali, seven lions were found with sores and maggots, cramped in cages with no shelter from rain. At one of the dolphin entertainment venues, dolphins have had their teeth filed down or removed entirely, to ensure that they are unable to inflict serious bites on swimmers. One can also see thin, exhausted, dehydrated horses carting people.

From the welfare point of view, there is hardly any justification for keeping animals in commercialised zoos which do not participate in animals conservation programmes. Man has no right to capture animals and imprison them in small enclosures for revenue sake. Wild animals thrive in the wilderness and any attempt to remove them from their natural habitat for keeping people entertained is unethical.