Like most of these issues, I can talk until the cows come home about this topic, so I’ll narrow my scope to megafauna land mammals in zoos.
The general debate of animals in zoos is a hot one, with well thought out points on both sides. General arguments for zoos are that they provide funding for conservation (or even conservation programs and research in the zoos themselves) and they educate the public about animals they wouldn’t otherwise see. Main arguments against zoos include the concern of the well-being of the animals (especially the megafauna mammals), that the zoos are too patron-oriented in terms of both profit and experience and that perceived educational benefits are relative. Since the release of the documentary Blackfish in 2013 that revealed the woes of orca whales in captivity, people are beginning to think twice about other megafauna mammals in captivity.
I wrote a short paper last year that explored: under what conditions is it acceptable to place animals in captivity based on biology, natural environment, and conservation status, particularly concerning the polar bear.
With the Arctic habitat of the polar bear rapidly disappearing due to climate change, they remain a species vulnerable to extinction. Despite their restricted range, polar bears can be found in zoos all across the globe, where they attract a tourists, provide conservation education opportunities and offer research opportunities that cannot be carried out in the wild that could be extrapolated to conservation strategies in wild populations. Although captive breeding programs are largely unsuccessful, polar bears tend to live longer in captivity than in the wild, which raises a few concerns: is it ethical to impose an arguably unnaturally long life on these creatures? Is a longer life in captivity necessarily indicative of better mental or physical health?
Other concerns with keeping them in captivity include the size of their enclosures and conditions. Polar bears can live in enclosures of about 6,000 square feet, but that doesn’t compare to their massive home ranges in the wild where they travel up to 60 miles a day. Despite some efforts to make them more comfortable, repetitive and apparently purposeless actions such as head bobbing and swinging from side to side have been observed in polar bears can be signs of stress or boredom.
Given the non-urgent conservation status of the polar bear, the size of the animal and the specialized habitat requirements, I do not think it is necessary to have so many in zoos. I believe it could be acceptable to have a few in zoos to maintain conservation funds, plus, with fewer in zoos there will be more demand to see them (like with the panda bear) perhaps even increasing funds from zoos.
I do not think it is ethical to keep large animals in captivity if their conservation status isn’t critical, they are well understood, they have high cognitive ability, often live in social groups, are large bodied, and/ or have a large range. Constraining these large animals with massive ranges into, comparatively, a box just so we can ogle them is quite selfish. I don’t believe the pain and suffering the animals go through for their entire lives is worth the “educational benefits” claimed by zoos (what can you actually remember about your last zoo trip?).
We should protect species and their habitats for their intrinsic value rather than having to see them to relate to them.