Do animals have a better quality of life in zoos than in the wild?


Fact Box

  • As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, there were animal menageries to house and handle exotic animals; the birth of modern zookeeping is believed to have started in Vienna in 1752 [1].
  •  “Zoo” stands for “zoological park,” and often provides the space for sophisticated breeding centers to study and protect endangered species [2]. 
  • The Animal Welfare Act is a Federal law passed on August 24, 1966, and regulates the treatment of animals used for exhibition, dealing, and transportation. This law has been amended with updates from 1970-2008 and serves as the minimum acceptable standard [3].
  • More than 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums worldwide, and a reported US$350 million is spent on wildlife conservation annually [4]. 
  • There are currently 238 accredited zoos and aquariums across 12 countries with approximately 800,000 animal inhabitants [5].

Michael (Yes)

Zoos cater to the quality of life for all animals kept in captivity. They provide significant care on a daily basis to a variety of species. Zoos have been the sole reason many endangered species escape extinction [1].

There are many factors that dictate the quality of life for an animal. An immediate threat to any animal’s quality of life is death; zoos provide safe living conditions, keeping animals away from predators they might encounter in the wild [2]. Because of this, animals are free to move throughout their habitat without a sense of danger. Any illness, injury, or disease can be cured or treated in a timely manner within the confines of a zoo. Consistent food and water supply are provided to the animal, preventing both malnutrition and starvation [2].

The Federal 1966 Animal Welfare Act serves as the baseline standard in which exhibitors, dealers, and transporters are to care and treat any animal put on display to the public [3]. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) ensure that animal welfare is catered to in a professional capacity for 230 facilities across the world [4]. The AZA strategically plans and implements animal safety through scientific research, best animal care practices, and conservation efforts.

Many species living in the wild are threatened with the risk of extinction. While some species have even been declared extinct in the wild, zoos continue to nurture and expand what’s left of the population until numbers increase and allow for some to be released back into the wild [1]. 

Molly (No)

Research shows that some species - largely mammals with a “faster pace of life” - live longer in zoos than they would in the wild. However, longevity does not directly correlate to quality of life, or a life worth living, and even species who appear healthy in captivity can still suffer from severe behavioral deficits [1].

According to a 2018 NIH study, “animals have not evolved to live in man-made enclosures,” and many of the behaviors they develop within these spaces are not a part of their “normal repertoire[s]” [2]. A prime example of this is the Orca Tilikum from SeaWorld San Diego who infamously killed three people after being ripped from his family at the age of two. It has been shown that orcas in captivity face severe psychological challenges and often become overly aggressive [3]. Similarly, it is known that elephants live much longer and more prosperous lives in the wild than they do in zoos [1,4].

In the U.S., The AZA assesses zoos to ensure that they maintain the “highest standards in animal care and welfare” [5]. However, most welfare assessments merely look for the “presence of pain and the incidence and severity of disease or injury, reflecting current health status and not considering the total components of welfare” [2]. SeaWorld San Diego, where Tilly lived and died, is an AZA-accredited aquarium. 

Overall, wild animals are just that: wild. Some may live longer in captivity, but they will ultimately endure a lower quality of life, as they have been stripped of their intrinsic freedom.

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