THE BLOG
12/12/2014 05:39 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

It's Not Happening at the Zoo: There's no Evidence Zoos Educate in a Meaningful Way

Peter Ginter via Getty Images

In November, I attended a wonderful meeting of the Performing Animal Welfare Society where elephants in captivity and many different aspects of elephant conservation were discussed. You can see the program here and the list of speakers here.

While elephants were the focal nonhuman animals being highlighted, many different species and issues also were discussed, including the effects on animals of being shipped around as breeding machines, the formation of captive groups and the removal of animals for various reasons, what zoos really do in terms of education and conservation and the growing field of compassionate conservation (see here). I was pleased that many people really want to have definitive answers to these and other questions, but also somewhat dismayed by some of the same old same old, especially undocumented claims that zoos educate visitors. There also were valuable discussions about the fact that there are far too many of us and the negative effects of climate change.

Musical animals, musical semen

Zoos commonly move animals around as if they're objects like couches who don't really care where they live. For example, elephants and other animals are used as breeding machines so when they're needed to make more of themselves, they're shipped around to where they then are expected to perform. I call this process "musical animals," while my colleague Zoocheck Canada's Julie Woodyer told me at the meeting she aptly calls it "musical semen." Many people agree that we really don't need any more captive animals who will live out their lives in captivity, and the discussion about this practice was very valuable in that it was clear that the shuffling around of individuals from one breeding mill to another needs to be considered from the animals' point of view. Many people also agreed it should be stopped.

Zoothanasia

Along these lines, there was good discussion of the practice of "zoothanasia," the premeditated and intentional killing of otherwise healthy animals who don't fit into a zoo's breeding program. I coined the term "zoothanasia" to refer to these unnecessary killings, because killing these animals is not euthanasia or what some zoo administrators like to call "management euthanasia." It is not mercy killing, as zoo administrators claim it is. The most recent and well-known case of zoothanasia involved a young giraffe, Marius, who was publicly killed at the Copenhagen zoo because he couldn't be used to make more giraffes (please see this essay and links therein). When animals are brought to a zoo, often it is not known if they will fit in, and if they don't, or if they can't be used in a breeding program, it is likely they will be housed alone, shipped somewhere else, or killed. When some zoo administrators are asked if this is possible with elephants, they are unsure. Let me be clear that this does not mean that many of them enjoy shipping animals here and there or killing them, but rather, they say it's the reality of a zoo's mission. So, it seems clear that changing the mission of zoos needs to be undertaken. However, some zoo administrators think it's just fine to kill animals who they can't use for breeding, even if they're otherwise healthy or if other zoos offer to house them.

Do zoos educate in a meaningful way? Is going to a zoo like shopping for a car?

Discussions about what zoos really accomplish abound. Given some of the practices mentioned above, many people have argued that zoos don't educate in a meaningful way. Nonetheless, many zoo administrators and other zoo workers often claim that zoos educate visitors and that they serve many different conservation goals. Here, I want to focus on the "education card" because claims about what zoos actually do for conservation are more nuanced. Few individuals who live in zoos or who are born in zoos are actually placed into wild habitat, but some zoos do make financial contributions to various projects.

The discussion of the educational value of zoos at the PAWS meeting was very interesting. Some people continued to say that going to a zoo was educational, whereas others, including those who work for zoos, claimed there are no data that show this is the case. I agree with the latter point of view; zoos are not good places for us to rewild our hearts. The same conclusion was reached in a study published by Dr. Lori Marino and her colleagues titled "Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study" in which they assessed the claims of a study performed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) on why zoos matter.

I thought, as I listened to the discussion, that going to a zoo is like going to a car dealer to look at a car. Sure, zoo and auto showroom visitors learn something about the animals or the cars on display, but this does not mean that what they learn results in making a difference in the lives of the animals or that they actually buy a car. I'm surely happy that a zoo visitor may learn something she or he didn't previously know, but if they don't use this information in a meaningful way to do something for the animals, then it's knowledge for knowledge's sake and that is not a sufficient reason for keeping animals in cages. I'm all for knowledge for knowledge's sake in the proverbial ivory tower or elsewhere, but not at the cost of compromising the lives of zoo residents.

Some people asked for data on the educational values of zoos and there really aren't any that support the claim that zoos educate in any meaningful way that makes a difference for their residents or for their wild relatives. To be fair, there aren't data that show that visiting a zoo is bad for the animals, although many people worry that seeing animals in cages sends the wrong message and that it's okay to confine animals for our entertainment.

I summarized some available data that reportedly speak to the educational value of zoos in an essay called "What Do Zoos Teach about Biodiversity and Does it Matter?" My discussion was based on a study called "A Global Evaluation of Biodiversity Literacy in Zoo and Aquarium Visitors". The report was not published in a peer-reviewed professional journal but rather in-house by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). It is not surprising that it has received a lot of attention in the media and is reviewed in an essay titled "Zoos, aquariums do teach us about biodiversity, largest international study proves" with the following summary:

Zoos and aquariums do teach the public about the delicate balance between animal species and their habitats, a new international study shows. More than 6,000 visitors to over 30 zoos and aquariums across the world took part in this landmark study. Participants filled out pre- and post-visit surveys to evaluate their biodiversity understanding and knowledge of how to help protect biodiversity. The study found there was an increase from pre-visit (69.8%) to post-visit (75.1%) in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding.

The "proof" provided by this study is a mixed bag. Many people have jumped on the bandwagon claiming something like, "See, we were right and zoo critics were wrong, zoos do educate people." However, the increase "in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding" as noted in the report (my emphasis on the word "some") was only slightly more than 5% of a very large sample and in no way does it show that what people learn about biodiversity really means anything at all about how they then contribute to future conservation efforts.

So, what the people learn is very limited in scope in terms of what the new knowledge means in any practical sense. I'm all for knowledge for knowledge's sake and I'm glad a very small percentage of people felt they learned that "biodiversity is related to biological phenomena". However, learning about biodiversity and perhaps some about the lives of the animals who are locked up in cages without learning about the "need for biodiversity conservation" doesn't convince me that zoos are really doing much at all.

Noted author Mark Derr, in a comment to my essay, wrote:

As I read this self-serving survey, fewer than 10 percent of people who go to the zoo come out with a greater awareness of biodiversity than they had when they went in, but only about 4.5 percent leave saying they can support biodiversity by supporting zoos -- and that represents an increase of about 1 percent. People clearly do not view keeping animals in cages for public display as defending biodiversity. They look to environmental groups to do that.

People need to ask themselves, "What did I do for conservation today, this week, this month, or this year?" and hopefully do more than they did.

Let's conserve compassion and make compassion a practical ethic

I hope there are many more gatherings like the PAWS meeting, because it is essential to have open discussion and debate about what life is like for the animals living in zoos and what zoos really do and actually accomplish. Zoos aren't going away anytime soon, so we must give each and every individual who lives in a zoo who does not have control over their life or the ability to make many choices and to display agency, the very best life they can have. Zoos need to evolve and they must do it now (see for example, "Naturalistic Exhibits May be More Effective Than Traditional Exhibits at Improving Zoo-Visitor Attitudes toward African Apes" by Kristen Lukas and Stephen Ross).

Let's conserve compassion -- make it a global meme -- and make compassion a practical ethic that can be used to improve the lives of all animals whose lives need improvement. That's the very least we can do for them, and really, for ourselves. We suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals and we benefit when we treat them with respect, kindness, dignity, and love.

Education in a way that really matters is not happening at zoos, and visitors would be much better off taking a walk on the "rewild side" when they are able to do so.