Let’s talk about zoos. In the old days many zoos were a nightmare for the animals. It causes me so much pain when I read or think about it that I can barely stand it.
All accredited zoos in the US are now conservation zoos overseen by AZA. (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Zoos no longer prioritize human entertainment over animal comfort but instead understanding, care and conservation of the species. We do not use operant conditioning (a fancy word for training) to entertain humans. We use it to train animals like chimps, gorillas, elephants and others to do body part presentations through mesh fencing for the sole purpose of being able to administer medical care without constantly anesthetizing the animals. When a keeper asks a chimp to open his mouth, show the bottom of his foot or put his ear up to the mesh, it is entertaining to the humans. But, that is not why they are taught to do it. Obviously, most zoos are for profit and humans pay for tickets and want to see animals so we make it as comfortable as possible for the animals to be in areas where the humans can see them, but the highly intelligent animals all live in habitats where they can distance themselves from humans if they choose to.
The adjunct priority in accredited zoos is the proliferation and prolongation of the endangered species in the wild (of which there are so, so many). All breeding within the captive population of endangered animals is overseen and controlled by a very stringent organization called Species Survival Plan. They track DNA of every single captive individual within the endangered population and give permission, which they call “recommendations” for who can breed with whom. All zoos world-wide are in cahoots on this. It all has to do with genetics, bio-diversity and personalities of who will do well in captive habitats. Most zoo animals do great in captive environments because they were born in one. It is now illegal to take animals from the wild and put them in captivity and most who were have died off now. Keeping the captive population bio-diverse (ie, you don’t want cousins mating with cousins, etc.) is critical so that if the species goes extinct in the wild, our grandchildren can still see these animals and in some cases, zoos may have a chance to breed enough to get them back into the wild. (Unlikely so please recycle and do what you can for conservation!)
Because of the strict AZA rules, animals in zoos today have it made. They have beautiful habitats, no predators, they are fed exactly what they need, they get treats, they have keepers who adore them, the get “enrichment activities” which is fun for them and makes use of their innate abilities and tendencies. Our chimps, for example have a beautiful, lush habitat with tons of space, no predators, all the food they need, indoor bedrooms with toys and fun things to do for nighttime and any medical care they might need. They love, play, yell, fight, make up and groom each other just like they would in the wild.
Social animals are insured they will not be alone as it is now illegal in an accredited zoo to have only one of a social animal. So if a zoo is down to one elephant, one gorilla, one chimp, etc. it either has to bring more in or send the one to another zoo so it can be with it’s own kind for companionship. Solitary animals (animals who are normally solitary in the wild, like every big cat except for lions) are kept solitary which is what they want and need.
Bottom line: Zoos now are really about the best interest of the animals. When decisions are being made the first question always is, what is best for the animals?