Zoos can be a controversial topic for those concerned about animal rights. After all, even in the most “natural” zoos, animals are bound in a smaller space than they would be in the wild, and they are subjected daily to hundreds of people gawking at them. If you have ever seen those cartoons showing animals putting humans in cages, you’ve probably felt a taste of shame, knowing they have a good point.
However, many biologists/zoologists are passionate about caring for the animals and raising awareness to the public about their status in the wild. Zoos have also been important for research and breeding programs, most famously for pandas. If you visit a zoo, it is wonderful to see how excited and curious children get when they see an animal up close. All of the sudden, the animal is real to them, and questions erupt about what they eat, how they communicate, where they live in the wild, etc. As much as we hope videos or pictures accomplish the same result, they just don’t seem to garner the same excitement and curiosity.
Zoos have also contributed to human medical research. For example, Dr. Joshua Schiffman completed a study with the University of Utah using blood samples of elephants from the Salt Lake City Zoo. As reported on CBS News “his research team found that the elephant is something of a cancer-fighting super animal. Elephants kill damaged, cancer-prone cells at a rate double that of humans.” It is believed that the reason why is that elephants have more alleles of a tumor suppressing gene (named p53) than humans do. As we struggle to find ways to cure cancer, this news is promising.
Of course, zoos also deserve criticism. In March 2016, eighteen wild elephants were sent to American zoos from Africa in a rather secret operation.
My own opinion on zoos is that animals born in captivity should be treated well, and communities should support zoos that are making efforts to educate the public on animal and environmental issues. However, taking animals from the wild, such as the 18 elephants from Swaziland that went to the U.S. zoos, seems grossly unfair to these magnificent creatures.
Photo: taken in Rochester, NY