Animals in captivity - what do you think?

After the escape (and subsequent recapture) on Thursday evening of a large silverback gorilla from London zoo, the question of animals in captivity is once again in the spotlight.

Personally I stopped going to zoos years ago after a trip to a zoo in Northern France. Two things happened. A (thankfully smallish) monkey escaped through the bars of its cage and made a bee line for my 3 year old daughter. Luckily he was more interested in the sandwich than her. After I screamed at her to ‘drop the sandwich’ he left us alone. But I was pretty shaken. We walked past the tigers very sharpish after that.

Then much more distressingly, we got to the gorillas. I had my 4 month old baby in my arms. A female gorilla rushed to the glass and became very agitated, banging on the glass and making grabbing motions towards my daughter before she started making rocking gestures with her arms. I have never seen anything as moving in my entire life. It’s something that haunts me to this day.

Having said that, I understand the need for conservation and breeding programs. But is it right for us to keep animals in captivity in this day and age? What do you think?

  • Yes
  • No, never
  • For conservation purposes only
  • Not sure

0 voters

My only recent contact with animals ‘in captivity’ has been to visit Apenhul near Appledorn in Holland. The compounds there are first class and none of the animals there are restricted by bars or glass. The gorillas are one of the main attractions and I can honestly say that in none of my visits there I have ever seen a gorilla rush anywhere. Visitors are informed about the danger of having accessible food with them. All visitors are issued with a ‘monkey proof’ backpack and eating is only allowed in specific areas which are remote from any of the monkeys and apes. It is a great attraction for visitors and animals alike. I believe that the Vallée des Singes near Poitiers was started by the same person.

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If zoos exist to protect endangered species, I’m not convinced there’s a great deal of evidence to support their claims. After all, if humans weren’t constantly destroying natural habitats there would be no need for them anyway. As long as the human population increases wildlife will always be the biggest loser. While I wouldn’t want to make some sort of sweeping statement that zoos are cruel to animals, I remember going to a wildlife park in SE England and seeing Elephants shackled in fairly unpleasant conditions. They looked desperately unhappy to me.

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Wild animals belong in the wild. It’s cruel and unnecessary to keep them as pets, in circuses or in zoos. Captive animals spend there whole lives in unnatural environments causing severe distress. Zoos exist to make money whatever nonsense they might tell you. Please think twice about visiting captive animals.

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That is a very narrow view that would be questioned by many experts who have dedicated their lives to protecting species.

The experts who dedicate their lives to the conservation and protection of species tend to do it best in the country of origin. The Born Free Foundation is a good example. Ultimately they will probably fail because of the spread of our own species and the consequent destruction of natural habitat. They do some excellent work and it shouldn’t be confused with life in a zoo.


Imprisoning animals, often alone and in poor conditions and far away from their natural habitats doesn’t do much to protect them. The best way to protect a species is to preserve its wild habitat and have those areas protected from poachers. How does a single polar bear in a zoo in South America protect the species? Or an elephant in a zoo in Northern Europe? These places exist to make money by exhibiting wild animals, nothing more nothing less.

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There are best ways and practical ways. Don’t write off the good intentions and practises of many because of the commercial aspirations of the few. It’s easy to be emotional about animal welfare but there is a need for unbiased look at the actual situation.


I guess you have seen programs with Koko, heartbreaking:

A much better outcome for some circus Elephants.

It’s noticeable that most people who are opposed to animals in captivity have very little experience of wild animals, and also tend to anthropomorphise domestic animals. They seem to find any display of animal behaviour by an animal alarming. Even in the wild, animals sometimes become frustrated and display “irrational” behaviour (there is always a reason, of course, but it’s not necessarily evident to the uninformed onlooker).

As a South African, I’ve had the privilege of much exposure to both wild and domestic animals in many different settings and “levels” of captivity. Even the wildest of wild animals now are in “captivity” to a certain extent. They absolutely depend for their continued existence on the goodwill of humans. This applies even to elephants in the Okovango and tigers in the remote forests of Bhutan. Without that goodwill and without the resources to back up that goodwill, they would all die. And without maintaining both education about and physical exposure to wild animals, to whatever extent is possible, it is very difficult to garner those resources.

So I think it’s incredibly simplistic to maintain an all-or-nothing approach to animal freedom and animal care. There are good zoos and bad zoos, good game farms and bad game farms, positive instances of tamed wild animals in domestic situations, and negative instances of clear abuse. And there are also lots of instances of all of the above somewhere on the continuum between good and bad. And where care or facilities are not excellent, this is often due to lack of funding, knowledge or skills, not always due to an intention to abuse or exploit.

Zoos have a very important function in introducing urban populations to the reality of animals which would otherwise be nothing more than images on a video screen, in some senses no more real than Pokemon, especially in countries that no longer have any real wildlife (especially large wildlife), even in game reserves. At least you can catch Pokemon! When animals become nothing more than virtual reality from another continent, sympathy for their plight must inevitably decline. It makes more sense to encourage and support all animal care institutions to improve than to demand that they close.


Quick addition to my comment above: This morning I came across this article in The Conversation (Oct 14) which argues similarly and offers some useful statistics to help keep things in perspective:

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I have a lot less problem with the Safari Park model.
My last visit to London Zoo wasn’t a good experience. There is simply not enough space there for even the smaller animals and the sight of the Zebras, continually and frantically, running in an out of a concrete ‘bunker like’ shelter onto a patch of muddy grass (obviously ‘out of their minds’ and in distress) was horrible.
Thankfully, I think they have now been moved elsewhere…
I think as time goes on there will be even more need for conservation parks all over the world, just to preserve the variety of species.
I think most species can adapt to living in captivity if they are given sufficient space. Domestic cats get used to being indoor cats, or outdoor cats, or a mixture of the two. I think the same is true of animals bred in captivity. The problem for me is when one is holding captive an animal used to a wild environment or if there is just insufficient space and privacy.
The lntermarche at Creysse, has a pets section, choc full of exotic birds and fish, and I as I love watching both, I am in two minds about this. Perhaps we should have to pay for a licence, which ever pet we have, that specifies the kind of space and conditions that the animal must be kept in, but even this wouldn’t protect them from the kind of neglect and shocking conditions that organisations like the RSCA has to deal with.


I’m more concerned right now about the chasse dogs and puppy farms here in France, quite frankly. Some of these cages are tucked away behind bushes in the middle of nowhere (stumbled on them during long walks), and all of the dogs show highly stressed behaviours, while some look like they’ve already lost their minds. Some runs and situations are better than others, of course, but all seem desperate for affection, regardless of the running mates in their runs or adjoining runs.

This is a very tough issue, because technically (I assume) these dogs are considered personal property, and the local SPAs (in the Aude and Ariege anyway) seem to have no legal powers or funding to intervene in cases of neglect or abuse. Anyone know of any successful efforts to make a difference in these cases? Or can even cast clarity on the exact legal situation regarding the protection or otherwise of these dogs?

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