Zookeepers Discuss Whether Or Not Animals Are Actually Being Treated Well In Captivity.
People who work in zoos were asked: "Do you morally believe that the animals are being treated well? What are your stories?" These are some of the most insightful answers.
It should be shut down and those animals should be sent to zoos or rehabilitation centres where they can have some semblance of a life. Releasing them into the wild just isn't an option since some of these animals are 4th-gen born in captivity. But they deserve better.
The man who owns the park cares NOTHING for animals. Absolutely nothing. I can attest to that first hand as I have witnessed him murder wild animals because they are "pests".
2/20 I have been a zookeeper, aquarist, and have graduate credentials in animal behavior, have published over a dozen peer reviewed papers. I have worked for and with a few major industry leaders including Sea World and Disney. I have worked with reptiles, fish, marine mammals, and several large predators.
The question posed is do the workers in zoos/aquariums think animals are being treated well. The short answer is "yes", otherwise we wouldn't work there. We work [bad] schedules in [bad] conditions because we value the care of animals and the potential for educating the public. Zoo/aquarium workers can and do report poor care of animals but you need to realize that all large accredited institutions greatly exceed the standards for animal care put forth by the USDA. AZA is a voluntary accreditation agency with higher standards but also functions as a lobbyist for the industry.
This debate will go on forever because this a philosophical question that has no "right" answer. On one end of the spectrum you have the belief that no animal (including pets) should be kept in captivity, and that the people that do so are evil. Most people (including animal caregivers) are somewhere in the middle obviously. Even within a team of caregivers, I have witnessed many heated debates about care, enrichment and end of life decisions.
AZA has just gone through a long process of upgrading their standards for Elephant care. That has led to many zoos giving up their elephants or spending millions to upgrade their facilities. Other species with complex social lives are likely to get scrutiny next.
I'm using a throwaway so I'll say candidly that I don't think Orcas can be ethically kept in captivity. I say that based on research done on both captive and wild animals. But that is ultimately my personal opinion. I believe the best thing I can do is work to improve the lives of already captive animals. Public opinion and business interests will insure that they will be in human care for decades to come.
I would ask that when you participate in this debate you always make a distinction between the motivations of the corporations that run zoos and aquariums and the low level employees that risk their lives, financial comfort, etc to provide care to animals.
3/20 I've volunteered as a researcher at a zoo for a couple of years, and I can honestly say that most animals seem pretty content to just be fed and then laze around. All of my feelings on this are definitely assuming "adequate" facilities (i don't think there is any adequate facility for dolphins or whales). Some animals can have trouble yes, and some will pace constantly, appear unhappy, or suffer physically from stress, but given enough room and the right conditions, a lion is happy to spend it's time doing what cats generally do, being extremely lazy, which is the same with most predators. They conserve energy in the wild because what they do isn't easy, and most will rest when not required to hunt, this is why there is always footage of lions asleep in the shade, they're conserving energy.
Your general bog standard herbivore (one that isn't an elephant) is likely to not even have the full capability to understand that what it's going at present is any different to what it's supposed to do, I.e. walk around munching grass. Apes however I think are a different matter, and I'm often torn on keeping great apes in captivity, but fundamentally believe they should not be kept in zoos, more as a moral standpoint than by evidence, because I've seen gorillas and chimps in zoos that seem pretty happy in a family group, playing and interacting with each other. If on their own though, I don't like it at all, they are social and should be kept as such if they must be kept at all. Elephants I feel the same about, and as I'll mention below, this ties in with how I feel about dolphins and whales being kept in captivity, intelligence, range, social interaction.
As someone that studies marine biology though, I think sea world is an awful place. Keeping social animals that would spend their lives roaming hundreds of thousands of miles in a life time, or over territories of dozens/hundreds of square miles, is horrible. Sure we can say that doing tricks keeps them enriched, but I don't believe that the animals are living the life they would normally live, with the ability to roam, interact with all sorts of amazing things, and be part of a family group that sends their entire lives together. A tiger in the wild will do sleep, rest and groom, then hunt, eat and repeat to conserve energy. A dolphin will call a friend by "name" to come and investigate something novel (such as a machine that creates bubbles, or an animal it has never seen before), this curiosity. I fully agree with calling them non-human persons.
4/20 I volunteered at a zoo for a while back in high school. I only worked with the birds, so that's all I can vouch for, but I can say that they received EXCELLENT care. Their food was fresh, high-quality, and varied at least a little every day to keep them from getting bored (e.g., different herbs used for "garnishes", or switching between nuts and grubs as protein treats). We spent our break time making toys and other "enrichment" tools to keep the birds entertained, and spent lots of time training birds and interacting with the ones that liked human interaction. We also varied their environments to keep things interesting (e.g., at Christmas we put real or fake evergreens in their cages for a change of scenery and perch texture). Their cages were as clean as was possible to make them - I know, because I scrubbed the damn things! I got to help one of the keepers take an injured guinea fowl to the vet, and I was astounded at both the size and cleanliness of the vet building. All of the bird keepers really, really loved their jobs, because why else would they work such a stressful job for so little pay? They worked really hard to keep the birds happy and, most importantly, comfortable enough to breed. They kept meticulous records of the birds' genetics and were very focused on captive breeding. For example, I got to hand-feed a pair of Micronesian Kingfishers whose subspecies is extinct in the wild. They were still very shy and hadn't bred yet, but the keepers were slowly making them more comfortable in the hopes that they'd reproduce. We even developed an exercise program for a male St. Vincent Amazon parrot who came to the zoo too fat to fly; the keepers wanted him healthy and happy so they could introduce him to their female. He was cranky, but he was making progress!
I think good, modern, captive breeding-oriented zoos can provide excellent care for their animals, and serve as an invaluable tool for public education and conservation. However, such a high level of care only comes from lots of money, research, and devoted staff. The wild is definitely the best place for animals, and I think that if the animal is only being kept for entertainment or is being kept in an unsuitable facility, then that is absolutely cruel.
5/20 I volunteered a smaller, but accredited zoo for several years while in high school. I was only allowed to work unsupervised with some of the less dangerous animals. While I wasn't allowed to provide care for the larger animals, I was given the opportunity several times to accompany a keeper while they worked in their enclosures. I have seen or been in the back areas for nearly every animal at that zoo and I knew most of the keepers.
What I can definitively say is that they did their absolute best to provide suitable and healthful care of each and every animal under their care. They legitimately cared about their job and the lives of the animals they were responsible for. Admittedly captivity isn't the best scenario for many species of animal, but it can be made more hospitable.
6/20 I worked at both SeaWorld in their Zoological department and a privately owned aquarium. I have volunteered at animal shelters and have been working with animals for about 6 years. I can honestly and wholeheartedly say that the animals at SeaWorld and the aquarium are very well taken care of and as close to "happy" as an animal can be. Keep in mind that I resigned from my position at SeaWorld due to a family emergency and I have no obligation to tell anything but the truth. The majority of the animals there were born under the care of man or were rescued and deemed unreleasable. Animal captivity is crucial in the study of our natural world. The best way that I see fit to describe the animals at SeaWorld is "content," I don't like to humanize the emotions of animals because obviously they can't communicate with me to say that they are happy or sad, so I just use the term "content" when giving public talks about captivity. The easiest proof of this is the success of their breeding programs. As a general rule, wild animals will not breed in an environment where they are not content or where they foresee difficulties in raising their young. Therefore, as long as an animal is breeding and eating, you can safely assume that they are content. The makers of Blackfish clearly had a "free the whales" type agenda which really isn't helping anyone. Marine mammals raised in captivity can not safely be released. These animals must remain in the care of man for the foreseeable future, regardless of what a "documentary" says.
7/20 I think a lot of zoo goers are ignorant and that's how rumors about abuse gets spread.
I was at a zoo with a bald eagle on display. I've never seen one on display at any other zoo, I suspect American zoos won't keep them because of how butthurt these kind of people get.... Anyway, there was a family getting really upset that the eagle was in a cage and that it couldn't be "free" and flying. The whole time they were [complaining], not one looked at the sign on the cage explaining he had a been given to the zoo by a wildlife rescue that couldn't fix his wing. So if he were "free in the wild" he'd be "a starved pile of feathers and bones"
These are the kind of people that can't understand how many animals would be dead if not for zoo efforts.
8/20 I don't work in a zoo, but rather a pet store that deals very closely with cat adoption through the RSPCA. I get a lot of [crap] from people I know because clearly all pet stores abuse animals, we never clean our fish tanks and our adoption cats are kept in filthy cages and never fed.
Today I cleaned out all 800 litres of fish tanks, cleaned the inside and outside of the glass, took out sick fish and treated them in our hospital tanks, fed all of them by hand, completely cleaned out the cat cages and refilled their water every hour so it didn't get warm because of the weather. Despite how high the bills are, we keep the air conditioning set to the perfect temperature for our cats and it is never turned off. They are taken out and cuddled and played with every morning and every night at the very least.
We love our animals. They are our first priority. I love my job, I love ensuring that those poor abandoned cats and kittens find great homes and get the best items available to them. I think they're happy, and happier when they go to their new homes. We're not a permanent solution but it makes us happy to see them happy, so it makes sense to keep them that way.
9/20 I volunteered at a zoo in high school. Our animals were mostly rescues. The bears came from a circus and had been de-clawed, the tigers came from a circus and had their teeth capped. When I worked there it was a pretty nice little zoo. Lots of educational programs and enrichment programs for the animals. Our gorilla was pretty old and had actually spent the 60's in a little room in a shopping mall where shoppers could watch him sit there and watch tv. I felt good about what they were trying to do. They did a lot to raise money for anti-poaching programs where they would hire poachers to help nab other poachers. I loved it.
Then Hurricane Ivan came and destroyed everything. Not sure if ownership changed but they lost their AZA accreditation and it went downhill from there. They hired a new veterinarian and animals started dropping dead left and right. I had a rhino friend that lived there that I spent a lot of time with cleaning his enclosure, feeding him, petting and scratching his folds and letting him suck on my leg. He was my homie. Within just a couple years of the change he died along with his mother. No, to answer the question, the animals are not content. They are bored. The zoo ended the docent program and the program with the local colleges. They tried to run on a skeleton crew and it wasn't enough. No more volunteers working on enrichment programs with the animals and building better enclosures. The chimps are so angry they try to hit people with sticks or anything else they can find. Now I just feel sadness when I go. I always told people that we were doing the right thing by teaching children about why it's important to care for these animals, but I don't think I believe that anymore.
10/20 I currently work in the children's zoo of an AZA accredited zoo, so I can only really speak for AZA zoos and not any others. The animals are treated way better than I think most people are. I am hoping to become a legit keeper one day and have slowly realized how difficult it is. Zookeeper jobs are very difficult to get and they don't pay very well either. You work in all types of conditions from blizzards to 100 degree weather. You don't get snow days. Animal care comes first. That is the responsibility zookeepers sign up for. So the people who are hired are typically pretty passionate about animals and would never mistreat them. Also you always work weekends (the more senior you are you might be able to get a Saturday or Sunday off) and your schedule may be 7am-5pm, but more often than not you're staying later. Also zookeepers who live closest to the zoo are usually "oncall" just in case a keeper is require in the middle of the night. You're taking care of an animal that requires daily attention. It isn't a walk in the park, cuddle with animals all day job, so most people are highly dedicated individuals who really want to provide the best for these amazing animals. I also watched Blackfish and if my memory serves me correctly one of the trainers were talking about how they got into Seaworld and being a trainer. I believe they said they saw an opening for it thought it looked interesting and got hired with little to no background in animal care. 30 years ago it might have been like that, but much more is required of you to be considered for hire at AZA zoos.
Zoos also have a nutritionist that takes care of the animals diets. They are specialized specifically in exotic animal diets and are constantly changing and finding the best foods for each animal. Besides that zoo keepers always monitor who is eating who isn't eating and usually any significant leftovers are weighed and logged into books. Lots of book logging on everyone.
Enrichment is a big thing too. Animals get bored too, just like people. It's normal it's natural and it's not an "omg that animal is so bored they must be freed into the wild immediately or they will die" situation. Yes too much boredom is bad, but keepers do their best to provide all sorts of different enrichment every day. Again the enrichment is designed specifically for the animal. It's not the same for all of them. One of my favorite enrichments was taking a large paper bag and placing scraps of newspaper, meal worms, and scents inside the bag which was placed in a ball pit for our armadillos to dig through and find the meal worms and sniff out the smells. It was super adorable.
In my honest opinion I think these types of zoos do everything they can to make the animals comfortable and happy. It will never be exactly like living in the wild, but they will try damn hard to make it as close as possible. Any animal in captivity now at our zoos I would never recommend releasing into the wild. I don't think that works. A big factor that zoos provide these animals is the ability to survive and thrive. I always hear people say "well they don't have that vast land to roam that is such a tiny space." Well we have experts who tell us the amount of space needed for these animals. They don't require 100's of acres of land because we provide them with food, water and shelter, which is for many animals the reason why they are constantly moving around. And without zoos there would be a lot more extinct wildlife out there. I'm not as educated on this matter, but I know a lot of zoos do try breeding animals as well to hopefully repopulate and prevent certain species from going completely extinct. They really try their best and we do our best to educate the public and hopefully have them gain an appreciation for animals.
11/20 I work at SeaWorld Orlando, in the Education department. I know a lot of you will stop reading and hate me regardless right now, and that's fine, to each their own. But I can tell you, from personal experience and observation, that I have never been to a facility that treats their animals better. I have worked and volunteered at two other zoos, both AZA accredited (just like SeaWorld is), and because of SeaWorld's vast resources they do an exceptionally fine job of taking care of their animals. This includes both enrichment activities, such as toys, as well as an (over)abundance of food for them to consume, and a lot more space than people think when they first see them. I cannot speak more highly of the Animal Care staff at SeaWorld, because they truly do a phenomenal job.
12/20 I work at the Audubon Zoo for 6 years now. And I'm pretty sure the animals I work with live better than I do. I know that in movies they show the bad keepers but in all my time I've never seen the animals poorly. They get the best and freshest foods and I'm often jealous as I prepare their food. We also go to great lengths to provide them with fun enrichment. I've spent all day before making giant fruit Popsicles for the gorillas. And it's always worth it to see how excited they get when they see them
13/20 Wildlife biology major here. I interned as a zookeeper in college. There are two kinds of zoos. One is accredited with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), and the other is a person with a lot of pets that hires people to take care of them then calls themselves a zoo. Accredited ones get inspections for cleanliness, ethical treatment, quality of facilities, etc. They're not perfect, but they do as best they can with their resources. The other kind is usually the roadside attraction park that gives the good ones a bad name. At the one I was at, we would scrub and disinfect enclosures daily, provide entertainment for the animals, and had a crew of professional exotic veterinarians on staff to tend to anything that may come up. We tried as best as we could to replicate natural conditions, but obviously some can't be copied.
The primary responsibility of zoos is education. If people don't know about an animal, they don't care about it. When someone sees it, they can get an appreciation for them that doesn't come from YouTube or documentaries. If a few have to be in captivity to generate public sympathy and encourage conservation efforts, then I feel that it's a fair trade off. Some animals exist only in captivity now and can possibility be reintroduced to the wild later.
14/20 I've worked with sharks, sea turtles, fish (large aquariums), parrots, and reptiles. I worked at the one park off and on for about 10 years. My girlfriend has worked as intern at many aquariums, worked at a zoo, and is now a dolphin trainer at Sea World. My brother is a dolphin trainer and so are many of my friends.
The animals where I worked got the best care. When prepping food for the animals the general rules were, "If you wouldn't eat it, don't serve it to the animals." Obviously this rule didn't apply well to the sharks/fish since most people aren't a fan of raw capelin, but you get the idea. The veterinarian reviewed and approved diets and her word was gold. She trumped everyone including the park owners. If she said to do something, it was done.
The reptiles were the easiest to take care of as they didn't require any enrichment (keeping the animal entertained). Snakes do pretty well in human care. The more intelligent animals are the ones that require more care.
We had about 30 parrots and most of those were donated by people that didn't want their pet anymore or whose owners have died. A parrot living longer than it's owner is very common, but I digress. The parrots ate twice a day. Their food was a mixture of fresh fruit and veggies mixed with parrot kibble. They would get the occasional treat, usually a cookie or animal cracker. They had access to water and sometimes we would mix in some fruit juice.
Bird will tear up their toys pretty quickly and it can get pretty expensive. When we had downtime we would create new toys using string, paper, cardboard, or wood. Some of the birds would tear about a wood block in a day.
We had a giant room with a rain forest setting. The birds would spend some of their day in the rain forest area and some of their day outside. We would rotate them so they all got equal times.
At night they slept in the same room in their own enclosures. The room was cleaned twice a day. And I mean scrubbed with soap, twice a day.
15/20 I work at an AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) zoo, but in guest services. I have come to know the keepers, education staff, and animals really well. The zoo that I work at is very realistic with what animals they will and will not keep. If our climate is not fitting for a certain animals, you will not see that animal in our zoo. The vast majority (if not all) of our animals were either injured/blinded/abandoned in the wild or born and raised in captivity, leaving them unable to survive in the wild. For the most part, their enclosures either try to be as close to their natural habitat, or they are a healthy alternative. (Coatimundis obviously wouldn't have a hammock in the wild, but hot damn, does he love his hammock.)
The animals have access to shelter and water 24/7, they are never forced to stay outside and in sight of people. We have a few interactive animals, and they absolutely love the people. We have staff out the wazoo making sure our animals are happy and safe at all times.
Like others have said, zoos are mostly about education. If people don't know about animals, they won't care about animals. We have an entire education staff that does programs everyday both at the zoo and out at schools, community functions, and other such events. They teach about wild animals that we have at our zoo, and animals that we do not have. They will even talk about exotic animals that people keep as pets, which occasionally end up as one of our education animals. Like cockatoos. Birds like this are very needy, and it's like dealing with a toddler constantly. An animal like this is much happier in a setting where there is constantly staff around working with them, instead of in someone's house in a cage.
16/20 I am a veterinarian that works full-time on wildlife and zoo animals. The bottom-line is that the vast majority of zoos have undergone a massive evolution in their mission statements and approaches to animal care. Most zoos now treat education and conservation as their utmost purposes, which is certainly a change from how zoos were when they were first created.
Over time, I have worked or volunteered at 10 zoos, aquaria, and wildlife rehabilitation institutions. The overwhelming majority of people at these places are unbelievably passionate about wildlife conservation, animal welfare, and educating the public about these animals so that they can make a difference in the global populations.
I have, however, personally worked with a zoo that was run by a man whose goals were not nearly as admirable, and it was a travesty. Needless to say, I do not work with them anymore, and they have since lost their accreditation. This was, by far, the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, these places, although fewer and fewer in number, are the reason people get so angry about zoological parks.
17/20 Former zookeeper here. One thing to keep in mind about movies such as Blackfish is that they all have an agenda. With media, it is extremely easy to skew how something looks to an outsider without giving the whole picture. I would have to say that how an animal is treated in captivity is completely dependent on the place and the people working there. Each case will be different. However, like one person has already said, breeding programs are a really great indicator of how "content" an animal is in captivity. Animals flat out will not reproduce unless their conditions are such that they feel their young will survive. If they are stressed, or feel threatened, it won't happen. And while most people do not agree with animals in captivity, most of the animals were born in captivity. The days of capturing animals in the wild have long passed. So while they are still 'wild' and have their instincts, they aren't longing for past days where they would roam free. The zoos are their homes. That's all that they know. They get steady food, have nothing to want for.
We tend to over humanize animals. Yes, they can get bored, or angry, or seem content. But when a leopard is sitting in his exhibit staring blankly into the air, it's not something to be pitied! What do you think a leopard is doing in the wild? When they aren't hunting, they are sitting in a tree/on the ground/anywhere staring blankly into the air. Most zoos try their best to recreate a normal environment (within reason), but we need to make sure to not push our feelings on the animals.
18/20 In my experience's working at zoos I've never come across a case of an animal being mistreated. It simply would not be tolerated by any member of the staff or volunteer staff. The quality of life of the animal is the #1 priority and I absolutely believe that zoos are able to fulfill this.
That being said; not all zoos are created equal and if a zoo is not an accredited institution then many times (NOT always) it will have animals in sub-par living conditions. Enclosures in the last 50 years have improved drastically from being just cement pits and cages to actual mini-habitats for the animals that closely resemble the wild in every aspect but shear size.
One of my favorite parts of working with animals is designing and implementing "enrichment" which means basically giving animals new and interesting things/foods/activities for them to interact with. At the zoos I worked at we would implement new things everyday, whether it be providing a new rope swing, forage or even rearranging an enclosure so that it is "new" to the animal.
As for your point about BlackFish I actually have some connections to sea world who have told me there are many discrepancies and flat out lies in the movie. But I agree with the overall message of the movie even though I am an advocate for Zoos. There are certain animals that do not do well and should not be kept in captivity. I don't believe Orcas, dolphins or porpoises should be kept in captivity due to their intelligence and extremely high energy levels. There simply are not enclosures large enough to give them a great quality of life.
This may be a little off topic but the main reason I love Zoos is that they provide an extremely invaluable service to animal welfare and conservation as a whole and are able to teach the public (especially children) to love and appreciate animals. At zoo's I worked at we never taught the young children anything about the endangered status of animals because often times when a child is taught the cruel reality of a situation the only coping mechanism they know is to distance themselves from it. So our goal was to teach children to love the world before teaching them to change it.
As for the conservation aspect, zoo's have been able to conserve a number of species that no longer exist in the wild. They do this both to maintain genetic diversity on earth but also with the hopes of someday repopulating an area with these species. If I'm unable to secure a zoo vet position I plan on dedicating my life to wildlife conservation in Africa because we truly are losing the wild and I think that's a terrible thing to pass on to future generations.
19/20 I used to volunteer at the Oregon coast aquarium (where they held Keiko/Free Willy before release) and did some animal husbandry programs there.
The vast majority of our more intelligent animals were in the aquarium because they couldn't live in the wild. Every single mammal we had (otters, sea lions, seals, keiko) was a case of rehabilitation gone bad or an animal that was bred in another zoo/aquarium. In both cases these animals will likely die if they're released into the wild since they cannot fend for themselves, so I really don't see an evil or moral ambiguity in keeping them. Pardon the analogy but a lot of the animals you see in zoos are "special" members of their species.
Other animals that we had like fish were simply too stupid to realize that anything has changed. This is something I don't think a lot of people realize when they try to humanize animals too much: most animals are pretty dumb, and don't understand the concept of being in captivity.
20/20 Zookeeper here. In some places they are treated well, in some places not so well.
Zoos were created for the wrong reasons, now they can be used positively. They generate revenue to be ploughed into in-situ conservation and awareness. Arguing about holding animals in captivity is a waste of time at the moment, natural habitats will be gone very soon and peoples energy and resources should be devoted to protecting them. Worry about captive animals when the wild environments are safe, otherwise the only place left for them to live will be captivity and nobody wants that.
In the end though, it's all doomed. There are too many humans and in 25 years there will be another 3 billion of us. We're too stupid and short-sighted to prevent most of the natural world being destroyed during the remainder of our lifetimes. Keep the captive stock, because otherwise you'll never see the likes of tigers and gorillas again.
Breaking up is hard to do.
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People on the front lines of human cruelty include divorce lawyers. These are their stories.