A story went viral this week about a boy who threw a rock at a flamingo at the zoo in Bloomington, Illinois. The flamingo was so badly injured she had to be euthanized. Outrage ensued from animal lovers all over the internet: Where were the boy’s parents? How could he do that? That poor, innocent bird!
What many don’t know is that zoos not only euthanize sick or injured animals, they also kill thousands of perfectly healthy animals every year. Dubbed “surplus animals” these include lions, giraffes, bears, or any other animal that the zoo doesn’t have room for. In fact, the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimates that between 3,000-5,000 animals are “management-euthanized” in any given year – and that’s just in the EU. And those are the lucky ones. Other surplus animals have been sold to circuses, live auctions, even to slaughterhouses. Remember the story of Marius the giraffe who was callously shot, dissected, and then fed to lions by the Copenhagen zoo as children watched? He was a surplus animal.
Yet the healthy animals killed by zoos may actually be more fortunate than their countless kin who are forced to live out their entire lives in these places, confined in unnatural prisons. From arctic polar bears made to live in hot climates, to elephants, who would travel dozens of miles every day with their families, being forced to live in the solitary confines of an acre or less. There’s the story of a bear at the Toledo Zoo who died of dehydration because she was denied food and water for weeks during hibernation. And the story of penguins at the Scarborough Zoo in the UK who became so despondent, zookeepers began feeding them antidepressants. The list goes on and on and on.
All this cruelty can be explained by one simple truth: zoos exist solely for humans, not animals. Sure, we can tell ourselves that there are “good zoos” and “bad zoos,” that some zoos help with repopulating endangered species (though that point’s debatable). But at the end of the day, a zoo is nothing more than a modern-day freak show. It’s a despicable place that robs animals of their sovereignty and their dignity and attempts to turn them into nothing more than things to be gawked at. It’s sad and it’s wrong.
I’ve heard from people over the years who’ve tried to tell me that I’m missing the point. They say that a zoo is about education, that it’s a place where children and adults learn about nature and animals – that many people would never even see these animals if it weren’t for zoos. You know what I say to that? So fucking what? Animals aren’t here for us. You want to learn about animals? Watch a David Attenborough documentary or read a damn book. Animals shouldn’t have to suffer for your “education.”
And honestly, what exactly are zoos teaching us? That it’s OK to take animals away from their homes? That it’s OK to rip them away from their families? That it’s acceptable for animals to be forced to live in cages or behind glass in a completely unnatural environment? Maybe the zoo sparks the interest of some kid who grows up to be a vet or wildlife rehabilitator, but the trade-off is not worth it. Especially not for the animals.
At best, the zoo is a fun day for humans who will laugh and point and stare at captive animals who did nothing to deserve their confinement. At worst, it’s a prison that indoctrinates future generations with the shameful belief that animals should be subjugated, abused, and killed simply because we can. Much like the circus freak show, it’s an antiquated, cruel relic that should be banished to the annals of history.
Main image: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals