Human beings have kept animals in zoos for centuries, but only relatively recently have the ethical considerations of this practice been widely considered. At one extreme are those individuals and organizations that see no problem keeping animals in zoos and other attractions, in keeping with the long history of animal confinement in the service of human entertainment, and at the other extreme are those individuals and groups arguing that animals should not be kept in zoos out of ethical considerations. However, this dichotomy has been complicated in recent years as zoos have increasingly become some of the most important centers of animal conservancy efforts, forcing a reevaluation of the ethical status of zoos in regards to the animals they contain, and the potential benefit they provide. Examining the history of zoos, their potential for harm, and the ways they might better consider animal welfare reveals that not only is the practice of keeping animals in zoos ethically sound so long as the welfare of these animals is maintained, but that it is actually essential for zoos to continue and even expand their conservancy efforts, because only by treating the animals already in captivity better will these conservancy efforts begin to benefit animal populations as a whole, both in zoos and out.
Before addressing the contemporary state of zoos in regards to animal welfare, it will be useful to first consider the history of zoos in general, because this historical context will help demonstrate how zoos have always represented a balance between conservancy and entertainment, even as this balance has shifted dramatically in recent decades. The earliest recording of something like a zoo comes from wall sculptures found in the tomb "of Mereruka, son-in-law of Pharaoh Teti of the 6th Dynasty" of ancient Egypt, and date to roughly 2300 BC (Bostock 7). The sculptures feature "oryx, addax, and gazelle […] tethered next to their manger, and some are being fed by their attendants, others led by men holding their horns" (Bostock 7). That these sculptures represent something akin to a zoo, and not a collection of animals being raised for food, is evidenced by the fact that they served a specific "religious or magical role, as scenes for a returning ka -- or spiritual double of somebody whose body had been mummified -- to gaze upon" (Bostock 7). Along with the aforementioned animals, Egyptians kept crocodiles, lions, and, by the time of 18th dynasty around 1400 BC, "monkeys, leopards, [and] a giraffe [….] were kept in […] the first acclimatisation garden -- that is, a place where animals brought from abroad could adjust, prior to their being domesticated or released as additions to the local fauna" (Bostock 8). Thus, even at the earliest stages in the development of zoos, one can see the dynamic between entertainment and conservation; these animals served as entertainment for pharaohs and other royalty both in the real world and the imagined afterlife, but they were also collected out of scientific and ecological interest.
While zoos gradually developed over the course of history, beginning with the aforementioned Egyptian gardens, for much of human history they generally remained only within reach of the rich and powerful. Over the last few centuries, however, with the institution of national scientific societies and endowments, zoos gradually became more public attractions, to the point that "each year more than 130 million Americans visit zoos -- more people than attend professional baseball, football, and hockey games combined" (Bostock 34, Hanson 2). More recently, "the exciting developments in zoos have been largely in America and Europe," and indeed, the majority of major zoos and conservancies are now in America, whether they be the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, or the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park in California (Bostock 34). These zoos have been at the forefront of the debate concerning the ethics of keeping animals, because they have been forced to find ways to maintain their revenues and visitors while responding to the growing concerns regarding the treatment of animals.
These concerns are very real, because while ecological interests have always played a part in the creation and maintenance of zoos, these have often taken a backseat to interests concerning entertainment and economics. This is especially true because the rise of zoos produced a kind of side-industry, in which animal dealers could make a tidy profit importing animals from distant regions. These dealers would sell animals to zoos, but failing that, were able to sell to "circuses that were expanding their menageries and trained animal acts, private fanciers of animals and birds, the pet trade, and laboratories" (Hanson 73-74). Thus, even if zoos did their best to treat the animals they purchased well (something that cannot necessarily be assumed), by their very nature they contributed to a much more widespread trade in animals that had no qualms about mistreating its products, so long as they arrived alive (and even failing this, an animal trader could still make a profit, because selling dead animals to "collectors of dead specimens [became] a lucrative business in its own right") (Hanson 73). While most contemporary zoos obtain their animals through much more strictly regulated channels, the fact remains that for much of their history, zoos contributed to a global economy of animal trade that served to displace and destroy a vast number of animals.
Zoos' participation in the largely unregulated animal trade began to dwindle over the latter half of the twentieth century, and one particular example illustrates this transition particularly well. In 1961, a three-year-old lowland gorilla was "captured by an animal collector and […] delivered to the zoo in Atlanta, Georgia," where he would spend the next twenty-seven years "in an enclosure of concrete and heavy bars," never once stepping foot outside (Hanson 1). This changed in 1988, when the gorilla, now named Willie B, was introduced into "the grass and trees of a new, naturalistic immersion exhibit at the renovated Zoo Atlanta" (Hanson 1). The new exhibit was the result of "field studies of gorillas, their behavior, and their natural environment -- scientific knowledge unavailable to earlier generations," which "became widely available to the public" and precipitated a fundamental reimagining of how animals should be kept (Hanson 1). This new information led zoos to transform their exhibits, "and the importance of preserving [animal] populations and habitats, an inconceivable problem at the time Willie B. was captured and brought to Atlanta, emerged as the overriding educational message" of zoo exhibits (Hanson 1-2).
However, this shift in the public perception and reception of zoos and animal exhibits does not mean that all of the ethical problems of keeping animals in zoos were solved overnight, because while notions of animal welfare have become paramount, what actually constitutes welfare remains a hotly debated topic. Most contemporary zoos "claim that having healthy, long-lived animals that reproduce is sufficient proof of good care," and indeed, the fact that Willie B. "soon adjusted to life in a social group, became a father, and evidently lived happily until his death in February 2000 at the age of forty-one" has been seen as justification for the ethical soundness of contemporary animal exhibits (Wickins-Drazilova 27, Hanson 1). However, there are a number of problems with this view of animal welfare, largely because it considers animal welfare in unnecessarily reductive terms that actual allow some zoos to exploit animals at the same time they claim to be looking out for their best interests.
For example, one of the most oft-touted benefits of contemporary zoos is their breeding programs, which ostensibly exist in order "to conserve species and train future generations of conservationists," and the belief that animal welfare is represented by successful reproduction supports this notion (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute 2012). While maintaining biological diversity and saving endangered species through breeding programs is undoubtedly a positive endeavor, it has also been ripe for exploitation, because "many zoos reproduced animals in large numbers in the name of protecting wild animal species but in fact they used them for dealing with other wild animal parks but not for protecting and expanding the species" (Cui & Jiang 137). Thus, even as "zoos stopped collecting animals from the wild and started captive breeding programs," these programs, rather than ending the trade in animals, merely made this trade more exclusive by limiting participation to other zoos and wild animals parks (Hanson 1). While breeding programs may be responsible for increasing the number of certain endangered species, this does not necessarily mean that these animals saw a net increase in their general welfare.
In short, "it is a myth that only well looked-after animals reproduce," as evidenced by the fact that "farm pigs confined to a space of 1 square meter each also successfully reproduce, so if higher reproduction meant better welfare, then zoos would have to admit that their animals have worse conditions than agricultural animals" (something that is almost undoubtedly untrue, considering the atrocious treatment of agricultural animals) (Wickins-Drazilova 29). Furthermore, "there are species…