I am proud to tell anyone who visits this city about all the free attractions we have to offer as a St. Louisan of 21 years. The top free attraction, so many of us know and love, is the St. Louis Zoo. As a kid, I visited the zoo almost weekly during the summer to see all the animals in their various habitats.
As I got older, however, I started to question the morality of pressing my face up against the glass to watch a polar bear swim in an artificial Arctic Ocean while it’s 90 degrees outside.
Inherently, the idea of a zoo is unethical. Taking animals away from their natural habitat and caging them for humans to marvel at is taking away the animal’s freedom. It’s making a choice on behalf of an animal that they do not have the ability to consent to. But I argue the educational and conservation benefits of zoos outweigh the negatives of harboring animals outside of their natural habitat in the wild.
I know from speaking with employees who work at the St. Louis Zoo that animals are their passion and number one priority in everything they do. The St. Louis Zoo isn’t a carnival or “roadside zoo” known for notorious mistreatment and abuse of animals.
Responsible zoos, like the St. Louis Zoo, exist to promote the conservation of animals and educate the general public about the global environment and the animals that inhabit it.
According to environmental journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert, we are in the midst of a mass extinction as a result of human activity in wild spaces.
On the St. Louis Zoo website they describe two institutes created at the St. Louis Zoo as a result of the rising need to sustain wildlife in wild places. The Wildcare Institute, created in 2004, pledges to “support critical initiatives in places where animals are threatened by shrinking habitats, poaching and disease.” The Institute for Conservation Medicine takes a “holistic approach to research on wildlife, public health and sustainable ecosystems to ensure healthy animals and healthy people.”
The zoo uses sophisticated breeding programs that preserve genetic biodiversity. They have the ability to reintroduce critically endangered or extinct species into the wild. They have already done this with cheetahs, endangered Micronesian kingfishers and Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles.
Even if some animals do not return to the wild, zoos serve as a place for research and observation which helps protect wild animals.
The Zoo also dedicates itself to educational programs for zoo visitors throughout the park and online. The more humans know about the dangers animals face in the wild because of humans irresponsibly poaching and deforestation, the better our planet will be.
Animals in responsible zoos live longer and healthier lives while giving humans the ability to learn about the wild and conduct research into saving the lives of their wild counterparts.
So this summer when you plan a trip to the zoo and your friend makes a comment about how zoos are just animal prisons, let them know the facts and that it’s not that simple.