On today’s episode we are going to discuss the controversy and debate surrounding zoos! Are zoos vital organisations because they promote scientific research and public education, and save animals on the verge of extinction? Or are zoos terrible prisons with no educational value that damage animals physically and psychologically?

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Controversial (adj) – causing disagreement or discussion

The book was very controversial

To struggle (v) – to experience difficulty and make a very great effort in order to do something

I’ve been struggling to understand this article all afternoon 

Logistically (adv) – in a way that involves the careful organization of a complicated activity

In theory, this is a great idea, but logistically, it’s a nightmare 

Aristocrat (n) – a person of high social rank who belongs to the aristocracy

Many aristocrats were killed in the French Revolution 

Conservation (n) – the protection of plants, animals, and natural areas from the damaging effects of human activity

Wildlife conservation is an important idea in a number of African countries

Biodiversity (n) – the number and types of plants and animals that exist in a particular area in the world, and the problems of protecting this

Much of this area’s biodiversity is threatened by climate change

Captive (adj) – (of a person or animal) having limited ability to move or act freely because of being kept in a space

If it is successful, releasing captive animals into the wild could restore the population to over 500 this year!

Habitat (n) – the natural environment in which an animal or plant usually lives

With so many areas of forest being cut down, a lot of wildlife is losing its natural habitat

Detrimental (adj)- causing harm or damage

These chemicals have a detrimental impact on the environment 

As I’m sure you can all guess from the name of this podcast, one of the things I really want to encourage you all to do is to think in english. More specifically, I want you all to think critically. To analyse different possibilities, to consider all sides of the debate, and to then express your own opinions which will help you master the English language. For that reason, a number of previous episodes have focused on controversial issues or debates, including free university and assisted suicide, and presented two sides of the argument. The idea is that you will be able to make your own decisions about the issue, and hopefully think using English. Why am I mentioning this? Well today’s episode will be another episode in this style! 

Over the last few months I have read various articles about the impact of coronavirus on zoos, animal centres, and wildlife safari parks. Without paying customers willing or able to visit such attractions, many of these businesses have struggled financially and logistically to look after their animals. Calgary zoo in Canada, for instance, has been forced to return their pandas to China because of a bamboo shortage in the country. Pandas only eat fresh bamboo. This was no problem before coronavirus as the zoo could easily import bamboo from China, but the ongoing pandemic has grounded most flights and left the zoo struggling to feed their animals! After reading this story, and other similar stories (for instance a zoo in the UK is having to relocate for financial reasons), it led me to consider the debate surrounding zoos. Simply put should zoos exist? 

Zoos actually have a long history. In fact, records suggest that over 4000 years ago aristocrats were keeping animals including giraffes, bears, and dolphins in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Austria is the oldest zoo in the world that is still operational (it opened in 1752)! There is also a long history of controversy surrounding zoos. In the past, American zoos actually displayed humans captured from remote tribes, and zookeepers had no idea what to feed animals. The modern debate around zoos often focuses on animal welfare, whether zoos protect animals, or whether they imprison them! Are zoos vital organisations because they promote scientific research and public education, and save animals on the verge of extinction? Or are zoos terrible prisons with no educational value that damage animals physically and psychologically? The rest of this episode will present both sides of the argument!

Let’s start with education. On one side of the argument, supporters argue that Zoos educate the public about animals and conservation efforts. In the USA, zoos attract over 181 million visitors every year, which is more than the combined spectators of most major sports in the country. Zoos could potentially increase visitor’s knowledge of biodiversity and the ways  to protect biodiversity. Zoos allow people to see incredible animals in person and hopefully leave feeling an attachment to those animals. People won’t take steps to preserve what they don’t love, and they can’t love something they don’t know about! 

On the other side of the argument, opponents argue that zoos don’t educate the public enough to justify keeping animals captive. There is no real evidence to suggest zoos and aquariums actually change people’s attitude towards animals or interest in conservation! TV shows, including anything by the British TV legend David Attenborough, bring high quality pictures of animals in their natural habitat into our living rooms without harming or imprisoning any creature!

Despite this, supporters claim Zoos produce helpful scientific research. In fact, accredited zoos in America published 5,175 peer-reviewed scientific papers between 1993 and 2013. According to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, in 2017, 173 accredited US zoos spent $25 million on research, studied 485 types of animals, worked on 1,280 research projects, and published 170 research papers. In the past, zoos have been useful in researching animal to animal, and animal to human, disease transmission. 

Furthermore, it has been suggested that Zoos save species from extinction and other dangers. According to an article written by the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, Corroboree frogs, eastern bongos, regent honeyeaters, Panamanian golden frogs, Bellinger River snapping turtles, golden lion tamarins, and Amur leopards, among others, have been saved from extinction by zoos. They are also contributing to saving polar bears, tigers, and wild African elephants from habitat loss, apes and rhinos from poachers, dolphins and whales from hunters, and bees and butterflies from declining populations. By keeping large populations of animals and eventually repopulating some into the wild, zoos could help preserve species in danger from climate change and extinction. Repopulation has actually worked in the past! The last truly wild horses were declared extinct in the wild in the 1960s when only 12 lived in zoos. By 2018, breeding programs at zoos increased the number to 2,400 horses, and 800 were reintroduced to the wild.

Nevertheless, these benefits are not enough for opponents of zoos. Instead, they argue that zoos are detrimental to both animal’s physical and psychological well being. Zoo enclosures are often too small for the animals to carry out their normal routines, which can lead to many problems. About 70% of adult male gorillas in North America have heart disease, the leading cause of death among gorillas in captivity, although the condition is almost completely absent in the wild. In addition, captive elephants only live about half as long as wild elephants. Animals also experience psychological issues (including depression, anxiety, etc) due to smaller enclosures, changes in diet and activities, and the introduction of things not seen in the wild, such as medical exams and people with cameras. Moreover, as a result of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which demonstrated the psychological damage done to orcas by the SeaWorld theme park, California outlawed orca breeding.

Final Thought

This episode of Thinking in English has looked at the controversy and debate surrounding zoos! On the one hand, zoos are said to save vulnerable animals from extinction, promote scientific research, and educate the public about animals and conservation. On the other hand, zoos are often criticised for harming animals and not actually performing any worthwhile education. Personally, I lean towards the anti-zoo argument. Of course, I have visited zoos and aquariums in the past. However, the most recent few times I have done so have left me uncomfortable. I specifically remember looking at sea lions in the Osaka aquarium about 4 years ago, and feeling terrible about their small enclosures and unsatisfying life! What about you? What are your opinions on zoos? Has this episode changed, or reinforced, your opinions? 

Comprehension Questions

Q. Why was Calgary zoo struggling to feed its pandas? 

A. They could not buy/import enough bamboo!

Q. Where is the world’s oldest operational zoo?

A. Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Austria 

Q. What is the leading cause of death of gorillas in captivity?

A. Heart disease

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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