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Evidence suggests that humans first domesticated animals beginning about 10,000 b.c.e., but collecting wild and exotic animals did not begin until about 3,000 b.c.e. During the next few millennia, gardens, animal collections, parks, and animal reserves grew in numbers and range. But it was not until the development of the nation-state in the sixteenth century that organized menageries, zoos, and aquaria emerged and proliferated (Kisling Jr. 2001). In the early twenty-first century visiting zoos is one of the most popular activities in many countries, yet keeping animals in zoos—particularly large mammals such as elephants and whales—raises important ethical questions that pit the interests of science and conservation against those of animal rights.


The first recorded examples of animal collections were found in the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, such as Assyria, Sumeria, and Babylon. Animal collections were the privilege of the wealthiest people, usually royalty, who could afford to capture or purchase, and maintain, exotic animals. Early collections often included falcons, deer, exotic birds, fish, gazelle, apes, monkeys, ostriches, lions, and elephants. Falcons and lions were often used in royal sport for hunting and fighting, and some parks and preserves were created for this very purpose (Kisling Jr. 2001). Animal collections, gardens and parks also existed in ancient Egypt, Asia, India, Greece, North and South America, and later in Europe, but continued to be a hobby enjoyed primarily by royalty.

In medieval Europe, animal collectors grew in number to include monasteries and municipalities, although collecting was still an expensive practice. As these collections grew in size during the Renaissance, particularly with the addition of exotic animals captured in the new world, they were referred to as menageries. With the onset of the industrial revolution, more people had extra spending money and leisure time in which to indulge in various interests, including the financial support of menageries. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, private collections evolved into publicly supported menageries (Kisling Jr. 2001). The shift from menagerie to zoological garden, or simply zoo, also occurred in the early-nineteenth century. In 1825 the Zoological Society of London suggested creating a zoological garden in which living animals with "their nature, properties and habits may be studied" (Kisling Jr. 2001, p 37), indicating a shift to a more scientifically grounded purpose in collecting animals.

Human knowledge of animal husbandry has improved significantly since the mid-1800s. In early zoos it was not uncommon to see animals kept in small cages with dirt or concrete floors and in generally poor conditions. Twenty-first century zoos are more sensitive to the needs of the animals, and many animals are housed in naturalistic habitats that simulate the animal's original ecosystem. Zookeepers also recognize the importance of mentally stimulating larger mammals through various enrichment activities in order to keep them alert and healthy. Large animal parks in which animals roam freely have also become increasingly popular.

Ethical Issues

Proponents of keeping animals in zoos claim that there is much to be gained in terms of science, conservation, and even the long term welfare of the animals themselves. In some zoos, extensive research is undertaken in the fields of zoology, biology, animal behavior, and veterinary medicine, providing valuable information that is useful in a variety of milieus (Bostock 1993). Many endangered species are bred through intricately designed captive breeding programs, in accordance with species survival plans to ensure the genetic diversity, and thus survivability, of the species. The successful captive breeding program of the highly endangered California condor by the San Diego Zoo produced enough animals that many were released back into the wild. Some zoos have also evolved from simple purveyors of facts about individual animals into educators, describing the ecosystems, environmental concerns, and policy issues surrounding the animal, thus attempting to provide a more complete learning experience to the public. Indeed up until the recent proliferation of cable TV programs dedicated to animals, visiting the zoo was often the public's first exposure to, and education about, exotic animals and related conservation issues. Educating the public, many supporters believe, is crucial for raising awareness of critical conservation and preservation issues. Finally proponents point to the fact that many zoo animals live longer in captivity than their wild counterparts, suggesting that zoos are actually beneficial to the animals themselves (Bostock 1993).

Opponents of zoos contest the claims that the animals are well-treated. Despite significant improvements in zoo-keeping practices, many zoos around the world still display animals in small cages and in sterile environments. Even in the United States, many animals are not provided the minimum standards required by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA). According to the Humane Society of the United States, only about 10 percent of more than 2,000 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are approved by the AZA, which has high standards for animal care. Opponents also doubt the legitimacy of scientific research, suggesting that such research is in fact not that common, and that most is geared solely toward the management of captive animals and cannot be extrapolated to wild populations (Hancocks 2001). Questions also arise concerning conservation efforts in zoos. For example, is the purpose of conservation to preserve genes, individual animals, entire populations, or ecosystems? And which species should be selected for captive breeding programs? Still others argue that there is much to be done in terms of educating the public, in that zoos tend to perpetuate an overly simplistic, dominionistic, if not positivistic, view of the natural world. The result is that zoos tend to ignore smaller yet more populous animals in favor of charismatic megafauna that most visitors find more interesting (Hancocks 2001).

Philosopher Dale Jamieson, in his now famous, and controversial, essay, "Against Zoos," argues that even if there are some benefits to zoos, there is an overwhelming ethical reason for not having them, namely the rights inherent in each animal to live freely and to develop its own potential. Furthermore he contends that capturing wild animals for the hungry zoo market often leads to the death of many other animals, often the mothers or adult males who protect the young. While zoo supporter Stephen Bostock agrees that capturing wild animals is one of zoo keeping's weaknesses, even calling for a ban on the trading and capturing of wild animals, he disagrees with the notion that only wild animals can live freely. Freedom, he suggests, describes an environment in which most of the animals' needs are cared for, and well-managed zoos can do just that.

As a result of the continued professionalization of zoos and zoo keeping, several international associations have developed codes of ethics by which member zoos must abide. Ethical standards focus on everything from minimum standards of animal care, responsibility to the animals, species survival plans, commitment to biodiversity and conservation efforts, and professional conduct. Member zoos found in violation of ethical standards face sanctions or dismissal from the association. Many ethical discussions regarding zoos will likely continue, but some claim that debating whether or not zoos should exist at all is one that should end. David Hancocks explains that zoos are here to stay, and that human energy should focus on how to improve them, and to develop a new relationship with animals and nature (2001).


SEE ALSO Animal Rights;Animal Welfare;Bioethics;Colonialism and Postcolonialism;Modernization.


Bostock, Stephen St. C. (1993). Zoos and Animal Rights: The Ethics of Keeping Animals. London: Routledge. Bostock makes a strong argument in favor of zoos and of their scientific, environmental, and societal benefits.

Hancocks, David. (2001). A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future. Berkeley: University of California Press. Hancocks makes convincing suggestions regarding the need to change the goals of zoos and the way zoos are managed.

Jamieson, Dale. (1985). "Against Zoos." In In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer. Oxford: Basic Blackwell.

Kisling Jr., Vernon N. (2001). "Ancient Collections and Menageries." In Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens, ed. Vernon N. Kisling Jr. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. This edition provides an excellent history of zoos and aquaria around the world.

Norton, Bryan G.; Michael Hutchins; Elizabeth F. Stevens; and Terry L. Maple, eds. (1995). Ethics on the Ark: Zoos, Animal Welfare, and Wildlife Conservation. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. This book, published in cooperation with the AZA, includes chapters by many of the important authors on all sides of the ethics of zoos, animals, and conservation and is an excellent resource. Part of the Zoo and Aquarium Biology and Conservation Series.


American Zoo and Aquarian Association. "AZA Code of Professional Ethics." Available from http://www.aza.org/AboutAZA/CodeEthics/.

European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. "Code of Ethics." Available from http://www.eaza.net/info/2ethics.html.

Human Society of the United States. "Zoos." Available at http://www.hsus.org/wildlife/issues_facing_wildlife/zoos/.

South East Asian Zoos Association. "SEAZA Code of Ethics." Available from http://www.seaza.org/CommitteeWelfare.html.