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March 12, 2014

Are Zoo Animals Happy?

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Going to the zoo is the pastime of urban folk - it gives them a feeling of being in awe of nature and its fauna, and it is the delight of the children to point at and be able to recognise and name the various animals that occupy the fake dens, caves, pools, and homes.

For that - the falsity of their living space - is what these homes are to the wild animal, whether or not previously acquainted with natural surroundings.

I’ve always loved going to the zoo – seeing the animals is a beautiful experience. But I am always torn between supporting the zoo and its supposed conservation efforts, and wishing I could see the animals in the wild. But I have to admit that many of these animals, if they weren’t sitting sadly in their dens and cages – might have no home to go to, or might face the possibility of being completely wiped out in a few years’ time.

Apart from this, zoos are viewed as one of the fronts of conservation, but this is questionable on some points. How can an organisation that requires maximum commission promise to keep the livelihood of the animals top of mind, when they move animals from den to den, country to country, for piles of cash? How can they simply decide to split up animals and even kill them – like Marius the giraffe – because they are surplus, or unneeded, or inbred, or won’t fit into their breeding programme.

The argument for zoological gardens is that some animals really do need help, and youngsters visiting the zoo get valuable supplementary education outside of school. Some people are even inspired to devote their lives to animals, but the likelihood of this is apparently not common. According to one study, there are no – or very few – ‘long-term positiveeffects’ on the attitudes of people visiting zoos and aquariums towards animals.

The cons also include the fact that zoo and conservation publicity makes it look as though endangered animals are recovering well in the zoo. For many of these animals, there is no way that they will ever return to the wild. And their presence in a zoo doesn’t really do much to help fellow members of their species who are thinning out because of deforestation, poaching, and other problems.  

The question remains: are animals happy in the zoo?

It’s not simple for humans to determine what defines happiness for them, so it’s even more complex when trying to determine whether or not animals are happy. Humans tend to define their happiness or non-happiness on how stress-free their lives are, and so apply the same factors to determining the happiness of animals.

Apparently, there are no certain studies to uncover the truth or mistruth of animals being unhappy in a zoo, and research has shown that healthy animal behaviour is consumed by mannerisms that would be considered psychological or biological disorders if they were seen in humans – pacing, obesity, shorter lifespans, and self-mutilation.

Other studies have found that, while domesticated animals not only naturally have lower stress levels – because of their evolution as domesticated animals - but they also react better to stressful situations than their wild counterparts. And if we think stress levels are an indication of happiness, this would mean that domesticated animals such as guinea pigs and hamsters are happier despite being trapped in cages.

If this is true, then wild animals are significantly less happy simply because they are wild animals, and whether or not they come straight from the wild, have higher stress levels, and so react with even higher stress levels. From this we can infer that wild animals might not be happy in their artificial caves, dens, and cages. Especially if they don’t have enough space, food, water, or stimulation.

This would imply that they would be happier – although not as happy as domesticated animals – in captivity as long as their basic needs were met. This is all well and good, but a good many zoos fail to provide sufficient space for a wild animal, and many others fail to give the basic care they need for mere survival, nevermind happiness.

The image used above is the perfect one to supplement this post. Regardless of the science, of the evidence of stress levels, of every possible need possibly met, the evidence is clear. Does this animal look happy?

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