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Environment & Climate

In the Americas, recent events at zoos reignite debate about their value

In June, Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta announced the city's zoo would close. Could more follow?
7 Jul 2016 – 06:38 PM EDT
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A girl looks at a white tiger at the Buenos Aires zoo. Crédito: ALI BURAFI/AFP/Getty Images

It's been an especially hard year for the world's zoos.

In May, two lions were shot and killed at the Santiago zoo in Chile in order to save a man who jumped into the lion enclosure, seemingly in an attempt to kill himself. Weeks later, a silverback gorilla – on the list of endangered species – was shot dead after a three-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo. Last Sunday, Arturo, “the world's saddest polar bear,” died at the zoo in Mendoza, Argentina.

Last month, Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta announced the Argentine capital city would permanently close its 140-year-old municipal zoo, after a tragic 2015 that saw the death of a baby giraffe, two sea lions and a Latin American rodent known as a mara. “This situation of captivity is degrading for the animals," Rodríguez said. "It’s not the way to take care of them.”

Zoos have long garnered debate in Latin America. Costa Rica is currently in the process of closing all its public zoos, which is expected to be completed after 2024, when they will be transformed into parks and botanical gardens.

But in light of recent events, the debate is again heating up. Is it inherently inhumane to keep animals in captivity for display? Should other cities and countries follow Buenos Aires and Costa Rica and shut down their zoos?

The answers to these questions are complex.


While zoos provide economic benefits to cities in the United States, that's not the case in Latin America.

A University of Cincinnati study in 2013 found that the city's zoo had a $143 million economic impact on the metropolitan area, generating 1,700 jobs and salaries totaling $51.7 million. Another report commissioned by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) found its members are a powerful economic force in their U.S. communities. The 212 zoos and aquariums certified by AZA generate $16 billion, employ 142,000 people and receive 179 million visitors each year.

But not all zoos are so successful. Though the Buenos Aires zoo is one of the city's most popular tourist destinations, it has been operating at a loss and under a cloud of negative publicity since the notorious 2012 case of polar bears suffering during a heat wave.

Other Latin American zoos have also faced problems. The zoo in Quito, Ecuador, plunged into an economic crisis after earthquakes in 2014. The number of visitors fell by 75 percent, and animals were imperiled.

Martin Zordan, executive director of the Latin American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (ALPZA), says zoos in Latin America face more economic difficulties than those in the United States.

“When we compare resources, we have to view them in the context of the realities of our countries,” he said. “There's no way a Latin American zoo could charge the same entry fee as a North American or European zoo.”

Nonetheless, Zordan argues that zoos in Latin American are beneficial to their cities.

“The 46 zoos we have in 13 countries generate more than 5,000 jobs and $170 million in salaries,” he said. “This is a different indicator of how they impact the local community in a positive way.”


There is abundant evidence that certain kinds of animals suffer in captivity.

Elephants, for example, live about 17 years in zoos, and 56 years in the wild. They frequently suffer from arthritis or foot infections from walking on hard surfaces. And many suffer from repetitive habits linked to stress, such as constantly swinging their bodies from side to side.

“It's impossible to build an artificial habitat that is adequate for elephants,” said Adam Roberts of the activist organization Born Free USA. “They and killer whales travel up to 100 miles in one single day and live in big groups.”

In 2010, the Los Angeles zoo inaugurated a new 3.8-acre elephant habitat at a cost of $42 million, featuring a pool and a waterfall. A judge ruled in 2012 that some aspects of the habitat were inadequate and that three of the elephants had been abused by keepers.

After the May death of Harambe the gorilla at the zoo in Cincinnati, the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argued that gorillas require habitats that no zoo can provide. Cases like that of the gorilla that shattered the glass in his cage at the Omaha zoo appear to support that argument. Gorillas in captivity also tend to suffer from heart problems.

Captivity does not always lead to violence, however. In 1996, a gorilla named Binti Jua at the zoo in Brookfield, Il., protected a three-year-old boy who fell into the enclosure and carried him safely to keepers.

“Gorillas are different from killer whales,” animal behavior expert Robert John Young told the Washington Post. Creating a proper habitat for an animal like a killer whale would be extremely expensive and almost impossible, he added. But smaller gorillas are “a more manageable situation” and can live happily in a zoo that provides everything they need.

In the end, a zoo's conditions determine whether animals will have good lives or suffer in inadequate cages and enclosures. And building proper enclosures can be expensive.

"Every zoo has one, two or three enclosures that it wants to improve,” said Ed Hansen, CEO of the Association of American Zookeepers. “And they try to do it. But building artificial habitats costs a lot of money.”


One of the arguments most frequently used in support of zoos is that they promote conservation and knowledge about animals in danger of extinction. In cities, where people don't have a lot of opportunities to interact with nature, zoos can be the only way to experience animals, experts argue.

“Zoos are educational spaces,” said Zordan. “Many people would never be able to see wild animals any other way, especially low-income people. We must support this.”

In 2007, AZA commissioned a study that showed zoo visitors think more about their own role in managing environmental problems and animal conservation after their visits. They also feel a stronger connection to nature.

Zoos also work to preserve the environment, said AZA spokesman Rob Vernon. “The zoos and aquariums that are AZA members budget $160 million each year to preserve animal species, and some work directly in projects to save species in danger of extinction locally or internationally,” he added.

In Latin America, zoos certified by ALPZA also help to rescue injured animals.

“The zoos in Latin America provide a string of services for injured animals,” Zordan said. “The truth is that in our cities we do things that injure animals, which then require attention from veterinarians. Many animals cannot be released again because of the severity of their injuries … and in many cases the zoos are the only institutions with the capacity to treat those animals.”

Still, some critics argue that zoos don't do enough for conservation. ALPZA has no numbers for the money that its members spend on conservation, although Zordan said the organization is in the process of putting them together.

Even in many U.S. zoos, however, only about 1 percent of the budget goes to conservation, AZA senior vice president Paul Boyle told Take Part Magazine.

In many cases, zoos also do not release endangered species. “In most cases, zoos do not raise animals in order to reintroduce them to the wild,” Roberts said. “They are raised to increase their populations in zoos, to protect them from total extinction, so they can at least survive in captivity.”

For some activists, that argument means zoos should do more for animals. For others, it justifies the existence of zoos.

“The threats facing biodiversity mean we do not have the luxury of moving away from zoos as a tool for conservation,” Zordan said.