As a child the zoo was one of my favorite places to be. I had always looked at it like the animals were on an endless vacation. It made sense that having all food, water and shelter provided would meantheir lives were better off in human hands. On top of having all their necessities taken care of, they don’t have to worry about predators or hunters. With all these things that the zoo provides to the animals one would assume that that they would also live long and healthy lives.
For the most part many species in captivity do indeed live as long as or even longer than their wild counterparts. However this isn’t the case for every animal. Elephants in particular tend to live twice as long than in captivity. African elephants live a median of 56 years in the wild and 17 years in a zoo. The averages for Asian elephants are 42 years in the wild and 19 in zoos.
The full scope of why these elephants are living such short lives in captivity is still in question, although many experts believe the main causes are stress and obesity. Due to the fact that these animals are so massive, it’s very difficult for zoos to provide a big enough enclosure. This leads to feelings of boredom, stress and anxiety for the elephant. Far too often they are left to cope by slowly bobbing their head or swaying back and forth. This behavior is known as stereotypy, meaning a persistent repetitive action that serves no purpose.
There is the possibility that these actions might not necessarily mean the elephants, and all other species that exhibit stereotypy, are suffering. There’s a fine line between being able to determine if these stereotypic behaviors are the elephants having poor quality of life or just coping with minor daily stresses. Despite that, for the sake of the animals it shouldn’t be worth the risk.
Another common issue found with many of the larger mammals in captivity is because of the lack of space and abundance of food, they are often obese. Many well-funded zoos have improved over the years by designing new ways to give the animals stimulus and exercise. For example, big cats will have their food bundled in a bag and tied to the top of a pole. This is good because not only does it get them to exercise but it also simulates hunting instincts.
This leads into the next effect of large mammals in captivity. When you take away an animal’s ability to interact with the natural world it creates a void in their inherent instincts. This will yet again lead to chronic stress and dampen their mental well-being. As stated previously, there are simple ways to ease this void through creating new ways to stimulate the animals. It still remains an issue across many zoos, particularly in smaller zoos with less funding.
From a business standpoint it makes sense to give the animals smaller enclosures. If the enclosure is too big or has too many places to hide, then customers visiting the zoo will be less likely to see them. Purely for the satisfaction of people, along with the fact that it’s a lot cheaper to use less space, these animals are oftentimes crammed up at the expense of their own health.
In essence, zoos are built for the people, whereas sanctuaries are built for the animals and their health. At the end of the day, zoos prioritize profits because that’s what keeps them running. Sanctuaries tend to share common goals of conservation, rehabilitation and education. All of these things are for the benefit of the animals first and secondly to humans. Animals used for profit and entertainment must have their health as the top priority.