Where does the cage end?

Red pandas, African elephants and Western Lowland Gorillas are some of the animals kept at Zoo Atlanta. Photos by Chris Young and Devin Phillips | The Signal

Georgia State students took advantage of a discounted evening at Zoo Atlanta this past Friday, reveling in the tradition of Georgia State immersing itself in Atlanta’s cultural offerings. Zoo Atlanta, however, is among the more contentious tourist attractions in Atlanta. Critics allege that it’s unethical to profit off of animals in captivity, while proponents of zoos claim that they are playing a vital role in modern society.

Zoo Atlanta is among the most research-productive zoos in the world, holding around 1,500 animals and over 200 species in their confines. It was known as one of the worst zoos in the country until 1984, when it was turned from a public organization to a private non-profit and handed over to Georgia Tech professor Terry Maple, who rebranded it and emphasized wellness in its new management.

Even in training the animals, Zoo Atlanta said all interactions are voluntary. Now, Zoo Atlanta aims to rescue animals from extinction by housing them both within and outside the zoo.

“We have another team member who is instrumental in conservation programs for golden lion tamarins in Brazil. This is a species that was nearly extinct 30 years ago, down to only a couple hundred individuals, and was saved from extinction with the help of zoos, including Zoo Atlanta,” Rachel Davis, Zoo Atlanta’s director of communications, said.

Davis said that some species are so threatened, they can’t live on their own in their original habitats.

“There is a species here at the Zoo, the Panamanian golden frog, that is now extinct in the wild. That species would no longer exist without zoos, including Zoo Atlanta,” Davis said.

There’s also scientific research conducted in zoos, with studies on topics as esoteric as the evolutionary history of Mesoamerican toads to as broad as the mammalian gut microbiome. Zoos help facilitate research that is impractical to conduct in nature but less ecologically valid in controlled laboratory settings.

“From a researcher’s point of view [zoos] also are critical in advancing scientific study and understanding of wildlife. [Zoos] have given us the chance to closely understand otherwise elusive animals, and observe behaviours that we would have otherwise been unable to in the wild,” Faelan Mourmourakis, a graduate student who studied conservation zoology, said.

Despite the evident merits of zoos, activists claim that sanctuaries could yield the same benefits.

“Instead of [zoos] and aquariums, I support animal sanctuaries where the animals are not purchased but are typically rescued from danger or captivity and live in more caring environments, with more space to live and aren’t used as products solely to make profit,” Christopher Eubanks, an organizer for the Atlanta division of Anonymous for the Voiceless, an animal rights group, said.

Zoos and sanctuaries are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the American Sanctuary Association (ASA), respectively. The AZA and ASA are both private nonprofits.

“[Zoos] garner consumers under the guise of conservation and rehabilitation, when in actuality, they’re separating families and putting animals in jail because they are profitable. It’s a capitalist scam, but it’s also completely unethical,” Brianna Roberson, a member of Anonymous for the Voiceless, said.

Roberson said that research should be conducted in animals’ home territories, rather than in zoos.

“Personally, it doesn’t matter to me how nicely you treat them when they’ve been displaced without consent. That is the traumatic abuse which will not be forgiven. The captivity, regardless of how they treat them in interactions, is also simply wrong. These are wild animals who should be in the wild,” Roberson said.

There is a philosophical question of captivity when differentiating sanctuaries and zoos: Are sanctuaries not “captivity” because the size of the enclosure is larger?

“The argument of consent when it comes to animals is a ridiculous one. Animals cannot understand the concept of consent, applying human ideals or morals of consent onto an animal is a form of anthropomorphism. Animals can no more consent to being in a zoo [than] they can consent to being in a wildlife conservatory,” Mourmourakis said.

Zoos were initially designed to merely be a place for humans to see animals—unaccredited “roadside zoos” and circuses still fall into that category. But zoos with ample funding can offer humane treatment to animals and provide educational services.

“The animals are ambassadors for wild animals many people may never have the chance to see, but they are not here for entertainment’s sake. They are treated as wild animals and respected as wild animals … whether or not an animal chooses to participate in a training activity, whether or not an animal chooses to be in one place or another – it’s all up to the animal,” Davis said on Zoo Atlanta.

The abstract question of zoos aside, there are several serious examples of modern zoos failing their animals in practice. Zoo visitors often taunt the animals by yelling at them, throwing objects at them and, in one particularly sobering example, pouring beer on them. That particular problem can be addressed by employing sufficient numbers of workers to monitor both the visitors and the animals, a measure Zoo Atlanta said it takes.

Nonetheless, the controversy over zoos isn’t a matter of the animals’ treatment. Animal rights activists, distinct from animal welfare activists, believe humans shouldn’t interfere with animals at all. Animal welfare involves promoting animals’ overall well-being but not equating them to humans. From an animal rights perspective, using animals in any way is immoral.

Yet, there’s no way to live in civilization today and not use animals. Veganism aside, many, if not most, mass-produced food goods are produced to inadvertently damage animal habitats. Most medicines available today were tested on animals and thousands more were found to be unsafe or ineffective because of animal testing. Production of commercial wood, plastic and almost anything industrially manufactured damage the environment by fossil fuel emission and by taking resources that would have been used by animals.

Zoos are an easy target because the animals are highly visible, compared to other industries. That is not to say that no zoos need change. There is a push by activists to amend the way zoos are run and stop showcasing certain animals, like big cats, who are especially vulnerable to the adversity of captivity. Considering the substantial role of zoos in American society, reform and evolution might be the only option.