What Are the Pros and Cons of Zoos for Wildlife Conservation?

Jane Marsh - November 23, 2022

We are reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn affiliate commission.

Before planning visits to the attractions, many people can’t help but think about the pros and cons of zoos, especially when the facilities discuss involvement in wildlife conservation. Some of their programs go by several names, including captive breeding and conservation breeding. However, the goal is the same regardless of the terminology. It encourages animals to reproduce in controlled environments to preserve the species.

However, wildlife conservation work happening at zoos goes beyond reproduction. Here’s a closer look at their roles in protecting at-risk species and some examples of potential adverse outcomes. .`

The Pros and Cons of Zoos for Counteracting Negative Effects 

All efforts to encourage animals to reproduce in zoos for conservation purposes require careful forethought, including assessments of the pros and cons of zoos. If a species gets overhunted by humans, a zoological program could save it from ecocide. 

Zoo programs also often aim to reintroduce creatures into the wild after captive breeding occurs. That’s crucial, especially in cases where there are more of the animals in zoos than living in the wild. That’s the case with the red wolf. There are only eight of them left living in the wild. However, zoos house a couple hundred. 

On the other hand, zoos can bring unexpected problems, too. Some animals can’t cope with the stress of a new living environment. In those cases, they may develop new illnesses or have short lifespans. 

There are also cases where animals refuse to breed with each other. Zoo workers can sometimes overcome those instances with repeated attempts. Then, the creatures might warm up to each other, but not always.

The main thing to remember is that even the most well-thought-out conservation efforts led by zoos don’t always succeed. That’s not necessarily the fault of the people involved. However, it’s a good reminder that individuals should not assume zoological programs are the magic or immediate fixes for all that ails a species. 

The Need to Fix Related Issues

Zoos can go a long way in promoting wildlife conservation through their programs. However, efforts to stabilize a species could ultimately become useless. More specifically, facility representatives must target at least some of the problems that made wildlife conservation efforts necessary in the first place.

The western tragopan is a plumed bird found in parts of India and Pakistan. Its survival is under threat, so efforts are underway to protect it. A single facility has more than 45 of the birds. Six of them raised in the center recently got released into a nearby sanctuary. While reflecting on that progress, people point out that the factors that put the birds in danger remain unaddressed. Those threats range from poaching to livestock grazing. 

This reality reveals another aspect of the pros and cons of zoos. Having a captive breeding program is only one part of wildlife conservation. It’s undoubtedly an important one, but not the entirety of what’s needed. 

The decision-makers at zoos must remember that increasing the size of the species is only an early step. Before releasing animals into the wild from conservation programs, they must make concrete and ongoing plans to target many of the risks that could put the creatures under threat again. Fortunately, many zoos do this. 

At the San Francisco Zoo and Gardens, it’s even possible for teenagers to participate in those efforts. Young people regularly meet at two of San Francisco’s lakes. They then monitor water quality, rid the area of invasive plant species, and take other measures to improve the habitat. 

The Pros and Cons of Zoos for Managing Humans’ Ill Effects 

Humans also come into play regarding the pros and cons of zoos. One of the advantages is that the creatures in wildlife conservation programs will no longer face the most direct threats to their lives, such as hunters and poachers. That’s undoubtedly a major improvement. 

On the other hand, humans have shortcomings in all settings. It’s easy to find horrifying accounts of zookeeper mistreatment. In some of those instances, the people know precisely what they’re doing and have little or no remorse. 

However, unintentional neglect can also occur in zoo animals. That’s more likely to happen if the facility does not take the time to hire qualified people and ensure all employees get the training they need to do their jobs well. 

Risks can also occur when humans make the best efforts to keep the animals in their care safe and healthy. For example, numerous COVID-19 cases have occurred in zoo animals and some have died from the complications. A report also found that COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions adversely affected the care of animals at zoos and other facilities. 

As people ponder the pros and cons of zoos, they must remember that humans can complicate many situations. There’s no way to protect animals from all the risks people can cause. That means risk mitigation is the ideal approach, although it requires ongoing efforts from people at all levels. 

Teaching People About Their Roles in Wildlife Conservation

Any discussion of the pros and cons of zoos for wildlife conservation should include the things those facilities can do to help everyday people know what they can do to protect species. Doing that starts with educating the public about the endangered species in their local regions. They can then continue promoting learning by talking about what they know to friends and family members. 

Many zoo workers also play active roles in getting people involved from a young age. In one instance, a team from the Houston Zoo supported kids from a local school in choosing their first animal mascot. The children had multiple Zoom calls with zoo staff to learn about animals native to the area and how humans’ actions impact the creatures’ survival. 

It’s vital to get people interested in wildlife conservation while they’re young. Then, there’s arguably a greater chance of them having a lifelong concern for the matter. However, some people assert that zoos are not always educational for visitors. 

In many cases, that’s highly dependent on the extent to which people engage with the exhibits, taking the time to read the displays and similar content. How crowded a facility is matters too. If many of the exhibits have too many people surrounding them for most people to get up close, they won’t have opportunities to engage with the educational content. 

Having a zoo guide or someone otherwise available to answer people’s questions as they arise adds to the educational value, too. Then, visitors can get immediate clarification rather than possibly making the wrong assumptions. Going to a zoo is certainly not the only way to learn about wildlife conservation. People might learn as much or more from watching a well-produced nature documentary. Even so, for some individuals, a zoo visit proves life-changing in the best possible ways. 

Using Your Awareness of the Pros and Cons of Zoos 

Knowing about some of the pros and cons of zoos is an essential step of doing your part to support responsible methods of wildlife conservation. For example, you might hear that your local zoo has started a new program to protect an endangered species. Then, you could aim to view the news with a balanced perspective. It’s positive news when an at-risk creature has a healthy birth in a captive breeding facility. But, beyond that, is the zoo responsible for doing anything to remove the threats from the animal’s natural habitat?

You can also help people realize that going to a zoo is not the only way to support wildlife conservation. They might be someone’s only chance to see some wild animals up close, but a person could also donate money, change their behaviors or devote time to learning more about the creatures that interest them most to help the cause. 

Zoos are not always harmful places, but they’re not universally beneficial, either. A lot depends on the team working behind the scenes and whether they focus on the right priorities that will truly help the animals in need, now and for the long term. 

Share on

Like what you read? Join other Environment.co readers!

Get the latest updates on our planet by subscribing to the Environment.co newsletter!

About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.