The Rationale of Zoos


Edwin Wollert / Education Coordinator / Wolf Song of Alaska

Why are there zoos in the first place? What is the rationale and purpose behind capturing and breeding non-human animals and essentially putting them on display for a curious public? There are, of course, pros and cons, and every zoological facility has its own agenda.

Zoological parks allegedly fulfill a variety of purposes, including preservation, education, leisure, and research. However, these ends can be fraught with problems if faced irresponsibly. Each of these issues will be considered here. Preservation sounds a noble purpose, and indeed, some zoos maintain facilities specifically for the care and eventual breeding of endangered and highly endangered species. This becomes even more acceptable if there are affiliated programs which permit the eventual release of some of these individuals into the wilderness, which in itself is a tricky subject, considering additional issues of location, public acceptance, and the ability of the endangered creatures to survive without human interference.

Education is also relatively easy to stress for zoos, since providing people with the chance to have at least some experience with many species can be an effective manner with which to inculcate more sympathetic and enlightened attitudes towards environmental issues.

The latter two considerations, research and leisure, tend to be where zoos become more difficult to explain and justify. Research can be done in zoos, albeit on a generally quite limited basis, as the behaviors of any species living in captivity can and usually does vary greatly from behaviors outside of zoos. Finally, leisure is often inherently problematic. To begin with, many people who visit zoos do so simply for social reasons, such as family outings, in which case the welfare of the zoo residents becomes marginalized and trivialized. 

In addition, zoos which exist solely, or even primarily, as for-profit businesses run the risk of becoming little more than theme parks with expensive, but alive, exhibits. Granted, many zoos take pride in the responsibility they show for the welfare of their animal residents, though there are others which maintain their animals in environments which are not only artificial, but also highly exploitative. The inhabitants of such facilities suffer for this, all in the name of business; most wild animals can be expected to do very poorly in zoos without vast amounts of available terrain and suitable activities, and unless a zoo has the resources to provide these, they should commit themselves to fewer exhibits with fewer animals.

Wolf Song of Alaska is unaffiliated with any and all zoological institutions. Nonetheless, it is the ambition of the organization to eventually construct and manage a highly specialized wildlife facility to meet the demands of research, education, leisure, and preservation. We have in the past been offered smaller parcels of land in which to house and care for live wolves, and have thus far always answered in the negative, as wolves, even more so than many other wild species, require impressive amounts of space to remain healthy and enriched.

As noted earlier, most wild species hardly thrive in the prison-like conditions of many zoos, so it shall accordingly remain our unbending plan to not take on the challenges of caring for wolves without the space and the resources which will be required. The acquisition of suitable land is the first and most important task, and we continue in our efforts to procure such. The goal of the eventual facility, then, is to provide people with the truly rare opportunity to watch these animals in as natural an environment as possible.