As a child, my parents often took me to the Hogle Zoo in Utah. Being the know-it-all that I was, I was telling new animal facts I had learned to anyone I spoke to after our visits. Many of us probably share similar childhood memories of visiting zoos and aquariums. However, when I returned to Hogle Zoo as an adult this year, I found it lacked the wonder I had experienced as a child. Instead, it saddened me to see the animals stuck in small habitats that looked little like their natural habitats. And they had no privacy with all the children pressed against the glass.
The Utah Hogle Zoo maintains a better environment for their animals than many other zoos, even within the state. Lagoon is home to 40 animals, including many big cats, in appalling conditions. Their enclosures are too small for animals and do not provide adequate protection from park patrons. Compared to Lagoon, places like the Hogle Zoo and Loveland Living Planet Aquarium almost look like animal sanctuaries, but that doesn’t change the fact that captivity actively harms animals. Utah must demand higher standards of care for all captive animals.
The reality of keeping animals in captivity
It has been shown time and time again that animals in captivity suffer. The killer whale is perhaps the best-known example of the detrimental effects of captivity on animals. In the wild, orcas live complex lifestyles that cannot be reproduced in a small aquarium. Killer whales in captivity die much younger, find it difficult to exercise properly, and cannot maintain the social bonds they would have in the wild. This disruption to their lives causes the captive orcs to act more aggressively towards trainers and other orcs. Sometimes orcas in captivity become so stressed that they will even self-harm themselves.
Like the killer whale, other animals, such as big cats, elephants, birds, and sharks, all experience intense stress in captivity. While each species will have a different and unique experience in captivity, each captive animal is deprived of its natural habitat and social structure to be viewed by us humans.
Do zoos have a positive influence?
The damage to animals in captivity has long motivated animal rights activists to advocate against keeping animals in zoos. For so long, zoos and aquariums have justified their existence as vital institutions for conservation and education. The San Diego Zoo, for example, helped save the California condor from extinction, growing the population from just 22 in the wild in 1982 to more than 400, of which 240 live in the wild.
Utah’s own institutions play a role in conservation. Loveland Living Planet Aquarium participates in several species survival plan programs. This coral rescue initiative aims to educate about sustainable eating and tries to reuse and conserve aquarium water as much as possible.
The Hogle Zoo donates the proceeds from its carousel to conservation, works towards the sustainability of its own operations, and participates in conservation groups like 96 Elephants and Wild Aware Utah.
Speaking from my own experience, going to the Hogle Zoo as a kid taught me the importance of conservation. Seeing animals in real life while learning about threats to their survival, such as habitat encroachment and poaching, has led me to become passionate about conservation as an adult.
Utah animals must also be protected
Our state’s zoos are an institution that is harmful to the animals that inhabit them, while providing an educational and conservation-oriented experience to their guests. If Utah creates higher standards for animal care, then zoos in our state may be more humane to the animals we claim to care about.
Humane animal housing reform should focus on animal habitats and socialization. To legally house animals now, an institution must comply with the national animal welfare law, which requires keepers to provide food, water, and veterinary care. But it does not meet the housing and social needs of animals.
Our state should pass laws that require certain sizes and designs of habitats and allow animals to socialize in healthy ways based on their natural needs. Laws that require zoos and aquariums to house animals in a more humane manner would make animals happier and zoo visits happier for every guest.
Additionally, zoos currently operate as a family adventure. The state may also consider emphasizing guest education and integrating them into conservation efforts. It would give adults a reason to come back to support conservation efforts.
We have to start radically changing the way we think about zoos if we are to solve the big problems they present. Designing zoos only with our entertainment in mind makes it impossible for the animals that live there to be healthy and happy. Even though Utah zoos and aquariums treat animals a little better than circuses or roadside zoos, we shouldn’t settle for the bare minimum.