This article is based on the AskReddit question "People who work in zoos and or places like sea world. Do you morally believe that the animals are being treated well? What are your stories?"
[Source can be found at the end of the article]
1. Content animals
when giving public talks about captivity, I try to avoid humanizing animals so I just use the term content.
As a general rule animals will not breed in every environment when they feel their young will not be content or where they foresee difficulties in raising them. Therefore, as long as an animal is breeding and eating, you can safely assume that they are content.
Also, I worked in the Zoological department of a well-known sea world place and a privately owned aquarium. I have volunteered at animal shelters and have been working with animals for about 6 years. I can honestly and wholeheartedly say that the animals at sea world and the aquarium are very well taken care of and as close to "happy" as an animal can be. The majority of the animals there were born under the care of man or were rescued and deemed unreleasable. Animal captivity is crucial in the study of our natural world.
2. Animals in captivity
Wildlife biology major here. I interned as a zookeeper in college. There are two kinds of zoos. One is accredited with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), and the other is a person with a lot of pets that hires people to take care of them then calls themselves a zoo. Accredited ones get inspections for cleanliness, ethical treatment, quality of facilities, etc. They're not perfect, but they do as best they can with their resources. The other kind is usually the roadside attraction park that gives the good ones a bad name. At the one I was at, we would scrub and disinfect enclosures daily, provide entertainment for the animals, and had a crew of professional exotic veterinarians on staff to tend to anything that may come up. We tried as best as we could to replicate natural conditions, but obviously some can't be copied.
The primary responsibility of zoos is education. If people don't know about an animal, they don't care about it. When someone sees it, they can get an appreciation for them that doesn't come from YouTube or documentaries. If a few have to be in captivity to generate public sympathy and encourage conservation efforts, then I feel that it's a fair trade off. Some animals exist only in captivity now and can possibility be reintroduced to the wild later.
3. Fruit popsicles for the gorillas!
I work at a zoo for 6 years now. And I'm pretty sure the animals I work with live better than I do. I know that in movies they show the bad keepers but in all my time I've never seen the animals poorly. They get the best and freshest foods and I'm often jealous as I prepare their food. We also go to great lengths to provide them with fun enrichment. I've spent all day before making giant fruit Popsicles for the gorillas. And it's always worth it to see how excited they get when they see them.
4. Release them into the wild!
I worked at a sea-world type place in Canada for five years. There is a LOT of scrutiny towards this park. My job does not directly involve the animals, but I saw them/interacted with them daily. I knew about a lot of backwards things.
It should be shut down and those animals should be sent to zoos or rehabilitation centres where they can have some semblance of a life. Releasing them into the wild just isn't an option since some of these animals are 4th-generation born in captivity. But they deserve better.
The man who owns the park cares NOTHING for animals. Absolutely nothing.
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5. Putting time and effort into caring for animals as best as possible
I volunteered at a smaller, but accredited zoo for several years while in high school. I was only allowed to work unsupervised with some of the less dangerous animals. While I wasn't allowed to provide care for the larger animals, I was given the opportunity several times to accompany a keeper while they worked in their enclosures. I have seen or been in the back areas for nearly every animal at that zoo and I knew most of the keepers.
What I can definitively say is that they did their absolute best to provide suitable and healthful care of each and every animal under their care. They legitimately cared about their job and the lives of the animals they were responsible for. Admittedly captivity isn't the best scenario for many species of animal, but it can be made more hospitable.
As a side note I regularly got to take care of the Capibaras and they are awesome animals. They would follow me around the enclosure curiously, but stay about 4 feet away. They inspected every last thing I did or touched.
6. Animal care staff doing their best
I work at a sea-world type place, in the Education department. I know a lot of you will stop reading and hate me regardless right now, and that's fine, to each their own. But I can tell you, from personal experience and observation, that I have never been to a facility that treats their animals better. I have worked and volunteered at two other zoos, and because this place I currently work at has vast resources, they do an exceptionally fine job of taking care of their animals. This includes both enrichment activities, such as toys, as well as an (over)abundance of food for them to consume, and a lot more space than people think when they first see them. I cannot speak more highly of the Animal Care staff at this place, because they truly do a phenomenal job.
7. Poor starfish
I worked in an aquarium that was a member of BIAZA (The British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) We were inspected by a vet every 6 months and the standard of animal care was generally very high.
The majority of our animals were captive breed so would not be able to survive outside of a zoo environment. Enrichment (a series of constantly changing activities designed to keep animals brains and bodies active) was a big part of life in the aquarium.
Having said that, starfish got a pretty raw deal. Having worked there for several months I began to question the average life expectancy of a starfish. We had handling pools, where, with staff supervision, visitors could touch starfish, crabs and sea anemones. Starfish only seemed to last a few weeks in this tank before dying of stress due to constant prodding, poking and being placed on warm hands. Starfish that were living in other tanks seemed to live for a considerably longer amount of time (if they managed to avoid being eaten by crabs).
There were a lot of times where our sharks (Tope, Sand Tiger and Cat, amongst others) would take a bite out of the other fish they were kept with (mostly mackerel and bream) but this is expected when, in order to make a visually appealing tank, you put predators and pray together.
All in all, I would say care for the larger animals was excellent but the little guys suffered somewhat.
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8. Plant research and funding plant conservation
I work in the conservation research arm of an accredited, well-run zoo. (I work in plant conservation, am not a keeper, so take this with a grain of salt.) Everything done at our zoo is done with the welfare of the animals first in mind. I'm not going to lie, I get a little squeamish seeing big animals like elephants in captivity, and I wish that zoos could focus on only taking in animals that need immediate ex situ conservation measures to survive. But let's be honest, no one's going to visit a zoo to see a bunch of little endangered reptiles and no tigers, lions, elephants, etc.
I do know that the money and awareness raised by our association with the zoo funds a good deal of the conservation research we're able to do. It's research that isn't being done in many places and that the general public would never hear about nor support were it not for our zoo. Particularly in the case of plant conservation, I don't think that my research would be funded or done at all if not for our zoo. So until the public/government starts prioritizing plant research and spontaneously funding plant conservation, I don't see any other way.
9. Animals safer in captivity
Zoo keeper here. In some places they are treated well, in some places not so well.
Regarding morals, I could discuss it all day, but the short version is this.
Zoos were created for the wrong reasons, now they can be used positively. They generate revenue to be ploughed into in-situ conservation and awareness. Arguing about holding animals in captivity is a waste of time at the moment, natural habitats will be gone very soon and peoples energy and resources should be devoted to protecting them. Worry about captive animals when the wild environments are safe, otherwise the only place left for them to live will be captivity and nobody wants that.
In the end though, it's all doomed. There are too many humans and in 25 years there will be another 3 billion of us. Humans are too stupid and short-sighted to prevent most of the natural world being destroyed during the remainder of our lifetimes. Keep the captive stock, because otherwise you'll never see the likes of tigers and gorillas again.
10. It all depends?
I've volunteered as a researcher at a zoo for a couple of years, and I can honestly say that most animals seem pretty content to just be fed and then laze around. All of my feelings on this are definitely assuming "adequate" facilities (I don't think there is any adequate facility for dolphins or whales). Some animals can have trouble yes, and some will pace constantly, appear unhappy, or suffer physically from stress, but given enough room and the right conditions, a lion is happy to spend it's time doing what cats generally do, being extremely lazy, which is the same with most predators. They conserve energy in the wild because what they do isn't easy, and most will rest when not required to hunt, this is why there is always footage of lions asleep in the shade, they're conserving energy.
Your general bog standard herbivore (one that isn't an elephant) is likely to not even have the full capability to understand that what it's going at present is any different to what it's supposed to do, I.e. walk around munching grass. Apes however, I think are a different matter, and I'm often torn on keeping great apes in captivity, but fundamentally believe they should not be kept in zoos, more as a moral standpoint than by evidence because I've seen gorillas and chimps in zoos that seem pretty happy in a family group, playing and interacting with each other. If on their own though, I don't like it at all. They are social and should be kept as such if they must be kept at all. Elephants I feel the same about, and as I'll mention below, this ties in with how I feel about dolphins and whales being kept in captivity, intelligence, range, social interaction.
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11. Modern and captive breeding-oriented zoos
I volunteered at a zoo for a while back in high school. I only worked with the birds, so that's all I can vouch for, but I can say that they received EXCELLENT care. Their food was fresh, high-quality, and varied at least a little every day to keep them from getting bored (e.g., different herbs used for "garnishes", or switching between nuts and grubs as protein treats). We spent our break time making toys and other "enrichment" tools to keep the birds entertained, and spent lots of time training birds and interacting with the ones that liked human interaction. We also varied their environments to keep things interesting (e.g., at Christmas we put real or fake evergreens in their cages for a change of scenery and perch texture). Their cages were as clean as was possible to make them - I know, because I scrubbed the damn things! I got to help one of the keepers take an injured guinea fowl to the vet, and I was astounded at both the size and cleanliness of the vet building. All of the bird keepers really, really loved their jobs, because why else would they work such a stressful job for so little pay? They worked really hard to keep the birds happy and, most importantly, comfortable enough to breed.
I think good, modern, captive breeding-oriented zoos can provide excellent care for their animals, and serve as an invaluable tool for public education and conservation. However, such a high level of care only comes from lots of money, research, and devoted staff. The wild is definitely the best place for animals, and I think that if the animal is only being kept for entertainment or is being kept in an unsuitable facility, then that is absolutely cruel.
12. A philosophical question/ debate
I have been a zookeeper, aquarist, and have graduate credentials in animal behavior, have published over a dozen peer reviewed papers. I have worked for and with a few major industry leaders including Sea World and Disney. I have worked with reptiles, fish, marine mammals, and several large predators.
Do I think that the workers in zoos/aquariums think animals are being treated well? The short answer is "yes", otherwise we wouldn't work there. We work crappy schedules for crappy pay in terrible conditions because we value the care of animals and the potential for educating the public. Zoo/aquarium workers can and do report poor care of animals but you need to realize that all large accredited institutions greatly exceed the standards for animal care put forth by the USDA. AZA is a voluntary accreditation agency with higher standards but also functions as a lobbyist for the industry.
This debate will go on forever because its a philosophical question that has no "right" answer. On one end of the spectrum you have the belief that no animal (including pets) should be kept in captivity, and that the people that do so are evil. Most people (including animal caregivers) are somewhere in the middle obviously. Even within a team of caregivers, I have witnessed many heated debates about care, enrichment and end of life decisions.
AZA has just gone through a long process of upgrading their standards for Elephant care. That has led to many zoos giving up their elephants or spending millions to upgrade their facilities. Other species with complex social lives are likely to get scrutiny next.
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13. All the zoos and aquaria differ
I am a veterinarian that works full-time on wildlife and zoo animals. The bottom-line is that the vast majority of zoos have undergone a massive evolution in their mission statements and approaches to animal care. Most zoos now treat education and conservation as their utmost purposes, which is certainly a change from how zoos were when they were first created.
As others have mentioned, there are multiple accrediting bodies that evaluate and regulate zoos and aquaria. These organizations ensure that the animals are not simply being treated humanely, but are being given enclosures, enrichment, and husbandry practices that appropriate for their biology and natural history. Unfortunately, there are many "zoos" that are not accredited because of substandard practices. These are typically very small "roadside" collections of animals that are held by people with less training and experience. For these institutions, the goal is often profit and entertainment, rather than animal conservation.
Over time, I have worked or volunteered at 10 zoos, aquaria, and wildlife rehabilitation institutions. The overwhelming majority of people at these places are unbelievably passionate about wildlife conservation, animal welfare, and educating the public about these animals so that they can make a difference in the global populations.
I have, however, personally worked with a zoo that was run by a man whose goals were not nearly as admirable, and it was a travesty. Needless to say, I do not work with them anymore, and they have since lost their accreditation. This was, by far, the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, these places, although fewer and fewer in number, are the reason people get so angry about zoological parks.
14. Dolphin encounter
I worked not at a dolphin encounter place, but next door and did water quality testing for the dolphin place. Seeing three dolphins squeezed into a holding tank the size of a larger hot tub all night, just standing in the water with their snouts pointing at the door was kind of heart breaking (similar situation to Black Fish's Tillicum's original enclosure (where he killed the first girl)). The dolphins held in the back all 'paced' their holding tanks all day (just swimming around and around). This is a well known place in the US. It made me not ever want to patronize marine worlds where the marine mammals does 'tricks' for the audience. Sad all around.
15. Whales enjoy their time
I used to be a Show Operator for a SeaWorld place, so I got to see behind the scenes of the animal shows there. While some of sea worlds practices in the past might not have been good ideas, today, they are extremely caring for the needs of the whales. I can't even tell you how many times we canceled shows because of issues with the whales either not being happy with one another, or for them not feeling well. The trainers main focus was on their well being. It seemed to me that the whales really enjoy performing, and I dare go as far to say that they consider it a privilege.
Cute fact: several of the whales enjoy playing with a toy monkey in the water in between shows, or watching the lights change colors when we test them.
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16. Educating people on animals
Big cat keeper here.
I fully believe in the cause of Zoological facilities and have seen firsthand just how important it is for people - especially children! - to see these animals up close and form a connection. Until you are involved on the daily care and public education of these animals, you will never fully appreciate just how staggeringly misinformed people are in regards to not only the animal, but their conservation as well. For example, I came across dozens of guests who didn't even know what manatees WERE, much less that their populations are declining worldwide!
Not to mention the conservation and rescue/rehab work these facilities do for their park's wild cousins.
17. Whale watching
I'm on the education staff of an AZA accredited aquarium.
While I work with a limited set of animals directly, I know the husbandry staff quite well. These are some of the most passionate people I know and they care deeply about the animals and their treatment/conditions. I feel lucky to work in a facility that has a heavy focus on education, especially of local wildlife.
We're part of AZA's Species Survival Plan and are part of lots of research and conservation efforts. A lot of our animals (all, in some departments) are injured or unreleasable acquisitions. We work hard to focus on animal enrichment. Looking through this thread, I don't think people really understand enrichment. We have an especially awesome rescue/rehabilitation/re-release program which is something most of our visitors never see either. We do public sea turtle releases on occasion.
We don't keep any Cetaceans at our aquarium. We do dolphin/whale watching trips out on the ocean which I think are just fantastic. There are strict guidelines in regards to proximity and how you approach the animals. We also collect data on whales by photo I.D. rather than any sort of tagging. Watching a humpback breach in the wild is one of the most spectacular things I've seen in person.
18. The bird keeper
I volunteered at an AZA accredited aquarium for three years working with penguins, and oh yes those birds were treated well. They had a big enclosure with plenty of space to establish territories, were fed a variety of restaurant quality fish 2x a day, and had immediate access to veterinary care in the event that they were feeling a bit under the weather. Many of the birds in our colony were born in captivity, but some were actually rehabilitated wild birds that would not could not be released back into the wild. There's a reason penguins in captivity can live over twice as long as those in the wild (our oldest African Penguin is 38 to give you an idea of the longevity they have when they don't have to deal with predators and the struggle for food).
In addition to the obvious benefits for the individual birds, some aquariums have breeding programs that benefit the species as a whole. For example, mine was part of a network for African Penguin breeding which found ideal genetic match-ups to keep the gene pool as diverse as possible and keep the population healthy and viable. For an endangered species, this is a very good thing.
Not all zoos might be up to the standards I experienced, but any zoo/aquarium that is AZA certified will be.