A childhood trip to the zoo feels as quintessential as chocolate chip pancakes or bouncy castles, but the ethics of dolphins in tanks has always been questionable, and the debate has resurfaced in the aftermath of the pandemic television sensation “Tiger King” (2020–). Every zoo or aquarium fights back with token conservation programs, raising the question: "Does the conservation work done by zoos and aquariums justify the fate of their inhabitants?" In today’s world, the answer is an unfortunate “yes.”
Wildlife conservation is a notoriously unprofitable enterprise, so its reliance on charity for sustenance makes it especially vulnerable to the fickle whims of public opinion. For people to care enough to donate, which is oftentimes the ultimate determining factor in the fate of endangered species, they need to be aware not only of the problems but also, more critically, of the value of what they’re protecting.
Chances are most people in Washington, D.C. had not heard of, let alone seen even a photo of, a golden lion tamarin before the National Zoo began a breeding program and live exhibit in 1984. Now, these bright orange Brazilian primates are a main attraction, bringing in desperately needed funds each year for conservation efforts. Consequently, their population has rebounded from less than 200 individuals in 1981 to around 2,500 today, a third of which originated in captive breeding programs like the one hosted by the National Zoo. No one knew or cared until they saw the little jumping fireballs for themselves.
In the face of climate change, marked by habitat destruction and rising sea levels, conservation efforts are often the only hope for endangered species. Ironically, it is only humanity’s will that stands between species and the doom we, as humans, created for them; we decide who lives and who dies. With that sobering reality in mind, the role zoos play in raising awareness, funding and conservation work presents an argument in favor of the fate of the species housed in responsible zoos and aquariums.
My experience in conservation confirms this hypothesis. During my gap year, I spent six weeks as a volunteer at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, just outside Cape Town, South Africa. Known for its work with South Africa’s most charismatic seabird, the African penguin, SANCCOB’s wildlife rescue center plays host to 2,500 injured or ill birds in need of rehabilitation annually. These efforts come at a commensurate cost, relying upon financial support generated from the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. During my time at SANCCOB, the funding it received from the aquarium enabled the purchase of sorely needed supplies for rehabilitating seabirds, and the elated mood around the center reflected the financial desperation inherent to wildlife conservation.
As I matured, the moral questions surrounding zoos morphed from “Is it morally justified to cage wild animals?” to “Does the sacrifice of the caged ensure the survival of their wild counterparts?” As the situation for wildlife gets critical, the interest generated by viewing animals up-close stands to be their best bet for survival.