In a surprising announcement last week, Costa Rica will be closing down two of its most popular zoos by next year, with hopes to bring the country to a new environmental standpoint: "No cages." The Simon Bolivar Zoo and the Santa Ana Conservation Center will become a botanical garden and a park, respectively, with the animals either released into the wild or sent to rescue facilities and wildlife reserves. The administration hopes to close all public zoos under this new guidance. The decision is already fraught with controversy in Costa Rica — legal, economic, environmental, and political issues are all playing parts.
The event brings a new question into the U.S. as well: Should America close its zoos?
Costa Rica's decision is bold and inspiring: their new environmental creed of 'No cages' is one that people around the world ought to listen to. Wild animals belong in the wild, and anything less is not enough.
The U.S. is home to over 200 zoos recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and has some of the most famous in the world, including the San Diego Zoo, the Columbus Zoo and even Disney's Animal Kingdom. Each and every one of these facilities has been credited with priceless benefits: wildlife conservation, public education, breeding programs, family values, animal rehabilitation, and more. Most of all, these zoos provide visitors with the chance to personally experience and connect with animals, in a way that they cannot through documentaries and literature. Each trip to the zoo can inspire a new generation of animal lovers. Without this tangible connection, how can advocates and environmentalists fight for the safety and health of these animals?
Easily, that's how. Wild animals are charismatic and inspiring, and through the right channels, activists can still raise awareness and educate the public without putting captive animals on display.
Overall, the cost to the animals in captivity does not outweigh the benefits of having a more knowledgeable public. In a zoo, animals have every need cared for by humans. Although this seems well and good, animals are used to being constantly active: looking to mate, feed or protect their family. In zoos, there is no such need, and animal boredom can very quickly become animal cruelty. Animals in zoos are plagued with issues that you would expect from being caged: mental neuroses, behavioral problems, aggression, depression and stress-related illnesses. All of these will lead to decreased quality of life, and most will lead to a drastically shortened life expectancy. Larger predators and mammals have an even higher chance of developing such symptoms, due to their innate need for larger territories and space. Birds with wings that are clipped, predators with no territory, and marine mammals with not enough swimming space are all at risk. Great white sharks will often starve to death in captivity, refusing to be fed by humans. Elephants in captivity live on average forty years less than those in the wild. Gorillas in zoos will often develop obesity, due to their lack of movement and exercise. The list goes on.
American zoos are plagued with more than the physical and psychological effects of captivity, however. In a small environment, predators may become violent towards their handlers, placing both humans and animals at risk. Surplus animals are also a hot point of contention for animal advocates. Often, when young animals grow into adulthood, a zoo is no longer able to sustain them, and animals will often be traded or sold with other zoos, or to animal dealers who will sell animals to traveling circuses or menageries, with substandard habitats and living conditions. It is simply impossible to replicate the habitat of a wild animal. and anything less will bring complications and hardship. Costa Rica, a country known for its biodiversity, has recognized its inability to provide sufficient habitat and lifestyle for the animals in captivity there, and America should do the same.