Why Vegans Don’t Go to the Zoo

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Giving up animal-based foods was easy, especially now given that there are so many delicious options and alternatives for things like burgers, cheese, and mayonnaise. Replacing the animal-ingredient-laden products in my pantry with plant-based ones was easy – but other things, lifestyle changes, were hard.

Namely, the zoo.

It took a lot of emotional untangling to see zoos for what they really are. I have fond, gold-tinted memories from my childhood of visiting the zoo – as an animal lover from an early age, I experienced such joy from seeing the majestic elephants, gigantic giraffes, and colorful and exotic birds.

It was hard to detach my own fond memories of going to the zoo with my parents to the reality of zoos as animal exploitation.

When people find out that I, like many vegans, are against the zoo, the fact is usually met with confusion…

  • Aren’t the animals happy?
  • It’s not like zoos are actively hurting the animals, so what’s the big deal?
  • How else will children learn about wildlife?

To pinpoint what exactly it is that prevents zoos from fitting into a vegan lifestyle, we need to revisit what veganism actually stands for.

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The Nature of Veganism

Tiger at the Zoo

When the omission of animal products is limited to food, it’s simply a plant-based diet – that way of eating becomes veganism when it extends beyond the plate. The real root of veganism comes from standing against all types of animal exploitation – not just those used for food, but also animals used for clothing, cosmetic, medical testing, and entertainment.

While they’re marketing under all different kinds of categories, zoos fall squarely in the entertainment department. While some people might argue that zoos are acceptable given that the animals aren’t killed as they are for food or clothing, and they aren’t subjected to physical pain and suffering like in cosmetic and animal testing, it doesn’t mean that zoos are completely innocent.

I want you to imagine an elephant, living in its natural habitat. What do you see? Wide, grassy plains? A horizon that disappears into the distance? African elephants travel thousands of miles in their lifetimes, following water and food sources, and wandering wherever they care to go. Now picture an elephant in a zoo – perhaps one you’ve been to, or have seen pictures of. In a best-case scenario, those elephants live in a sort of pen, set below ground, with noisy onlookers and loud children staring down from all sides. In more outdated, less animal-friendly zoos, the elephants might be kept behind bars. They are imprisoned in artificial environments, locked up to provide entertainment for human customers.

Of course, this isn’t limited just to large animals like elephants and giraffes – consider birds, who are naturally limited only by the sky, but must be confined to an enclosed space so that people will still be able to come and see them.

This imprisonment deprives the animals of everything that is natural to them and can cause psychological problems like zoochosis, which is characterized by rocking and swaying back and forth.

Some zoos even give their animals mood-altering drugs like Prozac because this is such a widespread problem.

Despite the clear psychological effects of captivity on zoo animals, people do still argue for the “pros” of zoos. Each of the reasons below is considered a positive aspect of zoos – let’s take a closer look at each of these characteristics.

Zoos Can be as Dangerous to Humans as Much as They are to Animals

Do you remember the last time you went to the zoo?

As you walked around, admiring the colorful array of exotic animals did you ever stop and wonder why you felt so safe?

Only a few meters from where you stand are a family of chimpanzees that if you stumbled across in the wild, could easily pose a threat to your safety. Just across the man-made dam is a brown bear, one of the most ferocious and protective predators known to man. And as your children press their faces against the pane of glass, on the other side a giant Siberian tiger lurks, watching.

And yet, regardless of your comfortable sense of safety, we often hear about the latest animal escape or a person falling into an animal enclosure. More often than not, these incidents not only pose a threat to human life but result in the death of the animal or animals in question.

One of the most recent and well-known incidents was the death of Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States. The 17-year-old western lowland gorilla was shot dead by officials, in an attempt to rescue a child that had fallen into the enclosure and was being dragged by the captive wild animal.

The question arises: if one of the main arguments for the use of zoos is centered around conservation, as seen below, how can it result in the death of a critically endangered animal, numbering fewer than 175,000 in the wild.

Some critics of the event have since defended the zoos action, saying it was vital for the child’s survival, while others condemn it, most experts concluding that the primate was showing protective instincts for the child.

The death of Harambe is not the only incident of its nature this year around the globe.

  • On May 23 a drunk man narrowly missed death after jumping into an enclosure at Nehru Zoo Park in India, attempting to pet two lions.
  • On May 21, at Chile’s National Zoo, two lions had to be consequently shot dead as a suicidal man jumped into their enclosure.
  • And only a few days previously, in China, a trainer and a tourist were drowned by a walrus after the tourist lost his footing and tumbled into the walrus pool. 

Since 1990, in the United States alone, animals died during escapes or attacks 42 times and furthermore, 15 zoo incidents resulted in the death of humans, and 110 resulted in injury.

But yet, we all seem to be ingrained with the assumption that zoos are perfectly safe for humans, and are preserving the life of wild animals in need.

Common Arguments for Zoos


As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, many people have fond memories from childhood of family trips to the zoo, seeing the animals, and sharing in fun memories with loved ones. The idea of zoos as amusement is the reason so many people bring their children to them – it’s fun to go for the day and see huge, colorful animals you wouldn’t get to see otherwise, especially in cities or areas without much wildlife.

I remember standing at the fence of the giraffe pen, looking up at the tall, spindly creatures in awe. Even now, I get that nostalgic feeling in the pit of my stomach that comes with a fond memory.

However, when it comes down to it, animals kept in confinement for our own amusement is an unmistakable form of animal exploitation. Even if we don’t mean it in such a way, going to the zoo ultimately says “my amusement is more important.”


One of the most talked about reasons for why zoos exist is the notion of conservation. Zoos, we are told, are there to help endangered and threatened animals rehabilitate, breed and repopulate their species.

However, this is often not the case.

The majority of animals in zoos are not endangered species, nor are they being bred to be released back into their wild habitat. In fact, it is nearly impossible to release a captive-bred animal back into the wild especially endangered animals such as polar bears, tigers, and gorillas.

Captive-breeding programs which produce baby tigers and elephants are only extremely effective in attracting numbers to the zoo and hence money.

A study last year, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology concluded that unless animals in the wild are protected, captive breeding won’t make a difference. The lead researcher of the paper, Dr. Paul Dolman states that their,

“research challenges the assumption that when a species is perilously close to extinction in the wild, it is always good to set up captive breeding. Without conservation in the wild, there is no point in captive breeding.”

Perhaps, zoos must focus more on what they can do in the wild to protect endangered species, instead of allowing all their attention to rely solely on captive breeding programs that do not prepare the animal to be integrated back into the wild.


A key factor that is often propagated with conservation is that of education. Zoos are created to help educate the general public, to show the importance of conservation, and how the individual can help animals be protected.

That is the message the zoos portray.

Now, think back to the last time you went to the zoo. Can you remember anything you learned that help those wild animals in need? I’m sure you can recall the very entertaining seal show, or the intriguing feeding session of the chimpanzees but was there anything you remember the ways the zoo is helping conserve these animals in their own habitats, or how you being there, supporting them, is educating you in any way about endangered species?

Most likely, you can’t recollect anything substantial. Most people, and speaking from my own personal experience, go to the zoo, gawk at the animals (sometimes getting ashamedly frustrated that you spent so much money to see the animals sleeping), and then leave with the notion of conservation far from your mind.

Like that of aquariums and other such programs that convey the message of education and conservation, there are more effective and less invasive ways for an individual to get an education on the preservation of endangered species and how they can contribute to the cause.

Alternatives to the Zoo

If you have an interest in animals but are appalled by their exploitation there are many ethical alternatives to zoos in which you can visit or take part in.

  • Farm Animal Sanctuaries: Depending on where you live, there is usually at least one sanctuary for farm animals in your state or province. These farms take in rescued animals that would have otherwise ended up on someone’s dinner plate and let them live in peace for the rest of their days. Some of these farms usually have accommodation available or close by so you can make it a memorable experience with your loved ones.
  • Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre: Visiting these centers dedicating to helping sick and injured native animals are a great way to grow your appreciation of your local wildlife, as well as providing you with helpful education on how to limit your impact on the environment in which you live.
  • Walk in nature: Anybody can do this! No matter where you live, there is bound to be a National Park or native bushland closeby, or a short drive away. Take the initiative and appreciate your local wildlife and plants. Just make sure to respect it! Walking in my local, national park is a favorite pastime to me as it’s quiet and peaceful but abundant with interesting wildlife.
  • Eco-vacation: For those that have the time, plan an eco-vacation. Most companies who specialize in these have a strong conservation method as they take you into new and exciting wildlife, without disturbing them.

Do your own research! Look online and see what you can do in your local area to help promote conservation and develop a deeper appreciation for wildlife.

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