Zoos vs. Wild: Mental Health Concern

Zoos have been providing endless entertainment for the public to see the unusual and foreign animals to what we as humans are used to seeing on a day-to-day basis. They put on shows to excite children about animals and establish a curiosity to learn more about animals. However, as time has gone by, animals that can be seen have been declining in numbers in the wild. More and more animals are becoming endangered and extinct. In response to this increase of endangered and extinct animals, zoos have been promoting the education of the problems in hopes that their patrons will become more invested in the natural world around them. 

The sea lion pool in the center of the Central Park Zoo with the midtown Manhattan skyline in the background.

For 125 years, the Wildlife Conservation Society has helped shape the zoos and aquarium that are available in New York City. They work towards educating the public about as many animals as possible. One of the ways they do this is through the plaques that are displayed for every animal that tells where they are from and what specific species they are. They also have information on how these animals are facing dangers in the wild and how people can help the cause. WCS has been opening up the conversation to how we can help from far away while making the experience fun. The downside to this is the apparent downgrade in mental health for the animals they are trying to help.

A family enters in the penguin house at the Central Park Zoo early in the morning to look at the variety of penguins the zoo has to offer.

Since zoos have become a popular pastime for people, zoos have become more accustomed to making the experience more of a show for education purposes. With that in mind for the zoo curators, the enclosures that are built are more interactive for the people that come to see the animals and less focused on accommodating the animals themselves. The interactive enclosures draw the people into looking at what is very unnatural to see in populated areas such as New York City.

           

Animal behavior in the wild in comparison to the behavior observed in enclosures are distinctly different. In the past, animals were taken from the wild to be put in zoos and they became unhappy very fast. Over time as the animals became captive bred, their behavior became less erratic. They have been accustomed to being dependent on humans. Still, with the small spaces that zoos provide the animals they could still feel unhappy circling around the same enclosure every day. Behaviors such as nail biting, circling, over self-grooming, and even self-harm are all signs of zoochosis. Zoochosis is a term that describes “repetitive behavior pattern with no apparent goal or function,” according to onegreenplanet.org and many other websites. This behavior is probably seen with almost every animal at zoos but, the general public does not notice. 

A baby mountain gorilla practicing his chest beating early in the morning in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda on December 21, 2017.

A Western lowland gorilla pressed up against the glass of the gorilla enclosure at the Bronx Zoo, New York City.

Volcanos National Park in the early morning before tourist groups start their treks to see different families of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

The Western lowland gorilla enclosure at the Bronx Zoo.

A Western lowland gorilla sits and watches her fellow gorillas play in the Bronx Zoo enclosure.

Western lowland gorillas (gorilla gorilla gorilla), for example, are just one of the many animal species that can be found in the famous Bronx Zoo in New York City. According to National Geographic, their species as a whole is considered critically endangered and can be found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea. The vast area they can be found in spreads across 270,000 miles. At zoos such as the Bronx Zoo they only have a couple of acres to live in. Similar numbers can be found in relation to animals such as elephants and leopards that thrive in a large area of land across several countries to have a fruitful and natural life.

A female African elephant and her babies cross a path set for safari vehicles in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Kasese, Uganda on December 24, 2017.

A female Asian elephant roams her enclosure after eating her lunch at the Bronx Zoo.

A female Asian elephant in her enclosure at the Bronx Zoo.

The land that the Asian elephants have in Lampang, Thailand to themselves.

Leopards live in sub-Saharan Africa, northeast Africa, Central Asia, India, and China.

How large is this space?

A leopard at the Bronx Zoo paces the branch that takes up most of the enclosure mid day.

The same type of behavior can also be found in aquariums. There the animals’ behavior is mostly swimming around their tank mindlessly. The bigger the tank, the bigger the animal that is in there. Usually, sharks are the biggest animal that can be seen in aquariums. Normally people associate sharks with being at the top of the food chain but, at aquariums they can be seen circling the tanks all day with other fish like sturgeon and stingrays.

           

The numbers that can be compared to the enclosures for the animals at zoos, they can also be compared to for aquariums. At the New York Aquarium the biggest shark tank is a 600,000-gallon tank while the rest of the exhibit dedicated to sharks share the other 184,000 gallons of water of the exhibit according to the New York Times article about the opening of the shark exhibit at the New York Aquarium. The shark building is the largest in the aquarium so there are only smaller enclosures for the other animals that are on display at the aquarium. 

A diver cleans the glass on one of the shark tanks at the New York Aquarium.

Penguins are a popular choice to put on display at zoos and aquariums. They can be seen in almost every zoo or aquarium that people can go and visit. The penguin houses or exhibits can often be seen with many penguins of different species sharing the same small space. Even if they come from both the North and South Pole, they share the space with many other individuals. This could also lead to a form of zoochosis because of the unfamiliarity of the many different species from different areas living together. According to the Central Park Zoo website, they have king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua), chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus), and macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus) in the same enclosure. Then there is a much smaller enclosure that just has tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata).

At the Sea Life Center in England in 2014, the penguins were prescribed antidepressants to make them happier during some dreary weather according to an NPR Morning Edition segment. Even though zoochosis behavior was not mentioned in the short segment, it is clear that the penguins’ mental health was declining, and the zoos gave them medicine that is usually prescribed to humans. This incident clearly proves a point that enclosures are not good for the animals over time. It also causes question whether or not all of the zoos are prescribing antidepressants to all of the animals.

All of the black-footed penguins start to line up to go back inside after the aquarium starts to close for the day.

A gentoo penguin brings a pebble back to his nest after he has stolen it from another penguin's nest on the Antarctic Peninsula on December 20, 2014.

The back-footed penguins relax in their enclosure while a cleaner washes the rocks right after the New York Aquarium opens.

Part of the Antarctic Peninsula early in the morning can be seen from Polar Latitude's ship that houses tourists.

The issue of enclosures is overlooked by most of society because there is a very good upside to it, education. It makes it hard for people to realize that zoos are indirectly harming animals mentally when there is so much joy for the people that come and experience the wonders of zoos. So while people can help out conservation efforts to help animals across the world, there is the issue of recognizing the mental health of the animals and starting to care for them better.

© 2020 by Lil Keller