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The first day that I was in Baños, Ecuador, I went to a zoo. I was restless to get out and do something after being caged in an overnight bus, and it was the first suggestion out of a fellow hosteler’s mouth. I was skeptical — wasn’t it one of those sad little neglected local zoos you find all over the developing world? But someone else chimed in assuring us it was super fun and somehow I found myself joining the pack.

Well guys, shocking news — it was indeed one of those sad little neglected local zoos.

The knot in my stomach only grew the more we strolled through the grounds. Animals looked half crazed in otherwise empty, too-small cages, while giggling locals passed Doritos through the bars to the outstretched hands of monkeys. Bored staff looked on while I internally debated how well a lecture on basic animal nutrition would go over in my broken Spanish. It rivaled my worst zoo experience of all time in Ho Chi Minh City.

I left that zoo with a heavy heart, and I felt something shift inside of me.

That day — and my recent, repeated viewings of — left me thinking a lot about my relationship with zoos and aquariums. An obsessive animal lover since I was first able to chase neighborhood dogs down the street, I visited pretty much any place that promised to bring me closer the creatures I so adored. Along the way, I did a lot of things I wouldn’t necessarily do again, knowing what I know now — I swam with captive dolphins in the Bahamas when I was 13, I rode an elephant in Cambodia when I was 19, and I visited the Tiger Temple just two years ago when I was 22.

Over the years, as I’ve had more time to learn and think and feel, my feelings on zoos and aquariums has shifted.

One of the big catalysts for this shift in my thinking has been the opportunity to have wildlife encounters out in the wild — ones where the animals are willing participants in sharing their space with me.

Once you’ve seen a condor soar in the open sky above you, it is only disheartening to see one under a mesh enclosure. Once you’ve walked alongside a rescued elephant and learned of their suffering, it’s hard to want to jump on their back. Once you’ve watched the graceful swoop of a manta ray in the heart of the ocean, it’s a little less exciting to watch it through a pane of glass. And once you’ve watched a regal jaguar stalk the banks of an deep jungle river, it’s almost embarrassing to watch one languish under the flash of a tourist’s cameras.

Additionally, movies like (which is free to watch and has literally changed my life) as well as some good old fashioned soul searching, have led me to recognize animals as sentient beings that exist wholly outside our desires for them to provide us entertainment and companionship. While I realize our intentions are often good — for example, people want to swim with dolphins because they are fascinated by them — the dolphin’s right to an uninterrupted, happy life in the ocean trumps our desire to love them to death in small cement cages.

Yet, with all that said, I cannot in good consciousness swear off zoos and aquariums for life. This quote has appeared on this blog before, and I think of it often especially in respect to ocean conservation.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”-Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

I’ve met dedicated ocean conservationists who admit their love of the sea was sparked by annual trips to the nearest big city aquarium, and researchers who concede that valuable studies and funding come from zoos. Places like the Bronx Zoo, the Edinburgh Zoo, and the Boston Aquarium leave me feeling educated and uplifted by the amazing diversity of our planet. If we want to raise children to make choices that show respect to our planet and all its inhabitants, how can we do that without showing them who those other inhabitants are?

I believe the conclusion I’ve come to in all this is that zoos and aquariums should be special, educational, and rare, reserved for places that have the funding and the knowledge to care for the creatures within and to pass their passion onto the public. So while I’m not swearing off zoos and aquariums for life, I am also no longer attending them casually. From now on, those visits will be preceded by a bit of research and quiet contemplation about whether the destination in question aligns with my values, and perhaps followed by a small donation to one of the conservation causes of the animals I meet.

So, I guess I consider myself a moderate when it comes to the tangled world of animal rights. I still eat meat, and I still wear leather shoes, but I’ve recently made a switch to cruelty-free beauty and home products. I still believe in pets — and making your dog wear Singa t-shirts — but I believe animals should be added into our families with the same gravity we’d add new human members.

I still love animals with every fiber of my being, but I’ve learned that sometimes, when you love something, you’ve got to let it go.

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mahatma Gandhi

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70 Comments...
  • I feel really in between like you. The most horrible thought I had while reading this is “I wish I has already been to Tiger Kingdom, before i knew what I know about it… because now I can’t go” It’s a shame because the selfish part of all travelers is that I want to swim with a dolphin & pet a tiger- but you’re right after seeing Blackfish & the Cove it’s hard to know what is responsible and what’s animal torture. If you hadn’t mentioned Bronx zoo or others, I wouldn’t know they are different than the rest. Unless someone is very involved in animal rights they won’t know either, so it’s hard to do the right thing. The other worry is if you hadn’t gone to that bad zoo, and everyone else stopped going, what happens to the poor animals.. do they starve to death?
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Oh, Rachel, I know how you feel. Confession: When I hear backpackers talk about going to the red light districts in Bangkok and having a grand old time I sometimes have similar thoughts! I would never do it knowing everything I know now, but sometimes I’m jealous of the antics of the ignorant! You bring up a good point about what happens when these zoos close… of course it is going to be a painful process but I do believe it’s a necessary phase we need to go through to get rid of these really awful, neglectful zoos.

  • Laryssa
    March 21 2014

    I have been to a few of these sad zoos and it just breaks my heart, and it’s discouraged me from really wanting to visit them.

    It’s tough, because once these animals have been in captivity, they can’t just be released back into the wild.

    On a positive note, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is incredible. It’s a rescue for elephants that have been in circuses or zoos, and it’s closed to the public. The elephants have miles upon miles to roam — with very minimal human . The caretakers’ chief goal is to make the elephants feel as much “at home” as possible, and get back to the core of “being an elephant” — not providing amusement.

    I don’t know what the answer is — no zoos unless the animals are feared to be an endangered species? But even that seems weird.

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      That place sounds amazing Laryssa! I went to a similar one in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and it was a fantastic experience. I will definitely check out the one in Tennessee if I’m ever round those parts!

  • Jamie
    March 21 2014

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. You make some really good points. Also I had never heard that quote by Baba Dioum before, but it’s a great one!

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Thanks Jamie. Actually, I first read it at the Edinburgh Zoo 🙂

  • Silvia
    March 21 2014

    This was such a heartfelt post, Meihoukai. I so agree with your moderate stance on animal rights – it definitely doesn’t have to be an all or nothing matter! It’s nice to hear from someone who’s clearly passionate about animals, but also doesn’t have impossibly extreme expectations.
    Silvia recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Thanks, Silvia! I’ve struggled with a lot of my decisions. For example, not eating meat isn’t even really something I toy with — but I think often about the fact that I do and if that’s hypocritical or not. I think it’s important to examine our choices — especially those that have an impact on the lives of others!

  • Lucy
    March 21 2014

    I really enjoyed this.
    A few years ago, I was in Trivandurum, (in the south of Kerala), India. I had read that the zoo there was meant to be wonderful – and having similar feelings about the level of care in zoos, I did my research. It promised scenery similar to the animal’s natural habitat. Interestingly, it was also the zoo that Yann Martel based his observations on for the book Life of Pi. In reality, it was awful. Tiny, tiny cages with animals pacing up and down. I spent the rest of the week cross with myself that I had helped to fund such an awful zoo.

    I urge anyone going to India not to visit this zoo.

    But, thank you for such a thought-provoking post. xx
    Lucy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Thanks for the heads up about that place, Lucy. I always try to check Tripadvisor ahead of time now — I don’t always agree with the reviews but they give me a good staring point to judge the kind of facility it is. I learned my lesson the hard way after visiting a horrific zoo in Saigon — when I checked Tripadvisor afterwards there were dozens and dozens of warnings!

  • Meihoukai
    March 21 2014

    Visiting Brazzaville zoo between the two civil wars was really tough for the guts, animals starved to death everywhere. Poached mountain gorillas after the Rwanda genocide were also quite a concern, there even were projects to save them…But there still were corpses in the street…Don’t know about Central America, but nature conservation and respect is a concern for peaceful lands were full bellies and full wallets people live, very sad, but somehow difficult to blame.

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Meihoukai, you painted a devastating picture there. I think we are on the same page… I don’t feel like a nation struggling to care for its people properly should be opening zoos. It is certainly a drain on resources that should be used elsewhere.

  • Jenna
    March 21 2014

    I feel like I’m on the same page–I always struggle with this too–it’s so hard to visit especially after watching movies like Blackfish and the Cove. But then again if I didn’t visit zoos or places like Sea World when I was younger, I doubt I would love animals as much as I do. It’s a tough balance, but I like your conclusion that they should be more of a occasional and educational purpose instead. We enjoy visiting rehabilitation centers and are visiting another one this weekend–I like the concept of those much more as they help and release the animals or make a home for animals that can’t be released into the wild.
    Jenna recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      I agree Jenna, and I love visiting those kinds of places too! However I was recently chatting to someone in Costa Rica about this new phenomenon where every zoo is now calling itself a “rehabilitation center” as that’s what they know people want! Ahhh! I guess research is always necessary 🙂

  • Shaun
    March 21 2014

    This is a tough one for me as well. Tangled describes it well. I hate the way we treat animals and our planet. I’d much rather educate through pictures and stories. Technology exists enough now that we can virtually create what we see in zoos and aquariums.

    I know it’s not the same, but to me, the trade off for a life in captivity is worth it. However, I don’t know how much wild is left.
    Shaun recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      That’s an interesting concept, Shaun. I don’t know if technology can ever rival what we see in captivity, but you may be right about the trade off.

  • Juan Felipe Sierra
    March 21 2014

    Great post! I went to the Dominican Republic a few years ago and swam with dolphins. Then I watched the documentary The Cove and I regret it. I definitely know how you feel.

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      That is a tough one. I’ve been through the same. I was so young I barely remember the dolphin experience but I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings looking back on my tiger and elephant attraction-visiting.

  • becky hutner
    March 21 2014

    love this post alex! i too have given a lot of thought to zoos & aquariums & have come to a similar conclusion — to be discerning about my choices via research. i especially like conservation centers which are great zoo alternatives.

    something else to consider in the debate…the breeding programs at some of these centers & zoos. it can be argued that if it weren’t for them, some of the animals would already be extinct. for eg. at the gibbon center in southern california where i live, the staff believe that it is safer for these gibbons to be here in captivity than wild in their native southeast asia where acres of forest are slashed each day.

    i appreciate that you aren’t afraid to “go there” on the tough issues & encourage you to continue!
    becky hutner recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Yeah, the breeding programs, research and conservation aspects of some of these zoos are invaluable. The education we get on the front end is amazing, so I can only imagine what goes on behind the scenes. I don’t question that there is a need/benefit for some amount of animals in captivity. But I don’t think it needs to be anywhere near what it is now.

  • Katie
    March 21 2014

    This was such a great post! One of the reasons I skipped Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai was because I just couldn’t imagine those cats weren’t drugged… Elephants in Thailand are also treated pretty terribly, so we chose to go to BLES (Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary) instead. Best decision of our life!

    Ultimately, I won’t visit anything animal related without a lot of research. No matter how much I want to snuggle a ferocious tiger (and the photo ops that go with it). I interned at a zoo in the states. They aren’t all bad, even if none of them are ideal. It may be the only opportunity for some to ever learn about conservation. You hit the nail on the head with this one! 🙂
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Thanks, Katie. I will have to check out BLES… I’ve never heard of it. I can highly recommend Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai if you’re ever back to Thailand!

  • Ron
    March 21 2014

    Dealing with tough issues like international Zoo regulations is difficult in a blog. It gets very heavy fast dealing with human and animal rights. Impossible really.

    In the US many animals in zoos are well cared for, and many are unable to care for them selves in the wild. The Zoos are a necessity on many levels. They promote conservation, education, and awareness for large environmental and animal concerns. There are zoos where animals get better care than many people. Zoos can be a very good thing for both animals and people.

    Then there are places where zoo animals are caged in poor enclosures and fed bad diets while living in their own filth. We have a few bad zoos in the US so this is not limited to third world countries.

    Are we able to change the bad and promote the good? Not often. The main thing is to help when you are able.

    One thing I love about diving is seeing all the fish, critters, and coral roaming free! Yes coral can roam!

    I try to be a good person and not take the planet for granted. I keep the local bird population happy, do not destroy bears no matter how annoying they are, feed the deer/Elk when winters are tough, throw the fox a few scraps, and in general leave a smallish footprint. The animals I feed will never become dependent on me but I live in the mountains and winters can be long and cold.

    We do what we can.

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      I agree Ron… diving trumps an aquarium any day! In my mind the ideal chain of events though is that a kid visits an aquarium, a kid decides they want to be a diver, and that kid goes on to be a conservation-focused adult! Maybe that is too idealistic, but that is where I see the value in zoos and aquariums. Thanks for your comment!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    March 21 2014

    Zoos & aquariums are so tough, aren’t they? I know some people who give them a blanket boycott, but I’ve been to some really wonderful zoos and aquariums (even in Asia!) that are clearly focused on conservation and have successful (& important) breeding programs. I know that the hardliners claim that the only place for animals is in the wild, but in today’s world, I just don’t think that’s realistic. With habitat destruction and hunting being the problems that they are, I think sometimes the choice for certain animals is the zoo or complete extinction.

    That said, I definitely support you in your decision to more thoroughly vet the places you visit. We vote with our dollars and if places really are squalid little hellholes where the animals are miserable and mistreated, why would you want to support that? We’ve always done extensive research before any animal attractions here in Asia and I’m sure that’s part of why our experiences have, thus far, been good.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      I’ve been to some awesome ones in Asia too, Steph! I’m happy for you (and all the places you’ve supported) that you’ve had good experiences… because the bad ones really sit with you. Hopefully now that I’ve committed to more thorough vetting it won’t happen again.

  • Emily
    March 21 2014

    I admit I was a bit nervous when I first started reading your post. As a dolphin trainer myself I obviously love and care deeply about animals and my day consists of giving the animals I work with the best care possible (seriously they get better healthcare than I do). And while everyone is allowed to have their opinions on whether animals should be kept under human care, I think the quality of care they get is most important. I wholeheartedly agree that there are zoos and aquariums out there that should be shut down. Their enclosures are too small, the animals too neglected, and the facilities too run down. It’s unacceptable. But, like you said, it’s unfair to group all zoos and aquariums together. There are some incredible facilities out there who have the best trainers, vets, and aquarists in the world (including Sea World – and as a trainer (who doesn’t work at sea world) let me tell you that Blackfish is so far off base and factually incorrect that it’s actually unbelievable). And while there is always the argument that animals should be released into the wild (NOT a good idea btw for many many reasons), I actually work at a facility where our animals work open ocean, untethered, and they always come back. They could leave at any point – swim away into the deep blue ocean and never come back – but they don’t. So what does that say about their life with us? A lot I hope.

    I’m glad you’re being conscientious about which zoos and aquariums you visit. The good ones do some truly amazing things and when I worked at one such facility where I worked with the public, it was so rewarding to watch kids faces light up when the animals came out and have teenagers coming up to you asking how to get a job as a trainer. That kind of education is vital. The quote you used is one of my favorites and it’s so true. We care about what we see and learn and experience. Most people wouldn’t care about beluga whales if they’d never seen or heard of one. But when they’re up close and personal it’s a different story. Animals in zoos and aquariums are wonderful ambassadors for their wild counterparts but they need to be properly taken care of and given the absolute best care available.
    Emily recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      Emily, that is so interesting that the dolphins aren’t caged in any way. Where is this facility? And are they penned at night? I’ve experienced something similar at Stingray City in Grand Cayman… it’s just a natural sandbar where wild stingrays gather every day and are welcome to leave at any time. It’s totally guilt free! Of course, I’m sure the food has something to do with it 🙂

  • Diana Edelman
    March 21 2014

    This is a really tough subject to tackle, Meihoukai. Being in animal rights, I don’t support zoos and would never willingly go to visit one. I do not believe animals belong in captivity. They belong free and wild. However, I do understand the argument about people learning and gaining an appreciation for animals thanks to the zoos. Some zoos do it better than others. I went to a “local” zoo as you did in Yangon, Mynamar last year. I left in tears. The animals there were living in horrid conditions, trained to come up to people who buy food to feed them, doing shows (don’t even get me started on the poor bear who was shackled at the neck and then forced to come into the public and take photos, all the while struggling to be taken off of her chain). That zoo was terrible. There was no education, it was simply exploitation. Places like that have no room in my heart and would never be supported by me. I had to go for research, and I HATED being there. Some zoos do it better – in Oregon they are constructing a giant area for elephants to roam free. Really, it comes down to doing research on each zoo before visiting. I personally believe that a zoo should only have animals native to that climate. For example, there is a zoo in England where elephants are outside … in the winter … in the snow. It is also important to look at where they are getting the animals from — are they being captured from the wild in order to be placed in a zoo? Or, are they retired circus animals, etc.? I support neither, but would much rather see animals get a better chance at life than being removed from the wild. Often times, zoos unknowingly support this trade — purchasing animals from Asia who have been captured without knowing this. It is a tricky thing to navigate. I know, for me, I will never go back to a zoo as entertainment. There are plenty of other ways to gain an education about animals. Yes, I understand the value of seeing an animal, live, but that is brought about because that is what we are used to seeing and doing. If it wasn’t an option, other than going on safaris/seeing them in their natural environment on their homeland, then there would be no expectations that we NEED this to learn.

  • Amanda
    March 21 2014

    I totally understand your conflictedness, Meihoukai – I feel the same way!

    I’m totally against Sea Worlds now (“Blackfish” definitely ruined those for me, especially once I learned more about whale family structures and how parks like that rip them apart), but I’m still on the fence (no pun intended) about zoos. I have been to some zoos that are amazing – wide open spaces for animals, and great educational programs for people about the wildlife and the importance of conservation. I think that zoos CAN be positive places. But, like you, I’ve seen some really depressing zoos, too.

    You’re so right in pointing out, though, that we wouldn’t have people who are passionate about animals and animal rights today without places like zoos and aquariums to spark that interest.

    Such a tough topic!
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      I don’t think I could visit Sea World again either, at least until they change their policies on orca captivity. I absolutely love that about movies like Blackfish and Earthlings — they remind me that a small group of people have the power to change the world in a positive way.

  • Janice Stringer
    March 22 2014

    Hi Meihoukai, your post made me think of the time I visited Dubai Zoo with my children, it was one of the most distressing animal encounters we’d had. The crocodiles were kept in filthy, inch deep water. I couldn’t understand how a country that spent a lot of money on their look – was let down so greatly by a lack of care. I reckon how a country cares for its animals tells you a lot really.
    Janice Stringer recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      I’m so sorry to hear that Janice. I’ve had a similar experience volunteering at animal shelters in Thailand vs. The Cayman Islands. In Cayman, I found the treatment of unwanted pets so much more egregious because I knew that, being the wealthiest island in the Caribbean, these people had the resources to do better by their companions.

  • Joella J (J in Beijing)
    March 22 2014

    I really agree with a lot of your thoughts here. I am not against zoos and aquariums, but I would only visit a well regulated one that has links to conservation and has proper animal enclosures. I can’t stand the thought of wild animals being kept in tiny cages. I do think zoos and wildlife parks can play a part in educating people about animals, but they have to do it properly and have the right intentions. I wish there were some kind of international (and enforceable!) standards for zoos and aquariums. There are definitely a lot of terrible ones out there, sadly.
    Joella J (J in Beijing) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 22 2014

      I agree, Joella, I wish there could be some sort of international rating standard. That would certainly make life easier! I guess in the meantime we have to take the burden upon ourselves to do the research and make the best informed decisions possible.

  • Caity
    March 22 2014

    I remember looking through archive posts when I first found your blog and quite frankly I was shocked by the tiger temple. But even the most doting animal lovers amongst us make mistakes and what’s most important is to learn and make more informed decisions in the future.
    I have never been to any Asian establishments but European ones can be a mixed bag too…the wild cats seem to be one of the worst effected it seems to me.
    I hope that this post encourages more people to research the places they visit beforehand…the comments posted so far certainly seem to indicate your readers will, which will undeniably make a difference! Excellent post!

    • Meihoukai
      March 23 2014

      Ha, yeah… I don’t know if you read that post or not but there is a bit of an explanation for how I ended up there within it. But I truly do have mixed feelings on that one — I’ve left a lot of places feeling a knot in my gut that I didn’t really have there — but maybe my empathy meter was off that day.

  • Pam
    March 22 2014

    Great post!
    I’ve stayed away from zoos, aquarius and circus since I first understood the feeling of a caged life, since I first felt sorry for them rather than amused.
    I understand it’s important to teach our youth nature, but I totally disagree this can be done through caged creatures.
    Respect is one of the highest values we should be taught, and to cage wild creatures is teaching the exact opposite.
    Pam recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 23 2014

      While as I said in this post I think I take a more moderate stance than that, I totally respect those who have a zero tolerance policy for caged animals and I can see where that sentiment comes from!

  • rachel
    March 23 2014

    this post is really interesting, anddoes make you think. I spent my entire childhood dreaming of dolphins, I got the chance to swim with them in Mexico 2 years ago, and although amazing to learn about them and interact with them so closely, I couldn’t help but feel sad and guilty that they were in a small pool. I fly to Thailand today, and have not yet made my mind up on the Tiger temple, half on me wants to read into it and learn more about how they are treated, and the other wants to be a naïve traveller and cuddle a tiger cub. I agree with a lot of your comments on here
    rachel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 23 2014

      Hey Rachel, I understand your struggle! The Tiger Temple is a tough one because I’ve read such contradictory reports and even having been there myself I don’t know exactly how to feel. One thing that really upsets me is that not one dime of the money you pay there goes back to tiger conservation. That rubs me the wrong way, and feels like a really strong indicator of where their values lie.

  • Valerie
    March 23 2014

    I agree, the more I travel and see things in their natural environment, the less I care to go to zoos or aquariums. You absolutely MUST go on safari! I went last year and it was absolutely the most amazing wildlife experience of my life!!! I think I am ruined on zoos forever now!

  • Elaine
    March 23 2014

    It can be difficult to know which ones are legit and which ones are glorified petting zoos where animals are miserable. As such, I end up skipping most of them!
    Elaine recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 24 2014

      That’s definitely the safest way to go Elaine! Doing the right thing and the research behind it is often exhausting…

  • Gianna
    March 24 2014

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m going to Thailand this summer and you’ve inspired me to visit Elephant Nature Park. Would you say I should pass on Tiger Kingdom, from an ethical standpoint?

    • Meihoukai
      March 24 2014

      That’s a super tough one, Gianna! I’ve addressed my personal feelings on Tiger Kingdom elsewhere in the comments but I’d say everyone needs to make that decision for themselves. I think I’d by hypocritical to tell you not to do something I did myself and can’t find definitive research on. But it is definitely in the gray zone…

  • Heather
    March 24 2014

    I’m a big proponent of zoos – when they are done well. The National Zoo in DC, the Bronx Zoo and the amazing zoo in Singapore filled me with joy. The sad little local zoo in Sapporo, Japan nearly broke my heart. It’s a shame that any old place can cage some animals and call themselves a zoo. I agree that they should be rare and focused on education and conservation. China is doing wonderful work in Chengdu with giant pandas, but I wouldn’t dream of visiting any of it’s smaller city zoos.

    Now playing devil’s advocate, those local zoos can inspire a love of animals in a poor population who otherwise would have no exposure to them. It’s a double-edged sword.
    Heather recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 24 2014

      I can totally see where you are coming from with that final point Heather, but I think if these zoos model bad behavior they are really only exacerbating the problem. If someone visits a zoo and sees a horribly cramped, neglected cage, why would they think that animal deserves any better? And if the staff simply watches on while they feed the animals cheetos and other junk food, how are they going to know hot detrimental that is? I really think bad zoos simply make the problem worse.

  • tammyonthemove
    March 26 2014

    My husband, who has been a vegetarian for 15 years now, always says that one day humanity will look back at animal cruelty in the same way we are looking back at slavery now. I have the same opinion as you really. I don’t particularly like zoos, a lot I have seen in Asia are terrible, I occasionally eat meat (although not very often) and wear leather. If I do eat meat then I only eat free-range and I also use products from Bodyshop though.
    tammyonthemove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 26 2014

      There was a line similar to that in Blackfish, if I recall correctly. The more we learn about the intelligence of marine mammals, the more I think as a society we are becoming horrified at our behavior towards them.

  • Mathilda Murray
    March 27 2014

    beautiful & colorful shots !
    but i also see the tragic behind zoos and that is why i personally do not like to attend them..
    recently i found a super interesting article , describing the possibility to create zoos ( in digital form )

    what a great alternative, i think !
    elisa

    • Meihoukai
      March 27 2014

      Wow, thanks for sharing that link Mathilda. I’m not sure if I think it would be the same feeling as seeing a real life animal in front of you, but maybe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. I’ll definitely visit if Barcelona pulls through!

  • Paola
    March 28 2014

    Hi Meihoukai, I stumbled across your blog about a year ago when I was researching hostels in Hawaii. They recommended viewing a review on your blog and then I found myself browsing and eventually subscribing to your blog. I have never commented before but today I feel compelled to say thank you for your wonderful perspective. I share many of the same views and I appreciate that you are choosing to speak out on this matter despite all of the controversy surrounding this subject. Also, If you are ever in San Francisco you should visit the Academy of Sciences in the Golden Gate Park.

    • Meihoukai
      March 31 2014

      Hey Paola, I was actually just in San Francisco! However it was only for a day, and I missed that one — yet another reason to go back, though 🙂 Thank you so much for saying hi, I love to hear from those that are reading.

  • Laura
    March 29 2014

    Definitely a topic worth talking about. My appreciation for nature has really grown from seeing animals out in their natural habitats in the wild and not so much from seeing them in zoos. I have never partook in a swim with the dolphins type experience and have no interest in visiting Sea World after Blackfish and The Cove, but I still find animal sanctuaries and educational zoos nice to visit. I do believe we shouldn’t be capturing marine mammals and keeping them in captivity, and I’m starting to feel the same way about keeping predators like big cats in zoos. It’s a great topic to have a dialogue about though, and a very good idea to be educated and make conscious decisions about what our money supports.
    Laura recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 31 2014

      I’m coming round to the same conclusion on marine mammals — they are simply too emotionally intelligent to be kept in captivity. It’s a sad realization, because selfishly I want to be near them, but I really do think that’s what my heart is saying right now!

  • Sofie
    April 6 2014

    When there are many comments on a post, like on this one, I rarely read them all.
    I have now, though, because I find this such a difficult subject.

    “I believe the conclusion I’ve come to in all this is that zoos and aquariums should be special, educational, and rare, reserved for places that have the funding and the knowledge to care for the creatures within and to pass their passion onto the public. ”

    –> I completely agree with this, but I have to admit that I still need to adjust my behavior accordingly.

    I don’t often go to zoos and when I do, I look into them. I’m a bit more ‘careless’, so to say, with aquariums. I’m totally fascinated by the underwater world and aquariums just make me feel like a child again. They spark my curiosity. They make me want to know more.
    Of course I know that a lot of animals there don’t get the space they deserve, even if there is a good research and conservation program behind the aquarium, but I have to admit I find it difficult to hold on to that feeling once I get there.
    Now that I’m thinking about it, it seems unreal to me that I so easily went to the last aquariums I visited (mind you, I haven’t visited that many), but it’s like I said: once I get there I just turn into a child again and I go all “oooh” and “aaaah”.
    Ugh, guilt:/
    Sofie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 6 2014

      It’s definitely a super complex topic and there is no one right or wrong answer. I think simply by being conscious about our choices and putting a mild amount of effort into making ethical ones, we could really make the world a better place for the animals living in these facilities. Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  • Amy
    April 9 2014

    This echos so many of the thoughts I’ve had over the last few years about animals and zoos. It’s come to the point now where I just can’t stomach zoos anymore; I can only see them as justified if they’re sanctuaries for rescued or abused animals and are run correctly. I also visited the Elephant Nature Park a few months ago and volunteered with their dog rescue project; just two nights ago I saw a baby elephant being dragged around the streets of Chiang Rai by a Thai man, it just made me so sad. This is a great issue to open a debate about, I’m glad you tackled it. I’m going to download Earthlings too now – have you seen Project Nim? That’s another documentary that altered my thinking on animal research.
    Amy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 15 2014

      I’m so glad you had the opportunity to visit ENP! I really adore that place. Project Nim is on my list, you’re probably the fifth person to recommend it to me! Must download. Let me know what you think of Earthlings.

  • Tasha
    March 6 2015

    Wow! This is the best post I have read so far in regards to this topic! I am totally in the middle as you are. I also watched Blackfish, The Cove and only 40 minutes into Earthlings before I had to shut it off. These things that go on are horrific! I’ll be checking out Project Nim as Amy above recommended. Once again thank you for writing such a great article! 🙂
    Tasha recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      March 6 2015

      Thank you so much for reading, Tasha! I´m really glad this struck a cord with you.

  • Lorra
    November 27 2015

    I’m glad you’ve seen Earthlings and Blackfish, etc. I really am careful about anything to do with animals when I travel as I do not want to exploit them. I’ve been to two elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and I loved them to pieces.

    I have a big issue with zoos and aquariums UNLESS they are superb and with the intent of preserving endangered species. I know of a couple – in Langley, BC (Canada), and Durrell in Jersey, UK (it’s amazing).

    I think when zoos started there were no other ways of seeing animals…but now there is really no excuse. We have travel excursions, and we have documentaries, shows, movies, IMAX, etc – I fell in love with all sorts of animals via TV, and don’t think anyone NEEDS to see them in person to love them, and it might make them seek out those creatures in person, especially if we teach young people to respect animals’ lives and their right to freedom.
    Lorra recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      November 28 2015

      Agreed, Lorra! I too try to be careful with my choices when it comes to how to spend time with animals on my travels. I think zoos and aquariums should be rare, excellent, and education-focused.

  • Laura
    December 30 2015

    Beautifully written, and I think your solution is the best one I’ve come across so far.

    Today, I took my husband to the Cincinnati Zoo. While watching the elephants, I noticed a few of them were swaying. This didn’t seem normal to me. I knew that head bobbing was a symptom of depression and stress in elephants, and I suspected swaying was the same. Sure enough, I come home and every source I’ve come across says this is an unnatural behavior developed in captivity. It breaks my heart. I started wondering, what can zoos do to prevent this? What can they do to make elephants more comfortable in their enclosure? My only conclusion is that elephants don’t belong in enclosures.

    But I have a hard time saying zoos should be eliminated because I know they are doing some good. I know there are some species of animals out there that are extinct in the wild — with zoos, there is some hope that these species can be reintroduced, and there’s been some success. I also love the education zoos provide. Visiting the Milwaukee County Zoo last year was the first time I heard about the palm oil industry and the destruction it was causing to orangutans’ habitat. I’ve since done everything possible to cut palm oil out of my life.

    I wish instead of zoos we could just have sanctuaries that the public can visit. Acres upon acres for elephants to roam. Wide spaces instead of small enclosures.

    I’d like to believe that there are more zoos out there today that are focused on education and conservation, not entertainment. My hope is that if we continue in that direction, someday these captive animals will have the freedom they deserve.

    Thanks for bringing this issue to light.

    • Meihoukai
      January 4 2016

      Hey Laura, I too learned about palm oil first from an educational exhibit at a zoo. I think when done right they can be powerful teaching tools. I think we share a lot of the same ideas on this. Thank you for sharing your story!

  • Kathryn
    February 16 2016

    I just found this post and it pretty much echoes things I’ve been thinking lately. It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where animals could enjoy their natural environment without being hunted but, until that time, nice zoos and sanctuaries are the best option.

    It makes me so angry that most of the hunting is because old men want to use animal parts for virility treatments. FFS, take viagra or, even better, keep it in your pants. That would cut down on human trafficking too.
    Kathryn recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 17 2016

      The big game hunting devastates me. I don’t see how anyone could find that desirable, let alone pay tens of thousands of dollars for it. Thanks for reading, Kathryn.

  • Emily
    January 6 2017

    Thank you for this post! I agree with your stance on Zoos and Aquariums. It really is a tricky subject, and as you said, I suppose it depends on the individual zoo/aquarium. I have to say though, it can’t get worse than what we do to farm animals. You have watched Earthlings so you must be aware. While zoos and aquariums are up for debate about how ethical they are, the issue of animal products is a no-brainer. We can be very healthy and happy without consuming and abusing animals, so it is simply wrong to do so at this point in time. I love all animals- not just the endangered ones.

    If one is worried about wildlife conservation they need to look at what animal agriculture is doing to the planet. It is the number one cause of deforestation and also the biggest contributor to GHG emissions. As humans we should use our gift of “next-level-intelligence” to see how unnecessary animal products are and what a difference it would make for everyone if we could make a shift away from them.

    Have you watched Cowspiracy? I am curious as to what prevents many animal-lovers from making meaningful choices that clearly align with their morals. When you really look into the plant-based diet (actual scientific studies not funded by the dairy industry), you will see that all arguments against it are quite illogical and not scientifically backed.

    Anyways, thanks for the post! I know it may seem I have drifted, but these issues stem from the same problem- seeing other beings as below one another and designed to fulfill our own purposes. Be it because we selfishly want to admire them or eat them.

    • Meihoukai
      January 12 2017

      Thanks for commenting, Emily! I get a lot of questions/comments/criticisms that seem to point out the hypocrisy of caring about the environment and also eating meat. You are super respectful and thoughtful in your comment and I totally appreciate that. All I can really say is that as I’m sure you know, everyone is at a different point in their journey of living consciously. This is where I’m at in mine 🙂 Appreciate the recommendation for Cowspiracy — I’ve had it downloaded for ages and have been meaning to watch!