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Why Zoos Are Animal Prisons and Why That Doesn’t Matter

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Monkey prison meme

Monkey prison meme

Animals: You Think You Know What They ‘Want’

One particular reason that the animal rights, or animal liberation movements, gain so much momentum among not just the public but some members of the scientific community with reasonable intelligence is due to what we do not, and technically cannot,know about animal minds.

Animals in Prison

Q. Are zoo/pet animals prisoners?

Prison: noun 1. a building for the confinement of persons held while awaiting trial, persons sentenced after conviction, etc. 2. state prison. 3. any place of confinement or involuntary restraint. 4. imprisonment.

A. Yes! According to definition #3, if animals are confined, they are imprisoned. This applies to all animals; dogs, cats, squirrels, dolphins, starfish...any confined animal. And this is all regardless of whether or not you think they like it there. There are, however, a few giant differences between human correctional facilities and zoos or pet environments, and differences between humans and animals.


Is Captivity Immoral?

The field of animal cognition has a lot of unexplored territory as we seem to keep discovering surprising facts we did not know about our non-human peers.

Due to limited and feebly understood evidence that suggests some species might not do well in captivity, this creates a great environment for people to make up any conclusions that they wish, and this most certainly will be heavily supplemented with what the human prefers for oneself.


Selfish Ego?

Selfishness is an irrelevant part of whether or not holding captive animals is ethical. When humans keep pets, any pets, it is undeniably selfish—humans began their relationship with animals in order to further their own benefits. Our society's beloved use and ownership of dogs, horses, and cats are no exception. Very few people actually fully object to 'animal exploitation,' and instead favor culturally acceptable forms, including debilitating selective breeding of canines.

What truly matters is if by holding animals as captives we are harming them by causing them unreasonable distress or physical deterioration from denying them access to wild living.

I’m willing to state that I can’t undeniably know for sure the preferences of my animals, domesticated or otherwise (or if they have them). What I can do is make something called an educated guess, applying what I and neutral science knows about animals, my experience with the individual animals, and orchestrating some 'free-choice' experiments with my pets, of which I will explain further. But first, to fully comprehend the ethics, we must have a clear understanding of the alternative to captivity.


This Is How 'The Wild’ Produces 'Happy' and Healthy Animals

When a rehabilitated animal is released into the wild, it's gone, and everyone feels good as images of the animals persevering in the iconic landscape dance in their heads.

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Nature thrives in the eyes of romantic humans with its cloak of invisibility—perhaps we only get a small glimpse from the work of dedicated wildlife documentarian filmmakers.

In reality, animal populations undergo nature's rigorous and ruthless initiation process called natural selection, which is the driving force behind evolution.


Like the selective breeding we accomplish with dogs, certain genes are favored in the process, and the 'fittest' genes are 'chosen' in the wild (and biological fitness is not about physical strength, like the term gym fitness). Unlike most dog breeding, nature simply executes the 'inferior' genes (or the unlucky) in its system, or at best, denies them breeding access.

In other words, natural selection is partially powered by death, most of it wreaking havoc in cute little babies.

It isn't good. It isn't bad. It's just simply the means of which there is life on Earth. Do animals find their premature death any more pleasant because they were sacrificed for the glamorous 'Circle of Life?' No.

Captivity, on the other hand, keeps all of its players alive, so this could unintentionally produce less healthy or mentally less fit individuals (we've intentionally done this with dogs). Everything that goes on in captive situations is on full display, while dead wild animals are mostly quickly consumed before any safari-goer sees them.


Here is an example of how captivity can be far more humane and forgiving.

Some species of monkeys might give birth, determine that a deformity in the baby is too costly to devote precious energy toward, and drop it on the ground to starve to death.

In responsibly conducted captive situations, discarded or poorly cared for baby monkeys are pulled and given individualized attention. Some may claim that mental-illness from the captive environment is the result of such maternal neglect, yet it simply isn't acknowledged that this is proven to occur in nature—and given that we can see and assess every aspect of captive animals while nature is a largely hidden world, much of the atrocities that go on there can be neatly swept under the natural rug.

You also never get to see animals looking 'bored' either. That's because they're too busy trying to survive, or they're fearful of the human holding a camera gawking at them. No wonder animals look so bored in zoos!


The Animal-Human Comparison Fallacy

"Would you want to live in a cage?"

This is a typical appeal to emotion remark exclaimed by those who are against keeping animals in captivity.

My answer is no, I wouldn't want to live in a cage.

And for that matter, I wouldn't want to only be allowed out of my house on a leash either.

Most importantly, I wouldn't want to be cast out into the wild and placed against natural selection's rigorous test of fitness, as I am an animal that is used to living a modern existence.

The same is likely true for all other animals raised in confinement.

Would You Want to Be Ridden On? (Animal Slaves)


Animals Aren't Humans

[The word animal here will be considered to mean non-human]

Q. If a zoo lion could talk, what would it say?

A. If a lion could talk, it wouldn't be a lion. It would be a person. A non-human person.

What are animals?

This is how I see it, and this is what drives my ethics.

Most [warm-blooded] animals are akin to human infants under six months of age, but without the innate need for maternal attachment and with the instinctual and physical prowess for self-sufficiency at their adult stage. Yes, this is simplifying to a huge degree. Animals are equipped with a myriad of unique sensory and cognitive programming and infants are, of course, developing humans so they likely are developing cognitive milestones at different points in this period that I am not equipped to discuss in depth.

Animals are not literally human infants but they have these essential elements in common: no language (no, seriously), little or no self-awareness, instincts (and food-seeking) that dominate behavior, as well as highly stereotyped behaviors. I've suggested that humans are the only species of which you can't answer the question 'describe the behavior of [humans]' with a generalization, yet this can be done with human infants and animal species.

(When you talk to an animal, doesn't it sound like you're talking to a baby? Coincidence?)


Human behavior, initially grounded in genetics, is then substantially molded by culture, society, values, morals, and ethics.

This is why humans are so extraordinarily individualistic. On the other end, some of the most impressive examples of 'animal culture' lie with food forging methods and other aspects strongly grounded in immediate survival (that probably power fitness).

There are undoubtedly parallels in human and animal cognition. That is because there is a continuity in the evolution of our brains that even exist in the invertebrates that the majority of people have no problem stepping on.

I see consciousness as layered; we have the near universal sub-consciousness that powers mechanisms like classical conditioning, another level of cognition in the form of social awareness that invites other individuals into the animal's mental 'world' (or theory of mind), and the very high order of thought that occurs in humans. We possess complex cognition so rich it allows the development of true, infinitely expressive and inventive language. This combines many elements of cognition that no other animal has been proven to achieve (yes, this includes Koko the gorilla, Alex the parrot, and Kanzi the bonobo).


If a Pet Bird Escapes, It Wants to Be Free, Right?

But why am I rambling on about this? Now that I've explained to you my human-infant theory, I want you to ponder how we treat infants, or young children. If a toddler wanders off into potential danger, don't we stop them? We understand that even toddlers who have language and complex self-awareness are still not aware enough to understand the consequences their actions might have; consequences that are certainly not desirable for the child even though the child doesn't know that yet.

Just like animals. Even domesticated animals will run off. Yes, this includes dogs, especially when they are not neutered or spayed (which, shockingly, most non-domesticated pets are not). Yet no one interprets this behavior as a cry for freedom. They probably understand that their dog or cat got confused and headed in the wrong direction, or hormones won the instinctual fight over rationality. We understand that these animals have limited awareness, react compulsively, and cannot rationally weigh the costs of their actions. Should even a 'wild' animal instinctively run away, that doesn't mean they are making a conscious, rational choice to.

Even an injured animal will hobble away from the aid of humans, and why is this? Because it does not and cannot understand that a human will help it. Of course, not even all 'wild' animals run away.

'Born Free' Probably Has a Hard Time Explaining These Videos

So I will. These birds can simply keep flying away and never look back, but don't. This training simply involves shifting an animal's motivation to a behavior it isn't normally instinctively equipped for (returning to a human owner, vs. flocking with a group of birds). Once these non-domesticated birds develop a mental foundation for recalling upon command, they are far less prone to fleeing out of confusion. This is one reason training is so enriching for all captive animals.

Animals like hand outs

Animals like hand outs

What Do Animals Want?

My research and limited understanding has led me to two generalizing conclusions that seem to make sense; animals raised in captivity prefer captivity, and animals raised in the wild prefer the wild. Both of these settings typically provide the 5 freedoms but there can be exceptions or deficiencies in both.

  • Animals can suffer both in the wild and captivity, depending on the situation.
  • Many captive situations are undeniably superior to wild situations.
  • Animals probably do not dwell on human-constructs like the words 'prison' or 'slave.' Instead, they mostly think compulsively and address their immediate needs.

Freedom to starve?

What is freedom? Humans like to think of it as the ability to move around wherever you want. But other important freedoms they might overlook is the freedom from starvation or thirst, freedom from not having shelter or territory, and freedom from no medical care if needed.

What about the freedom to age comfortably? Most animals are condemned to death once they begin to ail. Humans seem to value this freedom, but it is lost on anti-captivity proponents.

So saying animals should be 'free' isn't so simple after all.

Animals are actually very practical. They more than likely do not plague their minds with human self-aggrandizing thoughts. Humans are terrible judges of what animals 'want' because most humans have fanciful perceptions and expectations about their lives.

Of course, many will resent that I think most animals are fine with living in the same space. These are often the same people who do not object to it being done to cows, horses, cats, hamsters, chickens, ect., because of nothing other than culturally-propelled domestication myths.

5 Freedoms of Captivity




Freedom from hunger or thirst

Freedom from discomfort


Freedom from pain, injury or disease

Freedom to express (most) normal behavior


Freedom from fear and distress


This is more than the 'golden rule' of maintaining any animal, it is also the basic interest of all living beings, save modern humans. The five freedoms rule is a heavily simplified grouping that means different things for different species. For instance, with more complex animals like great apes, stable social situations are a requirement but it isn't for hamsters.

My bird hates going to work with me!

My bird hates going to work with me!

My Pets

Both my spotted genet and green aracari (toucan) return to their cages on their own. The genet generally doesn't have interest in leaving my room, and so far, my toucan has never left the room on his own. Sometimes I carry him out, and he flies back into my room, right to his cage (yet I have little doubt that should I take this bird outside, he will fear-fly away from me). While they were both raised in cages, I've encouraged them to explore on occasion. Genets are solitary, toucans are not.

The toucan does appreciate time out of his cage, but mainly stays in one area of the room, seeming content with this space. I don't even bother closing my door.

My genet occasionally, but not often, leaves the room, explores the balcony, and sometimes goes downstairs, but usually comes running back up at the speed of light in minutes to his cage (video). I view this activity on a web camera, since he is too nervous to leave with me there. This video shows his return complex as I lure him out with food rewards (note the ironic sign). Unsurprisingly, since I do not free feed, my genet seems more apt to 'explore' depending on how hungry he is. In fact, as I tried to encourage him to have positive out-of-room 'excursions' with treats given in my room upon his return, he began to associate this reward with staying in my room and eventually refused to leave again.

This led me to two conclusions: An aviary around the size of my room would be perfectly suitable as permanent housing for green aracaris (my cage is not big enough for this). Permanent housing for spotted genets requires room for running and climbing but enrichment is most important. Since my pets live in small cages, they are allowed time out of them as I see fit. These are my methods for hypothesizing a suitable environment.

I feel these animals have adapted to their situation. Their behavior is not natural, but that's because they're in an unnatural environment. When raised in the wild, animals explore more territory dependent on how many resources they are able to secure in order to survive. For genets, this might require acres of forging. In my house, it requires 50 feet, or successful harassing of their caretaker.

Cognitive Bias and Appeal to Nature

Unfortunately, despite the vast ‘intelligence’ of the human race, we struggle with our diverse cognitive and methodological flaws. In science, objectivity is our only saving grace, and as soon as we deviate from it, our thought processes can no longer be considered reliable.

Much of the captivity criticism is about appeasing human emotional needs. Prevalent in our society is a mentality about ‘nature’ being an inherent force of goodness, so much to the point that it is often not thought objectively about.

It comes as absolutely no surprise that ‘credible’ researchers will make dramatic and unscientific claims about animal minds to push animal liberation goals to the scientifically illiterate (most of the populace, including our legislators that are educated in law, not cognition). However, I believe that in our ignorance, there are still steps we can take to unearth truth and decide who to trust.


What’s at Stake?

Why should we consider captivity? Animal rights ideology is appealing because it seems like a win-win solution. Since most believe that life in the ‘wild’ is the pinnacle of existence, even if possibly incorrect about how animals are faring in captivity, many aren’t willing to objectively consider the benefits of zoos and pet keeping for animals and people.

What if they’re wrong about animals ‘suffering’ in captivity? In the worst case scenario, animals are denied access to a comfortable existence and humans lose numerous wonderful professions, lifestyles, and educational opportunities that were not inherently causing harm.

The quality of wild animal rehabilitation suffers and our understanding of animal psychology diminishes. Potentially successful conservation efforts are also undermined. And the reason will be because of irrational generalizations about how animals respond to captive conditions. Anyone who understands that domesticated animals are suitable for captivity is required to consider the same of any other species. Animals should be judged on a species and individual basis to determine their quality of life.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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