Almost Fearless

The Great Caged Debate

I remember the smell of the sawdust, acrobats flying through the air and the main event, the elephants stomping around the big top tent, their head-dresses on display. At six years of age, the circus coming to town was one of the most exciting events of that summer. I didn’t stop talking about it for months.


Another of my favorite childhood activities was to visit the London Zoo, just a short tube ride from my home. I would walk along the north end of Regent Street with my mom, looking out for the giraffes who poked their inquisitive heads over the gated wall. My favorite animals were the primates. I would push my nose up against the glass and try to imagine what they were thinking about.

Although these activities gave me great pleasure as a child, when you know better you do better, which is why when considering whether or not to visit animal attractions with my own son, I am finding I am at a crossroads.

Although I was delighted by the anthropomorphization of animals as a child, it’s not hard to realize that animals do not behave in these ways naturally. There aren’t seals in the wild balancing balls on their nose to the cheers of other seals. Elephants do not typically stand on their heads in the wild and applauding is certainly a human trait. To get animals to perform these sorts of tricks, trainers use a variety of techniques, such as the use of whips, that often cause pain, discomfort and emotional distress to the animals. When circus animals are not performing they are locked in cages. Which is how zoo animals spend their entire lives.

#elephant #ubud #bali #tagalalang #holidays

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Zoos will often try to make the animals’ living space less like a cage. There is, in fact, a whole industry concerned with designing zoos that offer “landscape immersion” whereby visitors feel like they are entering the wild where the animal happens to wander by rather than staring at miserable captives behind glass panes.

But recreating the animal’s natural environment in their enclosures isn’t really possible. It’s just an illusion. Elephants walk on average 30 miles a day in the wild, and no urban zoo can recreate the possibility for that normal behavior to take place.

David Hancocks, a zoo historian and Director of the Open Range Zoo, advocates for the revolutionization of zoos and told National Geographic that zoos offer only lip service when it comes to creating natural looking animal environments. “What zoos have decided to do instead is to design animal enclosures (they call them “habitats;”) that look vaguely naturalistic, but in which the animals have no contact with anything natural. None of their senses are stimulated by the typical zoo-built enclosure.”

These facsimiles of a natural habitat contribute to boredom, which can be a serious mental health risk for wild animals. Another problem is that animals can suffer from loneliness, even though reputable zoos wouldn’t usually isolate animals in captivity, they often don’t represent normal family and community groupings. For instance, elephants will often move in groups of up to 100 elephants.

Zoos work hard to present a facade of happy animals but the truth is many of them are receiving medication to bolster their mood or control their behavior. A group of penguins at an animal sanctuary in England were even given antidepressants to cope with the dreary weather. The staff at the Scarborough Sea Life Sanctuary told The Independent that stimulants had been placed inside the gulls of dead fish fed to the penguins because: “Misery has more detrimental effects on penguins’ natural defenses than those of humans.”

I like being eye level with sea creatures. #sanfrancisco #penguins #solotrip

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Zoo animals notoriously exhibit physical signs of mental distress such as rocking backwards and forwards. The Born Free Foundation states that animals in captivity often display the following signs of stress: “Repetitive pacing, swaying, head-bobbing or circling and bar-biting.”

Zoos and other animal attractions in their defense often promote their establishments as “conservation friendly” as if by contributing to bolstering the animal’s presence in the wild they can somehow find redemption for caging them for our amusement. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Species Survival Plan Programs manage over 500 conservation and breeding programs and claim to have helped save black-footed ferrets, California condors, red wolves and several other endangered species. The London Zoo, the world’s oldest scientific zoo, has reams of “strategic aims” and “conservation mandates” available online which help to form their mission statement: “To promote and achieve the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.”

But can zoos really make meaningful contributions to conservation efforts?

A 2015 study in The Journal of Applied Ecology found that captive breeding programs alone will not help to stem the tide of rising wildlife extinction rates worldwide and stated “Without conservation in the wild there is no point in captive breeding.”

Another possible argument for the continued existence of zoos and animal attractions is that they are educational. As a former teacher, I can certainly appreciate that experiential learning is more vibrant and memorable than just chalk and talk.  I once led a school group around a monkey exhibit where a particularly cheeky monkey flung his poop at a boy who had repeatedly ignored teachers instructions to pipe down and not tease the animals. I suppose he learned a lesson!

However, this claim too is refuted by a report published by Lori Marino in The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy journal, who found that  “There remains no compelling evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, or interest in conservation in visitors.”

The zoo’s main function remains as a form of entertainment for humans.  We can make a lot of noise about how modern North American zoos are invested in conservation efforts and that they try to create habitats that mimic the wild environment from which these animals have been denied the chance to live in. But these justifications ring hollow. There are plenty of other things we can do with our free time and spare cash that don’t exploit other living creatures.

And that’s really the decision we all have to make on unplanned Saturday mornings when we look at our kids over the breakfast table and say “What shall we do today?” The question is whether our day out, our fun day off is more important than an animal’s welfare?

In many ways, public perception has begun to change towards the ethics of animals in captivity. The sad fate of Tilikum told in the documentary Blackfish brought home the horrors of attempting to contain massive creatures such as orcas and the effect it has on their mental wellbeing and the safety implications for humans. Tilikum was the largest bull orca in captivity. He was responsible for the death of three humans.The reaction to the documentary led eventually to SeaWorld abandoning their killer whale breeding program. Zoos walk a fine line between providing enough big ticket animals that will entice visitors and ensure all the animals in their care live a good life.

Curiosity = Magic. Also sadness. #sandiego #leicaq #littlegirl #zoo #aquarium #orcas

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If you do decide to visit animal attractions, consider choosing ones which showcase your regional native animals and which provide large, interesting and nature based enclosures.

Such as Parc Omega, in Quebec, Canada. This animal park only features Canadian animals that would naturally be found in or close to the area. The Good Zoo Guide aims to provide readers with information about animal welfare, facilities and provide real visitor feedback to inform their choice of zoo or animal attraction.

Recently we did go to the circus on a family outing. My son clapped his hands at the death-defying acts of a man running atop a spinning wheel. He chuckled hysterically at bands of clowns falling over and riding their bicycles backwards. We all enjoyed some blue and pink cotton candy and we didn’t see a single animal. PETA produces a list of cruelty-free circus shows where you can enjoy the thrill of the big top without animal performers.

Perhaps as more and more animal attractions bend to public pressure and close up their doors or evolve to offer different spectacles that don’t exploit animals for entertainment, we won’t need to make the decision. Zoos and circuses featuring animal performers may be relegated to the dark pages of our history before we all knew any better.


Fiona Tapp

Fiona Tapp is a freelance writer and educator. Her work has been featured on The Washington Post, New York Post, HuffPost, Brides, SheKnows and others. She is an expert in the field of Pedagogy, a teacher of 13 years and Master’s degree holder in Education. Fiona is a Brit abroad she has visited more than 20 countries and loves writing about her adventures in mothering and travel.


  • I liked zoos when I was little too but I wouldn’t take my kids now they are just cruel, I don’t want my kids seeing animals locked in cages!

  • So we just went to the Zoo recently. The children were completely mesmerized and it was a wonderful, educational day. The kids were squealing with joy as the sting rays came up to nibble their fingers and who could not smile watching the baby hippo splash around in the water like a little dolphin but… was tinged with sadness at seeing these animals on display, essentially prisoners. We try to support places like Parc Omega and the Eco museum, which have native animals and rehabilitation programs, but unless we can one day afford a safari trip in Kenya or to Thailand, a zoo is the only way they will get to see more exotic animals in real life. And really, the way we treat our Earth, maybe Zoos will eventually become the only place that these animals can survive. So I agree, it is a tricky situation, but at the very least it opens up conversations about why conservation is so important. As for circus, I draw the line there. I enjoy seeing animals, and hope that like pets, they have some sort of quality of life in captivity. but circus animals are forced to perform and I don’t think that is right. We go to cirque de soleil, where the performers are all humans 🙂

  • I love visiting the zoo with my kids and will happily contribute financially to the legit and real conservation efforts by AZA zoos.

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