Animals | Nature | Global Warming

The Case for Fixing Zoos

How cognitive complexity is becoming a key metric in animal conservation.

Sean Kernan
5 min readSep 26, 2023

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Pexels Images via Andrzej Mucka

“Mommy, is he happy or sad?” I heard a girl ask as we looked into the orangutan exhibit.

Her question was so emblematic of the zoo predicament. A big orange male, with droopy eyes sat languidly in front of me. I also wondered if he was as sad as he looked, or were we anthropomorphizing him as we so often do?

It’s possible both were true. Zoos have changed to an extraordinary degree over the past 100 years. They remain a flawed institution, but not beyond repair.

The perks of zoos

Hypothetical scenario: If you were born as a zoo animal, what could you look forward to? For starters, you’d live longer in the case of 86% of species, with many living twice as long as they do in the wild. Wild lions, for example, live only 12–16 years (with males averaging 8–10), whereas in captivity they often live a full 25 years or more.

You can rest assured you wouldn’t die through violent means as the aforementioned male lions usually do. If the zoo is a good one (more on that soon), you’ll be assured of constant medical care and attention from professionals, along with steady meals. There will be stability — perhaps to a fault.

Yet this isn’t the extent of zoo perks. They play a key role in conservation, public engagement and education. They also actively help protect and save endangered species (hundreds have been saved). The California Condor, for example, was down to 22 individuals. The San Diego Zoo managed to restore this population to 400 that are now back in the wild.

The question of zoo-worthy animals

When debating which animals should and shouldn’t be in zoos, researchers often discuss “cognitive complexity”.

Primates, killer whales, and elephants fall into this category. They roam more freely, and have highly sophisticated behaviors which aren’t fully understood yet. But even some non-cognitively complex species aren’t zoo-worthy. For example, great white sharks (aquariums are included in the term “zoo”), have never been…

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Sean Kernan

Former financial analyst turned writer. Always on the hunt for a good story. That guy from Quora. Writing out of Tampa, Florida.