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


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…



Sean Kernan

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