The True Cost of Animal Entertainment

By Clarissa Speyer-Stocks ’16

Since the release of the film “Blackfish,” a number of people have publicly expressed their negative opinions of SeaWorld. In doing so, they have brought attention to some of the controversy surrounding other forms of animal entertainment.

Many people grow up attending zoos, seeing animals up close and personal, and forming bonds with them. Zoos provide education for children and offer a first-hand look at seemingly wild animals. However, this relationship between children and zoos may be strained in light of recurring news stories surrounding abuse in animal entertainment.

As more negative media has surfaced surrounding SeaWorld, many have started to realize that SeaWorld can not properly care for their animals and that the profit of animal entertainment is the bottom line.

Zoo: Elephants: The new exhibit for the Elephants' promise improvements for the animal's quality of life, but some say it's not enough. (Photo: Clarissa Speyer-Stocks '16) Leopard and kid: The zoo is an important part of the natural education for children and provide up close experiences that cannot be replaced. (Photo: Clarissa Speyer-Stocks '16)

The new exhibit for the Elephants’ promise improvements for the animal’s quality of life, but some say it’s not enough. (Photo: Clarissa Speyer-Stocks ’16)

Since the release of “Blackfish,” many people have begun boycotting SeaWorld in response to the alleged abuse and neglect that the film exposes. Alongside the condemnation of SeaWorld and porpoise captivity for entertainment, new questions arose surrounding the ethics of animal entertainment. Primarily, activists questioned which animals are ethically okay to use for entertainment purposes.

Animal in zoos are under extreme psychological anxiety and stress. Dr. Nadja Wielebnowski, a behavioral endocrinologist at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, spoke about this stress in her Oct. 11, 2002 AVMA Animal Welfare Forum presentation on the ongoing study of stress in animals at the Brookfield Zoo. She stated, “In zoos, we are most concerned with chronic stress, when animals are repeatedly exposed to negative stressors and are not able to respond appropriately. Prolonged negative stress can become physically harmful.”

The Brookfield study is a large, comprehensive behavioral examination that focuses on the psychological effects of stress on animals in captivity. The study also looked at improvements zoos can make to reduce stress. The study examined 18 species at the zoo, utilizing fecal samples for hormone analysis and extensive monitoring of behavioral and physiologic changes. The results showed that zoo animals are under very high levels of stress.

Dr. Wielebnowski defended zoos by saying, “Zoos have made great progress in animal welfare over the past several decades, but there is still work to be done. We need to identify more accurate and reliable scientific measurements to increase our understanding of what wellbeing means from the individual animal’s point of view.

Unlike a wildlife sanctuary where animals are taken from their environment as orphans or injured from poaching, or even psychologically stunted from unlawful captivity as pets, zoos cause great damage to the animals they entrap.

Reuben Winterim_zoo-1

As hard as it is to bad mouth an institution I love and grew up at, the evidence is clear that the Oregon Zoo’s treatment of animals is poor. (Photo: Reuben Schafir ’17)

Zoos are an interesting conundrum. I loved my experiences at the zoo as a kid. They fostered a strong love for animals for me and many others growing up, and I truly believe it is important for children to have that experience. 

Luckily, living in Portland, many have access to zoos that have made huge strides in its animal captivity standards, though some are still not up to speed. Elephants in general are an unfortunate case for captivity, but the Oregon Zoo has maintained a spot on the top 10 worst zoos for elephants list for five years now. As hard as it is to bad mouth an institution I love and grew up at, the evidence is clear that their treatment of animals is poor. They currently have reserved four acres for the elephants, which is not enough space for the seven they have and the many more they plan to acquire. In addition, their use of bullhooks for animal control on the elephants has been linked to many premature deaths of their elephants, like tuberculosis.

Overall, the role of animals in zoos brings forth many ethical questions on the role of animals. Zoos can be extremely educational and inspiring to help conservation efforts. But are animals for entertainment or to be loved from afar?