I take a lot of photos of wild animals living in zoos. People often look at my work and ask, "If you're for animal rights, why do you support these zoos?"
My answer is this:
Zoos can be both a blessing and a curse. Many zoos in the world today make their money by exploiting their animals for human entertainment. But others exist for the purpose of perpetuating conservation and education, and, in many ways, could be the ONLY way to save certain species from extinction.
What LOT of people don't understand is that in the United States, zoos can become accredited by an organization known as the AZA, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They operate to establish a new standard for zoos, focusing on breeding programs and advances in animal care tactics. All zoos accredited by the AZA must meet a series a grueling standards, including proper enclosure size, exceptional animal care and husbandry, and a focus on conservation.
These AZA zoos have established a program called the Species Survival Plan, which focuses on increasing the genetic diversity of captive zoo animals. An increased genetic diversity is VITAL to keeping a species alive, specially if the species comes from just a small population of breeding founders.
AZA animals are NOT taken from the wild; they are the ancestors of breeding stock which was captured more than 80 years ago. The only exception to this rule is for animals which are in need of rescue, and which cannot be released back into the wild.
The Oregon Zoo houses several birds of prey which are the victims of car collisions and attempted poaching, all of which are not fit to survive in the wild. They also have a mountain lion which was rescued as an orphan (who is now the proud mother of the very first cougar cub born at an AZA zoo in 15 years).
Through the efforts of the Species Survival Plan, many rare and endangered animals are now facing a brighter future. Using captive specimens, biologists can artificially inseminate wild specimens which would otherwise have trouble finding a mate among their fractured populations.
Likewise, it gives scientists and opportunity to learn from animals without having to disturb them in the wild. A prime example would be the case of a scientist studying elephants at the Oregon Zoo, trying to figure out how the giants communicated over vast distances. One day, while taking notes, she noticed that she could feel a very slight tremor travel through the concrete floor. This lead to the discovery of something remarkable: Elephants could communicate by emitting low-frequency rumbles which could travel through the ground without making any sound at all.
If you enjoy zoos, but are not sure which ones to support and which to stay away from, do what I do: ONLY support AZA-accredited zoos and registered non-profit rescues centers. Avoid non-accredited zoos, and any rescue center which is not a registered non-profit. All AZA zoos will state their affiliation with the AZA and the Species Survival Plan on their websites, so you can look them up before you even leave your house.
The lion above was photographed at the Wildlife Safari Park in Bandon, Oregon. He has been there for ages and shares his enclosure with an ancient old female. They have no grass to walk on, just gravel, and aside from a few driftwood logs to rub against, they have no engaging features in their enclosure whatsoever.
I hate to support roadside zoos, but made the exception in order to take these photos.