The Zoo Dilemma

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I loved the zoo.

My earliest childhood memories consist of going to zoos on more occasions than I can count. At any chance I got, I would beg my parents and relatives to take me there. I would run as fast as my little legs could take me to gawk at the elephants, zebras, giraffes, and lions. There, I would read every single information board available, and try to match the pictures of the animals to the animals that roamed around the exhibit. I couldn’t wait to run to the gift shop at the end of every trip, begging my parents to let me buy yet another stuffed toy (most often penguins).

I loved the way you could see animals from different habitats in close proximity to each other. That I could learn about all the animals my teacher would show us through picture books. To me, the zoo was a place where magic came to life. Yet my recent visits to the zoos brought out fragments of not-so-magical feelings.

To me, the zoo was a place where magic came to life. Yet my recent visits to the zoos brought out fragments of not-so-magical feelings.

I wasn’t naive enough to think that I would still possess the same childlike wonder and fascination towards animals as I did a decade ago. Though it was still fun exploring the park with my friends and family, there were almost moments of dissociation. Cracks in the illusion, you could say—Lions prowling in bored circles around their exhibits before settling back into another nap of the day; Learning that flamingoes’ wings were often clipped to prevent them from flying away; A parrot nipping aggressively at the identification tag around its leg to no avail.

I couldn’t help but feel torn: Am I supporting a form of selfish entertainment at the expense of these animals’ freedom? Am I actually helping conservation efforts these organizations claim to support? Or maybe I’m just suffering from a strong case of the hero complex. I mean, what do I know about animals anyways? I barely passed biology in junior college.

Am I supporting a form of selfish entertainment at the expense of these animals’ freedom? Am I actually helping conservation efforts these organizations claim to support?

The Safe Haven

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi would argue differently.

A philosophical novel that follows Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, an Indian boy who ends up stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger in the Pacific Ocean after surviving a shipwreck. The novel explores questions in regards to spirituality and metaphysics—one such instance through giving an alternate perspective to the common argument of zoos being forms of confinement. He argues:

“Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context?” 

Pi (Life of Pi, Yann Martel)

Given the choice, Pi argues, animals would choose to stay in such enclosures. Why wouldn’t they? Their needs are provided in a safe space where all threats brought upon by the wild are eliminated. Freedom does not equate to happiness, as much as some may claim it does.

It is an interesting perspective that definitely supports the creation of zoos, but unfortunately, this argument of confined freedom versus free confinement is a subjective truth with no true right answer.

How do we fix the zoo?

It seems that I’m not the only one that is suddenly feeling such dissonance. A recent YouTube video published by Vox titled “How do we fix the zoo?” investigated the benefits of zoos, and whether they truly uphold their missions to be beacons of conservation. There, they argue that zoos should be observed through the lens of two claims:

  1. Keeping animals in a zoo helps wild populations thrive
  2. Visiting them has measurable impacts on human attitudes about conservation

The video argues that due to the long duration it takes for most species to learn skills in the wild, zoo animals are extremely unlikely to be released back into the wild due to simulations of wildlife which are impossible to replicate in such engineered environments. Yet for species with shorter durations, zoos can help save such species from extinction through breeding programs. 

So how do our local zoos compare to such criteria?

Our Local Paradise

The Singapore Zoo ranks as one of the top five zoos in the world and is home to more than 2,400 specimens of over 300 species, of which 34 percent are threatened species. They have also sought to emphasize the social and ethical concerns they have taken into consideration when building new programs within them.

Many may remember the viral video from a few years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic. Singapore Zoo’s cute snuggly African penguins were allowed to roam free around the empty complex and explore their neighboring exhibits. Not only did they serve as a heart-warming video for us to watch during our otherwise bleak lockdown reality, but they also allowed the penguins to strengthen their leg muscles and provide stimulation for their minds.

More efforts have also been taken in the past few decades to strengthen animal welfare and diminish past ethical concerns. In 2006, after “discussions with its Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee”, the Singapore Zoo announced that “it would not bring any more polar bears to Singapore”. In 2018, the Zoo also discontinued elephant rides and elephant shows where the animals in question would perform stunts such as balancing on logs, “as part of a shift in its model of care for the park’s five female specimens”. Instead, the Asian elephants will be encouraged to display natural behavior such as lying in the water.

Local rescue operations have also been undergone by such organizations. In December 2021, an extremely exhausted Cinereous vulture was nursed back to health by the National Parks Board after it crash-landed near Farrer road. For the time being, it remains under the care of Jurong Bird Park while its caregivers wait for another opportunity to release the bird. In early 2022, River Wonders welcomed its first panda cub born in Singapore, a success story for a group of species that face a high risk of extinction.


I love the zoo, and it will always remain a place that held some of my fondest childhood memories. Granted, I am no expert in such fields of discussion, and nor do I claim to be so. However, I sincerely hope that such organizations will continue to undertake new programs to strengthen animal welfare, as well as create new conversations on conservation efforts that we can do to help protect such wild species and their habitats.