Interesting topic. I grew up largely in San Diego, and I spent a LOT of time in the zoo there, from the 70s into the late 80s. As a kid I used to go ther by myself day after day in the summertime, and it certainly resonated with my love of animals. Then, as a graduate student, I did a Master’s Degree in animal behavior, and my focus was enrichment for captive primates. I spent some 200 hours working with the chimpanzee community at the SF zoo, as well as working with a lot of other animals there and elsewhere before I ended up in vet school.
I too have some ambivalence about zoos. I do believe they serve an important purpose in establishing an attitude or feeling about animals and nature in children, especially kids in urban environments. I don’t know how one would quantify it, but I’ve been a docent and participated in education activities at zoos, and I believe live animals stimulate people, especially kids, to think and care about animals and nature in ways that are necessary for good environmental stewardship. Now whether or not specific behaviors and patterns of voting on environmental and animal welfare issues are effected, I honestly don’t know.
I also think live animal interactions, including at zoos, can be a positive and beneficial experience for people. As a kind of quiet, nerdy kid in a rough urban neighborhood, the zoo was a refuge and a place of beauty for me that I really appreciated.
And I know that zoos raise enormous amounts of money for conservation efforts, and do some limited but important direct conservation and research work.
But I think the ethical concerns about animal welfare in zoos are legitimate as well. My focus as a graduate student involved looking at how to assess the behavioral needs of captive animals and make environemnts more appropriate. There has been a lot of progress in this area, but there are lots of animals still living in impoverished and inadequate zoo environements. There are some, such as cetaceans, elephants, and great apes, for whom we probably can’t make behaviorally appropriate zoo environments. Of course, the naturalistic fallacy is juts that, and I’m not saying zoo animals would necessarily be better off in the wild. But I do think many suffer from inadequate environments despite the good intentions and best efforts of many in the zoo community. And whether the benfits to people and conservation efforts justify the experience of the individual animals in captivity, it’s hard to know how to balance that.
As for the SF Zoo, much of it was built by the WPA in the 1930s and clearly wasn’t suitable by today’s animal welfare standards. There has been tremendous improvement since I worked there in the early 90s, and the zoo has gotten rid of some animals (such as the elephants) that they clearly couldn’t take proper care of. I worked with the gorillas and the chimpanzees, and while the chimp exhibit was seriously substandard at the time, the gorilla exhibit was cutting edge and they had a thriving, healthy group. SF will never be anything like San Diego, or some of the other world class zoos, but I don’t think it’s as bad as it once was. Again, whether the good done justifies the problems doesn’t seem to me an easy call.