Zoochosis: The Disturbing Thing That Happens to Animals in Captivity

Blackfish already made a splash in the animal captivity scene, and now Zoochosis, a short documentary about the very unnatural behaviors that captive animals exhibit in artificial zoo environments, is adding more waves.

Since the whole Marius the Giraffe fiasco, zoos have probably felt been feeling some heat from concerned citizens. This new documentary continues to let zoos know that they are being scrutinized and that activists probably won’t stop until the animal captivity tide turns.

What is Zoochosis?

The documentary didn’t invent the term “zoochosis.” According to the organization Circus Watch WA, “In 1992, Bill Travers first coined the term zoochosis to describe this obsessive, repetitive behaviour, and described zoo animals behaving abnormally as zoochotic.”

Zoochosis can be disturbing to watch. According to Born Free, the following behaviors are symptomatic of zoochosis: pacing and circling, tongue-playing and bar-biting, neck twisting, head-bobbing, weaving and swaying, rocking, overgrooming and self-mutilation, vomiting and regurgitating and coprophilla and caprophagia. Coprophilla and caprophagia relate to unnatural activities involving feces, e.g. eating it, playing with it or smearing feces on walls.

Zoochosis Highlights

In the film, zoo professionals, science and research professionals and animal welfare professionals all weigh in to paint a complete picture about zoochosis in relation to captivity.

While the scientific community has been talking about zoochosis since the early 1990s, there’s still no consensus about what causes it. Some think that it’s a type of coping mechanism while others believe that it’s a brain dysfunction caused by stress.

Stress is a prevailing theme throughout the documentary. As one science professional explains, everyone has stress. The thing is that while humans can have stress, it usually doesn’t mean that their welfare is in jeopardy, partly because humans can remove themselves from stressful situations and have things to look forward to. For the most part, animals live in the present. If their present is a small caged enclosure, then that is a stressful existence from which they cannot escape. Ultimately, you have to wonder, do all animals experience the stress of captivity the same? According to some points of view in the documentary, they don’t.

Whatever an animal’s stress level, any amount of stress that humans impose on them isn’t right. Let’s say that zoos could create better ways for an animal to cope; that’s great, but coping feels like surviving and just getting by. I’d rather see a captive animal let loose in the wild where they have a fair chance to thrive. Although, as Zoochosis points out, is there a true wild left anymore?

Zoochosis highlights that there are 10,000 zoos in the world and 175 million people visit them every year. While zoos should be more upfront about the abnormal behaviors that their animals are displaying, zoo patrons should also speak out if they see something. Tell the zoo professionals and tell people in your circles. And if you don’t like what zoochosis looks like, or what one conservationist called the “zombie look of zoochosis,” then don’t frequent zoos.

I was fascinated by the suggestion that some animals can thrive in captivity while other animals can’t because it wasn’t something that I had ever thought about that way. Let me know in the poll and comments: do you really think some animals can thrive in captivity?

Photo Credit: Jannes Pockele


Steven Essary
Steven Essary7 months ago

I do not believe any Animals actually thrive in captivity, their instincts cannot be squelched. They need to roam, and interact with their own kind, like Horses who are kept in tiny stalls all the time, until someone wants to ride them, or Lions kept alone when they should be free to form Prides.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven9 months ago

thanks for the article.

Tricia Hamilton
Tricia Hamiltonabout a year ago

Everything we touch seems to turn to crap. We are wasting food. Killing animals like they aren't worth the skin they are in. We are doing so much damage. It breaks my heart.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe1 years ago

It's too bad we can't just leave the animals in their home environment. I'd rather watch a document on them than to see them so miserable!!

Julie C.
Julie C.1 years ago

I think some animals can live in wildlife sanctuaries, where they have room to roam and people drive through. Not the big carnivores, but the smaller herbivores and even some smaller carnivores. I can't imagine a place polar bears would thrive that would also let people see them. But emus are fine. It's very dependent on what each species needs. But traditional zoos? No way, ever.

Tammy D.
Tammy D.1 years ago

It confuses me why people feel differently about zoos. If we put humans in a similar situation, I don't think any of us would be surprised by the results. So, when other animals who are used to walking, or have the instinct to walk, hundreds of kilometers a week are stuck in a small caged environment, it seems only logical to me that the animal will not be happy, not thrive and not find much benefit to the situation. Why, then, are they there? For the amusement of humans?

It is extremely important, I believe, for children to learn about and observe other creatures. I do not feel, however, that there is not much difference between observing lions or ants. We should be teaching children about the things that naturally surround them, instead of showing them exotic things they really can't relate to all that well, or study for any length of time. Those animals have a right to remain exotic and mysterious, something one would be very, very lucky to see.

Patti Ruocco
Patti Ruocco1 years ago

We all get a little nuts when in an unnatural situation.....we need room, we need social interaction, and we need to do what we were born to do....when we don't we all become like rats in a maze. The struggle then becomes--how do you help people connect with animals they cannot see? If people don't feel connected, they are even more likely to not care as we torture and kill millions of them....

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H.1 years ago

How sad. But it makes sense that these problems would arise. Not only are the animals out of their normal habitat but trapped in small enclosures. Essentially they are going crazy. If a human were forced into house arrest for the rest of their life, never able to leave, go outside, they would go crazy.

BJ J.1 years ago

Wildlife habitat is disappearing in part because people think it's necessary to breed like flies, (19 & counting is a prime example) & the millions of illegals in this country. More people means more land space needed, more water usage, more food production, to mention a few - all taking habitat away from nature. Land that zoos are on could/should be used for animal sanctuaries, animal hospitals.

Ruhee B.
Ruhee B.1 years ago

Zoos are animal prisons which only exist for the gratification of humans. The sad fact is that so few people care enough about animals and if they did zoos wouldn't exist. As long as people keep visiting zoos, I, sadly, can't see them closing down.