If Mammals Live Longer in Zoos, Does That Make Captivity OK?

Some mammals are significantly safer in captivity than they are in the wild, according to a new study. Because of that fact, they often live longer in a zoo than they would in their natural environment. Is that a good thing, though? Does longevity justify a life behind bars?

“Our findings indicate that, in general, a life in zoos allows mammals to live longer,” the research team from the University of Lyon and the University of Zurich found. “However, our data suggest that the species-specific pace of life influences the extent to which a given species may benefit from captivity.” In other words, a long life isn’t necessarily a good life for some species.

The study looked at free-ranging and zoo populations of more than 50 mammal species of both sexes. As it turns out, about 84 percent of captive mammal species tend to live longer than their wild cousins.

People standing in front of giraffe

Those that lived longer tended to be smaller mammals such as tree shrews, weasels, white-tailed deer or African wild dogs. They are species that live fast and die young in the wild — those with a naturally short life span, a high rate of reproduction and generally high mortality overall.

These animals will get a longer lifespan in a zoo because they are protected from the things that normally kill them. Problems like predation, disease, competition for food and mates, and harsh living conditions are essentially nonexistent in a captive environment.

What about mammals that naturally live longer in the wild? The news for many of them is not so rosy.

“With regard to long-lived species that generally have lower mortality rates in the wild, there is less that zoos can protect them from,” said the University of Zurich’s Marcus Clauss, professor of nutrition and biology of zoo and wild animals in a press release about the study. “As such, the effect is not as great and, indeed, in some cases is even reversed.”

The University of Lyon/University of Zurich study concluded that “the keeping of naturally wide-ranging carnivores should be either fundamentally improved or phased out.”

Putting Animals on Display Can Be Emotional Torment

Many animals in captivity experience mild to severe emotional trauma. Not only are they unhappy with the constraints of captive life, they’re often fearful or perturbed by the humans who come to see them.

Little boy looking at penguins

Not every zoo visitor is a quiet observer, after all. Screeching children and obnoxious adults can cause animals a great deal of distress. Often enclosures aren’t designed to give the animals a way to have some privacy when they need it. When the animals can do nothing else, they begin acting out in ways regular people might not recognize. Experts, however, know what distress looks like.

“Scientists often say that we don’t know what animals feel because they can’t speak to us and can’t report their inner states,” Dr. Vint Virga, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist who consults with zoos around the country, said in a 2014 New York Times interview. “But the thing is, they are reporting their inner states. We’re just not listening.” According to the article:

Often, the animals suffer from afflictions that haven’t been documented in the wild and appear uncomfortably close to our own: [Virga] has treated severely depressed snow leopards, brown bears with obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobic zebras.

Many of the most-visited animals in zoos are the ones suffering the greatest emotional damage. According to a 2003 study in the journal Nature, popular attractions like polar bears and lions don’t do well confined to zoos. Their natural lives allow them to range over large areas, but they can’t live that way in a zoo. Kept from their inbred proclivities, they suffer.

Toddler boy at zoo watching elephant

If you watch zoo animals carefully, you’ll see exactly what these scientists are talking about. Have you ever seen lions, tigers or wolves pacing within their enclosures? Yes, they’re bored. They’re also unhappy because they can’t engage in their natural desire to wander freely over many miles. Often the animal may seem “zoned out” as it paces. Other animals will relentlessly groom themselves, chew on their cages or lick something endlessly.

The last time I ever went to a zoo I saw a gorgeous silverback gorilla kept behind a huge wall of lucite. His piercing, intelligent brown eyes looked me over languidly and I could see clearly his sadness. My heart broke for him. I knew at that moment I’d never go to another zoo.

Zoos: Are They Good or Bad?

Life in a zoo can devastate animals in so many ways. In a substandard zoo, animals live in shabby or too small enclosures or cages. Even in a state of the art zoo, bad things happen. Just ask Harambe. Animals escape, kids crawl or fall into enclosures, and sometimes animals are simply culled because a zoo has too many of them. In short, there are many ways to die in a zoo.

Zoos have their defenders, of course. To some, zoos are educational and research institutions that can save certain species from extinction. Others feel strongly that zoos are little more than animal prisons. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Zoos unquestionably do some fine and necessary work, and most of their employees love animals passionately. Zoos defend their existence by pointing to their captive-breeding programs for certain endangered and threatened species. They hope to increase the number of such species when reintroduced to the wild.

Unfortunately, though, even the best of zoos have a real, unavoidable dark side. Captivity takes an emotional toll on many animals. Ask yourself whether a longer life really such a benefit if the animal is suffering. By capturing them so people can look at them, we are intentionally inflicting behavioral abnormalities on innocent animals. Who gave us the right to do that? Why are we still doing it?

What do you think, Care2 readers? Should zoos be relegated to the past or do we need them? Tell us in the comments section.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


hELEN hEARFIELD12 days ago


Melania P
Melania Padilla2 years ago

No wild animal belongs in a cage; it would be better to have all animals in sanctuaries, more wild places than a concrete cage :(

Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer2 years ago

A good question - maybe in the future we will have robot animals in zoos so that real ones can be in the wild - if we still have wild areas.

Marie W
Marie W2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

ANA MARIJA R2 years ago

What do you think, Care2 readers? IF I'm very polite i hope that this is rhetorically question...

Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago


Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago


Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago


Hometuition C.
Hometuition C2 years ago

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.