For as long as I can remember visits to nearby zoos are a common weekend adventure. Whether it was the small, but still nice, Turtle Back Zoo a mere 15 minutes from my house, the huge and amazing Bronx Zoo, or the Milwaukee Zoo near my grandparents' house, a trip to a zoo was fair game any time of the year. As a kid I was most interested in the "coolest" animals and was always a bit bummed if they were just sleeping or, even worse, not on exhibit that day. Nevertheless, there was always something to see, even if we weren't always quite sure what we were looking at since we didn't read the signs (by "we", I mean my sisters and me, our parents always read the signs and told us the animal but we didn't always pay attention).
As I've grown older, I've come to take an interest in all of the animals they have at the various zoos, especially the ones I've never heard of. Did you know there was such a thing as a short-eared elephant shrew?
I certainly didn't until I started reading the signs on the exhibits and looking into the exhibit long enough to spot the animal if it isn't in plain sight. This adorable little mouse-like animal can be found in the Mouse House at the Bronx Zoo. I'm sure there are lots of other zoos that have them, but I've only seen them in the Bronx.
I could list all the other animals I wouldn't know about if I hadn't seen them in a zoo, but that would be a very long list and probably boring to read through. From school, books, and movies I learned about the majority of the big cats, animals you would see on a safari, farm animals, a handful of birds, some aquatic animals, and a few other common animals to show up in books or movies (i.e. bears and wolves). Which, now that I list all that, sounds like quite a lot. However, there are so many animals out there that, unless you go to a school specially to learn about animals or read dozens of books about different species, you can't possibly learn about all of them. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that I know every animal because I visit zoos. I most certainly do not and probably never will. But I do know that I know of way more species than I ever would if I never went to a zoo.
Aside from informing you that a particular animal exists, zoos allow you to actually see said animal. Aforementioned, I had learned about tigers, snow leopards, giraffes, gorillas, etc. from school or books but the most they could show me was a picture of what these animals looked like. You can look at all the pictures and video clips that you want, but there's nothing quite like watching a jaguar roll around on a ball...
...or hearing the wolves howl because they know it's almost time for dinner...
...or having just a few inches of glass separate you from a tiger.
Visiting the zoo and seeing the animals interacting with one another allows you to learn more about them and, most likely, care more about them.
A big argument against zoos is that they are cruel to the animals and that it is wrong to keep them locked up. Maybe once zoos really did only keep animals in metal cages with concrete floors, but now they live in beautiful habitats. All of the zoos I have been to have lots of space for the animals, provide them with plenty of food, and any care that they may need. It would be very difficult to go to one of these zoos, see the animals playing with one another, and think that they are unhappy and would be better off in the wild.
That being said, animals in the wild deserve to be happy and well-off too. It is incredibly important to protect and conserve the wildlife we have left in the world. More and more species go extinct each year due to loss of habitat, hunting, or a multitude of other reasons. While some may say it would be better to introduce zoo animals back to the wild to expand the gene pool and put animals "back where they belong", I disagree. For one, these animals don't know how to live in the wild and likely wouldn't survive very long, but that is the start of a different conversation. In order to preserve the remaining wild animals, both land and marine, humans need to care enough about them to want to keep them alive. No one is going to care about something they do not know about. That is where zoos come in. They teach us about the animals, show us what they look like and how they interact with one another, and allow us to feel connected to them. Especially if you visit the same zoos a lot - then you get to check in on your favorites and see what they're up to that day.
Zoos also have the ability to do a lot of research on these animals and what they need in order to stay happy and healthy. Occasionally, if the animals and habitat are ready, animals to get released into the wild. I cannot say that zoos were always kind to their animals, but then again neither is the wild. Zoos do the best they can to keep animals healthy and happy, and to teach visitors a few new things about the animals they share the planet with. Moral of the story: go visit a zoo. Odds are, you'll learn a few new things about some really awesome animals.