The Good Ones: How Zoos in the United States went from Villain to Hero 

By: Gila Kalman  |  December 20, 2023

By Gila Kalman, Senior Opinions Editor  

There has been an ever evolving discourse among the animal-loving community – one which seeks to answer the question: Are zoos good or bad for animals? While this question is hotly debated, it is important to acknowledge the nuance in its answer. Zoos have come a long way since their beginnings, yet there is of course, still room for even more improvement. 

The first modern zoo, the Imperial Menagerie, was established in 1752. This early iteration of the zoo and others like it had set a poor precedent for the establishment as a whole. They completely disregarded the welfare of animals, participating in disgraceful practices which involved the seizing of wildlife from their natural habitats for the purpose of providing humans with entertainment from behind the bars of cramped cages. 

These poor conditions were, for a long time, universal among zoos throughout the world, including the United States. It is also these shameful beginnings which have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans. Many people still believe that zoos only exist in order to provide entertainment for humans and care very little for the animals themselves. This aversion to zoos is not unfair. There are still zoos within the United States and abroad which keep animals in poor conditions, participate in unethical buying and selling, and contribute to the deteriorating mental state of animals in captivity. 

However, it is important to acknowledge the nuance within the question of zoo ethics and to understand that while some zoos may be detrimental for animals, others may actually be integral to species survival. The following are a few points to consider when evaluating the ethicality of zoos. 


Zoos in the United States are accredited by specific federally recognized organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This accreditation process includes consistent and thorough investigation into zoos and the “living environments, social groupings, health, and nutrition” of their animals, says AZA. The organization also evaluates the zoo’s enrichment, veterinary, and educational programs. Further, every animal under AZA accreditation goes through a yearly welfare assessment. This means that any zoo accredited by the AZA or similar organizations is being held to the utmost standards of animal care. Unfortunately, less than 10 percent of USDA licensed animal exhibitors are accredited by the AZA. Therein lies the issue: not every zoo is held to the same standards and many still get away with housing animals under poor conditions. 

Endangered Species

Of these accredited zoos, many make species conservation a top priority. Breeding programs conducted by zoos have and still continue to play an essential role in the conservation of specific species. For instance, the Arabian Oryx was driven to extinction in the wild by 1972, and its survival was only made possible due to the preemptive capturing of a few members of the species before they were all gone. The animals were bred in captivity for several years until finally a successful reintroduction into their native habitat took place. These breeding and reintroduction programs still happen in zoos all across the U.S. and have made an undeniable impact on endangered species. The Bronx Zoo, for example, has participated in the successful breeding and reintroduction of Tanzania’s Kihansi Spray Toads and American Bison. Without zoos, these and many other species may have been driven to total extinction.

Education and Research

Zoos are also great resources for wildlife and environmental conservation education. Many zoos offer educational programs which seek to teach the general public why and how to protect the planet. In fact, AZA-accredited zoos have taken on an important role in educating over 180 million visitors in animal conservation and over the past 10 years, have trained more than 400,000 teachers. Additionally, zoos participate in important research which allows scientists to learn more about animals and how to protect them. This research involves analyzing genetics, evaluating behavior and psychology, and the overall studying of wild animals. While this kind of research can be done on animals living in the wild, obtaining results proves much more difficult and time consuming. The information gathered from the research conducted within zoos allows conservationists to better understand how to help conserve animals and their environments. 

Born in Captivity

There is a common misconception that zoos obtain the majority of their animals through illegal and unethical means. This would include the buying of animals from unreliable sources, and the capturing of animals from their habitats. While it is true that these were the primary methods used when zoos first hit the scene, and that there are still zoos who participate in such practices, most animals in modern zoos within the U.S. were actually not taken from the wild at all. In fact, the University of Michigan points out that “90 percent of all mammals, 74 percent of all birds added to U.S. zoo collections since 1985 were born in captivity.” This is an important distinction to make, as it changes the dialogue from one which villainizes zoos for ripping animals from the wild, to one which recognizes that many modern zoos are both working with and trying to rectify some of the sins of zoo past. While some animals born in captivity, as mentioned before, can be introduced back into the wild, many cannot. According to National Geographic, “most captive-born predators die if returned to their natural habitat.” While releasing every animal in captivity back into the wild may sound nobel, it is not something that is done easily and does not necessarily guarantee success. 

What needs to change?

Of course, despite all the ways zoos help, there is always room for growth. The most obvious issue lies in accreditation. There are a whole host of zoos who are properly accredited and to which the above points apply. However, as mentioned previously, there are also the 90 percent of USDA licensed animal exhibitors who are not accredited. This detail is extremely problematic and contributes to the poor treatment of animals in captivity. The accreditation of zoos in the United States must be enforced on a federal level. No establishment housing wildlife should be allowed to squeeze by without being evaluated and held to the appropriate standards of care. Beyond that, zoo visitors should only support zoos that have been accredited through the AZA or similar organizations. For a full list of AZA accredited zoos please visit their website.

Have zoos been detrimental to animal welfare in the past? Most definitely. Are there still zoos which treat animals just as poorly? Of course. Zoos still have a long way to go, both in the United States and out, but they are evolving in a way which can be a great resource for conservation. In an ideal world, all the efforts put forth by accredited zoos to aid in conservation wouldn’t be needed, and animals could live freely and safely in the wild. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. We need zoos in the fight against environmental destruction. Zoos did not begin with animal welfare in mind, but that’s where they have ended up. So instead of asking ‘Are zoos good or bad?,’ instead we should ask ‘How can we make sure that the only zoos allowed to exist are the good ones?’