Editorial: That Giraffe in Your Zoo Selfie is Losing its Sanity

You are probably aware of the death of Harambe, the 17-year-old gorilla zookeepers fatally shot to prevent him from attacking a child who snuck into the enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.

There has been plenty written about whether or not the gorilla should have been shot, but what about shedding light on keeping animals in captivity for human amusement in the first place?

The stressful environment of a zoo eventually takes a toll on animals held in captivity. According to National Geographic, African elephants live for an average of 42 years in the wild, but only 17 when they are born in captivity.

The problems arise from a number of factors — from adapting to a new diet to not having enough room to live comfortably in. Gorillas like Harambe roam around 16 square miles in Africa, but in the zoo they are confined to much smaller spaces. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums only requires 600 square feet of space for an elephant.

The monotony makes animals anxious. Visitors yell at animals and bang on glass walls constantly, adding to anxiety levels of captive creatures, especially if they aren’t provided shelter. If animals try to get out of their enclosures, zookeepers will kill them to protect the public.

Researchers have a term for the behaviors animals develop in captivity that isn’t natural in the wild: zoochosis. It’s unknown what percentage of animals zoochosis effects, because zoos are hesitant to make their resident animals available for studies.

Symptoms involve pacing, vomiting, self-starvation, repetitive unnatural behaviors and self-mutilation. To help animals cope with zoochosis, zoos will buy them new toys and puzzles or feed them anti-depressants.

Some zoos unfortunately ignore it. Federal inspectors found more than 40 animals in need of mental care at a zoo in Virginia last year.

People argue that zoos help protect endangered species, but only about one-fifth of zoo animals are endangered or threatened. Zoos also engage in breeding animals in an attempt to repopulate the species, which sounds good in theory. Forced breeding actually increases the animal’s stress.

Often, zoos don’t have the space for the animals they care for and are still trying to acquire newer, younger animals to please the attendees. The older ones are sold to other institutions or auctioned off. In Europe, older animals are euthanized.

Zoos have reintroduction programs to return surplus animals to the wild, but unfortunately many end up dying after being released into their natural habitat due to their inadequacy to adapt to the wild.

Animal sanctuaries already exist to properly rehab animals, and they do it without keeping them confined.

People expressed shock and disgust when news of Harambe’s death spread across the media, but it’s only marginally more concerning than what’s happening throughout the rest of the zoo.

So instead of Instagramming yourself at the zoo feeding a captive giraffe, go to an animal sanctuary and stop giving money to a business that is improperly caring for wild animals.