(CHILDREN AND ZOOS) Instead of educating children about the lives of animals in the wild, zoos more often teach children to view animals as a form of entertainment, according to child psychiatrist Sujatha Ramakrishna. In this excerpt from her upcoming book Raising Kids Who Love Animals, Dr. Ramakrishna explains how even zoos with informational signs and the best habitats cannot compete with the educational value of a nature show on TV that films animals in the wild.

Read on to learn how Dr. Ramakrishna came to the conclusion that all zoos are bad, even the “good” ones, and what taking your children to a zoo could actually teach them about animals. — Global Animal

Photo: 35P1050205 by cj berry

Excerpted with permission from the book, How NOT to Raise a Serial Killer: Teaching Your Child to Have Empathy for Animals by Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.


Over the last few years, I’ve found myself in the middle of some disagreements about zoos. I’m a pediatric psychiatrist, and I also love animals, so my concerns are twofold. Animals in confinement often exhibit unnatural and even psychotic behavior, as a result of boredom and inactivity. This is an obvious sign that they are suffering. As for children, I’ve wondered whether a trip to the zoo is an educational experience, or if it only encourages them to treat animals with disrespect.

My family went to the zoo a lot when I was a kid. I have childhood memories of angry gorillas behind bars throwing things at unsuspecting visitors. Along with numerous others, I tossed marshmallows to polar bears, who avidly begged for them. There were no signs asking us not to feed the animals.

Obviously, those were not good ways for a young child to learn about animals, but zoos have changed a lot in the last few decades. There has been a push towards making exhibits look naturalistic, providing us with a more realistic picture of how animals live in the wild. Additionally, zoos must provide behavioral enrichment programs for their animals, as a means of preventing boredom and emotional stress, in order to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Until recently, I hadn’t been inside a zoo in decades, because I found them to be way too depressing. After doing a bit of research about the new requirements, I started wondering whether or not things really have changed for the better. The only way to know for sure was to see for myself.

So I visited a traditional zoo, with wild animals from many different continents. I looked at the smaller animals first, who seemed to be relatively healthy and happy in their exhibits. But then I noticed others who weren’t doing so well.

Two wolves paced restlessly in a pen that had been made to look quite beautiful for human eyes, but which still provided them with very little living space. Several large cats likewise wandered back and forth in their cages, up and down hills and through grass, but nonetheless in stereotypical patterns indicative of emotional distress. The saddest part was watching the giraffes, whose long legs took them across their entire exhibit in only a few steps. The petting zoo was no better. A group of piglets in a barren stall desperately tried to gnaw at my fingers through the wire fence.

So much for the success of behavioral enrichment programs in alleviating boredom.

If kids learned anything of value by watching these animals, I certainly didn’t see it. What I did see was plenty of mockery and ignorance. For example, several families laughed at a female chimpanzee, who was hanging from a rope with her private parts in full view. One father saw the chimp and said to his son, “Look, a gorilla!” Dad must not have read the sign.

[quote]There was a display in the ape house listing detailed facts about habitat, behavior, and conservation, but that part of the building was completely empty. Everyone seemed more interested in pointing at the chimp’s bottom and making jokes.[/quote]

Wondering if other zoos might be different, I visited a smaller zoo, and also an aquarium housing marine mammals. Unfortunately, I observed similar problems at each of these venues.

Though I hoped to find evidence to the contrary, I must conclude that zoos continue to be detrimental to animal welfare, and that they do not teach children positive lessons about animals. Kids who watch leopards pacing in mindless patterns get a completely inaccurate picture of what large predators are all about. They also learn that making sentient beings suffer for human amusement is acceptable. We want to teach kids to show kindness towards animals, not stare at their misery while eating popcorn.

A more educational experience can be found at wildlife parks and sanctuaries, where animals are free to roam and do as they please. An even better alternative is watching nature videos, and I don’t mean cowboy shows where macho men tackle and torment dangerous beasts to demonstrate their own prowess. I mean ones with real naturalists who teach kids how animals eat, sleep, and live in the absence of human interference. For young people to fully understand and appreciate wild animals, and especially for them to believe that they’re worth saving, they must learn about their natural behaviors and importance to our ecosystem. Modern zoos teach none of these things.

For more information about Dr. Ramakrishna’s upcoming book, visit her website at: https://www.facebook.com/RaisingKidsWhoLoveAnimals




  1. This is, of course, an issue that's been debated almost as long as zoos have existed. Clearly zoos have been bad for many animals (and many still are.) Fortunately, much progress has been made in making zoos better (as the author noted). Some species actually do quite well in good zoos; others, not so much. Unfortunately, given the threats to the natural habitats of many of the animals in zoos, preservation of the species may ultimately come down to having some in captivity. The better zoos are now focusing more on conservation, and less on entertainment value. Having said that, zoos rely on revenue from visitors to properly care for the animals, and to make the habitat improvements, so from the business perspective they have to do a bit of a balancing act.

    As to the question of the kids…I found Dr. Ramakrishna blaming the zoos for the bad behavior of parents. I've spent many hours at National Zoo observing visitors and, yes, I saw many like the ones she chose to focus on. Heck, I've even seen teachers come with school groups and give the kids misinformation, and encourage them to engage in unacceptable behavior. Also, I don't know how old this author is, what kind of zoos she went to as a kid, or what adults accompanied her, but I do know that I NEVER would have been allowed to feed marshmallows to polar bears, whether there was a sign specifically forbidding it or not. She seems to be implying that her own bad behavior was somehow the zoo's fault, simply because they never told her she couldn't do it.

    There are many good parents and educators who bring children to zoos, and who DO use the visit as an opportunity to teach the children to respect the animals. My feeling is that the parents mentioned in the article are not the type who would even think of showing their kids nature videos or going to sanctuaries. They are ignorant and they do not respect other animals…period. I'm pretty sure they'd be that way whether zoos existed or not.

    Years ago, at the Baltimore Zoo, I saw a third grader throwing pebbles at one of the leopards, in an attempt to get it to move. I immediately reprimanded the child. As I was doing so, a woman approached me and asked what had happened. I told her. Turned out that the child was there with a school group, and she was one of the parent chaperons. She immediately turned to the child and said, "Remember what you were told about that?"

    The child was then taken out of the Zoo and forced to spend the rest of the day sitting on the bus with another parent volunteer who was there specifically for that purpose.

    That's how it should be. Unfortunately, far too often, I have seen the "adults" actually taking the lead with that sort of behavior, and encouraging the children to participate. That is clearly not the fault of the zoo.

  2. It's people like you who defend animal captivity that are ignorant. There is nothing educational about zoos and circuses where the animals are not in their natural habitats, and consequently, don't exhibit natural behavior. My kids have never seen an inside of a zoo (and they never will) yet they know plenty about animals, their life cycles, their habitats through videos, books, sanctuaries, hikes, etc. As parents, it is our job to make them curious; only lazy parents think zoos are educational.

  3. Please do tell me Melissa, could you possibly flourish in captivity? If you were placed in an enclosure with others choosing what you eat when you eat it, whether you receive medical care, limiting your access to few if any of your own kind, sometimes impregnating you by force, giving you little or no privacy, do you honestly think you'd be very content? What then makes you think that apes and other social mammals are likely to live happily under those conditions? it's absurd to think they're living satisfying lives.

  4. I've always thought this about zoos and this is why I no longer go! I've observed the same thing as the doctor wrote. I've observed animals at not just one local, small zoo but at various large zoos all over the country. You don't have to be a PhD to watch animal behavior in the wild (via safari or National Geographic documentaries) and then compare it to animal behavior in captivity. There is a disturbingly stricking difference because there is absolutely NOTHING NATURAL about zoos. Experiencing wild animals in their natural habitats and experiencing zoo animals behind bars or in man-made cages cannot be fairly compared because, logically, they are not the same thing. Historically, zoos were designed for human entertainment and animals were taken and trafficked for profit only. Today, unfortunately, zoos have become imperative to species survival because human greed and arrogance have done a great job of destroying habitat. Really, animals have become environmental refugees. Zoos suck! Always have and always will, and if you think otherwise, you are fooling yourself either because you truly don't care or because you're having so much fun being a parent.

  5. We keep domesticated animals like cattle and hens because we eat them. We keep dogs and cats as pets that become loved members of our family. But what purposes do zoos serve other than entertainment and perhaps for a little education? Wild animals spend most of their lives hunting/looking for food and water, looking for/building shelters, escaping from predators, reproducing and rearing their young. They don't do much of that in zoos. They don't do what they normally do in their natural habitat. This is why they need extra stimulation to occupy their minds. They do not have their freedom because us humans decide to keep them encaged so that we can view them when we please. Perhaps this is what the author is alluding to.

  6. What an ignorant, piece of garbage article. The author should stick to child psychology, as animal care is not something they've bothered to read up on and they attended these zoos with a bunch of assumptions and anthropomorphic comparisons. Stereotyipc behavior does NOT always indicate distress and suffering. It has many forms; it can be anticipatory. The carnivores you saw could have been about to have been fed, or they could have smelled food. For you to walk up there and declare the enrichment is not working and that all the animals are suffering from your brief observation is arrogant. I don't know what type of zoo you visited, but since you are very vague about what's 'too small' that could very well just be your uneducated opinion. That being said, seeing animals live in the flesh is educational for many. Don't let a few idiots, who you only chose to observe, ruin it for everyone else. Seeing the animals provides the same exact stimulation as seeing nature and other natural things in the flesh, not just in staged documentaries that have blood gushing every 3 minutes.