Zoo proponents often claim that animals in zoos live longer than those in the wild. These claims are repeated endlessly by the mainstream media. Setting aside for a moment the question of whether you’d rather live in a cage or free in your natural community, the claim is an outright lie. The model for this particular statistical sleight of hand was developed in the 1930s and is followed to this day. It ignores the extremely short average lifespan of animals in zoos and discusses only the lifespans of those rare few who live the longest, then presents these ages as though they are average lifespans or something else equally statistically meaningful. This makes it possible to highlight those apes who live twenty, thirty, or fifty years, and to leave unsaid are any messy statistics showing that three-quarters of them die before twenty months of captivity.
Zoos are deadly, with “stock turnover” of between one-fifth and one-quarter of the animals per year. “Theoretically,” historians Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier note, “zoos could be closed just by calling a halt to their supply of animals for four to six years; at the end of that time, only a few veterans would remain.” They also state, “In actual fact, the extreme mortality of wild animals in zoos has always been the driving force behind the massive scale of importations.”
We often hear of valiant attempts by zookeepers to breed endangered species such as, for example, pandas, yet we do not so frequently hear that only 21 percent of pandas conceived through artificial insemination and born in Chinese zoos reach even the age of three. Similarly, the lifespans of porpoises are cut in half by captivity and those of dolphins are reduced by thirty years. Given the realities of living in captivity, I’m not sure if these premature deaths are the worst things that can happen to these creatures.
The response by many zookeepers to reading the previous paragraphs would almost undoubtedly be to exclaim that while zoos might have been maybe kind of just a little bit dangerous in the past (I keep thinking about the death report from a zoo in the 1970s reading “American otter—too decomposed for necropsy,” leading me to wonder exactly how long an animal must go missing before anyone notices), modern zoos have become paradises. One zookeeper has gone so far as to claim that fences in zoos are not there to keep animals in, but rather to keep out all those animals desperately clamoring to get in. But all of this, too, is misleading at best. Extensive studies show that the mortality rate has remained remarkably consistent over the decades. Indeed, graphs showing mortality in the late twentieth century closely match those from the early nineteenth: “In all instances, mortality remained high during the first eighteen months, the principle difference being the presence of a few veterans among twentieth-century animals.”