Zoos are always a big dilemma for me, but I hope it will change soon.

Since I read about how captivity affects the animal behaviour, I hate the idea of keeping wild animals in zoos. It hurts them, and that’s not where they belong.

taronga zoo - sydney - australia
Taronga Zoo in Sydney

However, zoos are meant to play a great role in conservation, education and research. But only a few are serious about conservation when many others are about making profits. With all their marketing efforts, it’s not always easy for the visitors to do research and find out the real objectives of the zoo they plan to visit. The latest surveys from the UK reveal a huge disparity in public perceptions about zoos and the reality of their contribution to conservation (more details here).

Should we close our zoos?

I don’t think so. At least not all of them. Sanctuaries that work hard to save injured wild animals are important.
It’s essential to keep a solution for those who don’t have the luxury to see animals in their wild habitat or to travel to their native region to visit a sanctuary.

A zoo offers an entertaining trip that provides a chance to educate and create powerful experiences. They are a way to inspire people to support causes to save everyone on the planet. If a few are sacrificed in captivity to help the others survive, is it a bad deal? If there is another option, it sounds like a bad deal.

What if there was a way to interact with the wild animals without keeping them captive?

I came across a letter from Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, addressed to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple. He’s trying to get one of the most innovative and disruptive tech firm to work on a Virtual Reality solution that could offer an experience powerful enough to inspire people without keeping wild animals in captivity. I am passionate about travelling, technology and sustainability, so I love this idea.

Of course, virtual reality will never replace the sensations of seeing wild animals for real, in the habitat where they belong. But I believe it could easily match the experience of seeing them in cages. It has the potential to educate and inspire – even more than a zoo if it’s well done.

And the business model is financially viable too. Zoos are very expensive to maintain, which is why animals can sometimes end up in poor conditions. Once the technology is developed, costs to keep up a virtual park would be lower. More profits could be used for the critical research on conservation.

What do you think? Would you be interested in virtual reality or augmented reality experience rather than seeing animals in captivity? I’d love to hear your thoughts; please leave a comment below.

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  1. chikonahoka

    Yes I think VR has the potential to become good enough, that it could be a viable alternative to zoos. I think that a sanctuary should exist firstly because it is needed for some kind of ecological or shelter for animals, and only be an attraction as a secondary reason. And if it should be that it is no longer needed for its primary purpose it should shut down rather than exist solely for people to watch animals in captivity – especially the ones whose habitats are much larger than can be provided by a zoo.
    Although I would hope that VR is regulated so that it does serve mostly the same purpose – I can imagine VR sites that may encourage irresponsible attitudes and behaviour to animals ‘because these ones aren’t real’, which desensitises people to real ones and their ecology. I am a gamer, and I totally am aware of all the things that some people turn into mere games.

    1. Eloise

      You raise very interesting points!
      I’m with you. If a sanctuary isn’t needed, if the primary purpose is not to help the animals… then I don’t know if it should still be called a sanctuary! But I do understand that they need to attract visitors to fund the programmes.
      What I have in mind when I suggest using VR instead of real animals in a case is definitely not to create a gaming experience. I do agree that gaming can have some adverse effects because it’s not real. But augmented and virtual reality are increasingly used for educational purposes and – although it’s entertaining and engaging – the created experience is not a game.
      However, without encouraging irresponsible attitudes, it could be another idea and experience to use gaming to educate about these bad behaviours and support better behaviour. Like a game with hints to help you make the right choices to finish your mission and get a high score.

  2. Anna Faustino

    I’m like you. I abhor zoo’s and seeing animals in captivity. Although I’m not sure VR is the answer- I definitely don’t know enough about it to put my two cents in. I do know that animals are best kept in their natural habitat and while I can see the value of zoo’s from an educational point of view things have to change regarding their current states- especially in places like Asia.

    1. Eloise

      Thank you for sharing your views, Anna. Unfortunately, the places where animals aren’t treated well often don’t even provide the benefit of educating people or helping conservation. It’s mostly about entertainment and maximising profits. I hope consumers will become more educated to avoid participating in this cruel system.

  3. Christina

    You raise some interesting points. I would definitely like to see how the VR application works. After all, when you’re at a zoo you often don’t get that close the animals anyway. Actually my preference would be to see animals in the wild – on safari.

    1. Eloise

      I 100% agree, Christina. Safaris are amazing. But zoos are a lot more accessible (in terms of price and location) – and that’s why they’re more popular. Virtual Reality could create a virtual safari experience. I know it wouldn’t be the same than safari in real life, but I’d personally enjoy it more than watching animals in captivity – and even more if the VR concept is well done.

  4. Indrani

    I prefer virtual zoo to the real ones. It is ages since I visited one and the memories of the zoo last visited is sad, especially the tiger I saw there. It was kept in a small enclosure. 🙁 For virtual zoos the initial expenditure may be high but maintenance is far less compared to actual zoo. The safaris are a great idea too.

    1. Eloise

      Yes, the bigger animals look really far away from their natural habitats in the zoos. Not enough space, not enough stimulation, wrong climate… It’s just not fair. I like the idea of a well-developed virtual reality project to make a safari experience alike accessible to more people. Watching animals in their habitat from close without interfering is fascinating, and a lot more interesting than watching them in a cage.

  5. I mirror your emotions being torn between zoos, I’ve visited a number recently and it’s heartbreaking to watch the animals, of all species, pace back and forth like they’ve lost their minds, because they’re being kept in captivity. We recently visited Buenos Aires and were heartned to hear that they are in the process of shutting down their city zoo, a law was passed which deemed that it wasn’t ethical to keep animals in captivity, so they have released native wildlife and are currently finding sanctuaries for international species.
    I would definitely be interested in a virtual reality option should the technology be there, whcih I believe it is. There is always going to be an issue of how to ethically release those animals currently in captivity back into the wild, and weather they’ll be able to cope having not known how to survive in a wild environment, but I think this will allow us to make huge steps forward to ethical interactions with animals. I enjoy wildlife, and I have a passion for wildlife, but not in a zoo. Sanctuaries, nature reserves, animal hospitals, yes. But not in the captivity of a zoo.

  6. elphie1

    I love this and struggle when going to zoos too! As a vegetarian there is conflict for me but sometimes I do still go. I love the idea of free ranges where the humans ride around in a little cage!

  7. Julie

    I have a major problem with zoos and never visit them because I’ve been to too many poorly run examples where the animals are clearly not being treated well. I would be all in for a virtual zoo experience, and maybe would be an interesting alternative for an educational tool.

  8. Jen Joslin

    This is a very interesting idea as an alternative to keeping animals captive in zoos. I’m not sure whether VR could ever adequately replace the experience of seeing animals in real life. At the same time, I agree that zoos are not always well run, and that is the biggest problem. I recently visited the Elephant Conservation Center in Laos and had some interesting talks with the people working there. Essentially they said that tourism is needed in order to support conservation centers like theirs where elephants can roam free, but many travelers have a hard time distinguishing which places are doing good vs. doing harm for animals. I think this is a dilemma many people face who are interested in learning more about wildlife in our world.

  9. Nancy

    I struggle with zoos too. I appreciate their role in animal conservation and rehabilitation, but I don’t like caging wild animals for viewing pleasure. I’m not sure about a VR animal experience – I guess I would have to try it.

  10. quirkywanderer

    I avoid zoos. Since a kid anything that showed animals in poor light or make them objects of entertainment made me cringe. That is the reason I never liked seeing animals caged or made to entertain in circuses or even elephant which were used for rides.
    As a kid I wished to buy an elephant from the mahout and release it in the wild where it belongs.
    I find sanctuaries a better option but even that needs to be regulated wisely. Of late when I visit sanctuaries I see crowd going crazy seeing a tiger and losing all sense of decorum.

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