What a sad world we live in, where parental negligence and human error and misjudgment can result in the killing of an innocent.

I’m talking about Harambe, the majestic 17-year-old western lowland gorilla shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend after a child slipped into his enclosure. Many in the public are outraged, questioning whether his death was even warranted. But there’s actually a larger issue here, one that most people aren’t talking about, as so eloquently stated by Steven M. Wise of the New York Daily News:

“The major problem is that the Cincinnati Zoo is legally permitted to treat such extraordinarily cognitively complex and gentle animals as slaves in order to sell tickets to gawkers, and that Harambe, like every other nonhuman animal, was a legal ‘thing’ that lacked the capacity for any legal rights, even the fundamental rights to his life and liberty.”

It’s a painful reality if there ever was one. But if anything positive can rise from this tragedy, perhaps it’s that we can finally engage in a national conversation about the ethicality of zoos. And if zoos are morally reprehensible, what is the future of zoos? Perhaps the future of zoos is that, someday, they won’t have a future at all.

Zoos represent an outdated and unenlightened view that we as humans are the superior species, and animals exist merely for our amusement—true “speciesism.” Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us: If we look at the history of zoos, we find that zoos were used as racist institutions (even the exact zoo where Harambe was killed!). Shockingly, in 1896, the Cincinnati Zoo showcased 100 Sioux in an on-site village at the zoo for 90 days to entertain visitors.

Clearly, Harambe’s death raises some uncomfortable—and terrible—truths about zoos:

In zoos, the animals exist for our entertainment. But is it ethical to imprison animals for human curiosity? Or do animals deserve more than just food and safety—do they deserve to live as freely as possible, and do we as a society want to make it happen? I’ve written before that animals are sentient beings that deserve rights, such as life and happiness. An organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project and the recent Unlocking the Cage documentary are working hard to upend animals’ lives, but in a good way—by offering them legal protections and rights as persons.

Zoos teach our children that gawking at wild animals in cages is the best way to learn about them. But is this educational aspect really true, or just a fabrication spun decades ago to justify immoral business practices? I think we all know that confining animals to cages isn’t necessary for people to learn to care about them. I love this quote in an article from the Christian Science Monitor:

“A young child can tell you more about a dinosaur than he can about an elephant. … You don’t need an elephant in a cage to learn about elephants.”

Even though children have fallen into enclosures before, zoos are still not prepared to deal with these emergency situations. The enclosures are still not childproof, and animals still sometimes escape. Are the benefits of goggling and entertainment really worth it? Are we OK knowing that if a negligent parent doesn’t watch her kid, the result will be the death of an animal—and an endangered one at that?

Zoos represent a deep philosophical and spiritual belief that humans are superior to animals. Unfortunately, until that belief changes—or until society forces the change—zoos will not be changing, either. Perhaps there is a shred of hope: The fact that Ringling Brothers has been forced (by unhappy customers) to retire elephants by 2018 shows that the public does yield some power. (Of course, I’m waiting for them to remove all animals from their acts.)

Zoos may be nonprofit institutions, but they are very expensive to run. Although they may see themselves as research and educational centers that protect endangered species, how can zoos stay true to this mission when in reality their existence relies upon tickets sold to a very demanding public? If conservation is the true purpose, then we need a new model for protecting animal species, one where funding is stable and sure and animals are honored for being the amazing and wise beings they are.

I dream of a day when compassion and respect for all beings rule the day; where zoos are replaced by extensive, protected habitats and natural preserves where rescued and endangered animals are not stared at by a ticket-buying public, and where human negligence doesn’t result in the killing of a beautiful animal. Perhaps technology can lead the way, protecting the privacy and dignity of animals, while still allowing families to admire, learn and be inspired. The truth is, real knowledge about wild animals can never be found in a zoo, “for we are never truly ourselves, unless we feel at home.”

A new way forward

What we need are visionaries to see beyond the current limits of zoo care. We need people who can forge a brighter future for wild and exotic rescues—people like Carol Buckley of Elephant Aid International. Back in 1995, Carol co-founded The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee—the first free-range sanctuary for elephants in the United States. Never one to take no for an answer, Carol was brave enough to think outside the box of what was traditional for elephant captivity, and to let compassion and reverence for elephants guide her thinking. Having to fight hard against many naysayers who claimed elephants had to be confined, chained and managed by hooks, Carol restored 24 rescued elephants to family life and a natural habitat right here in the United States! Carol now travels the world to teach people a better way with elephants.

Although Harambe couldn’t change his own fate, maybe—just maybe—his legacy can be that he helped to inspire us to change the paradigm and create more compassionate and humane solutions to the problem of extinction. Let’s get to the bottom of the problem by teaching our children a compassionate way of sharing the planet, honoring all other beings. Let’s not rest until less suitable environments for animals, such as zoos, are a thing of the past. Let’s protect the wild forests of our planet so animals can live naturally, without human intervention. When needed, let’s create sanctuaries for rescued wild animals that are vast in size, as close to a natural life as possible and that exist for the benefit and care of the animals—not for our entertainment.

To get involved, please visit and support: the Jane Goodall Institute, National Wildlife Federation and Performing Animal Welfare Society.

31 thoughts on “Zoos: There is a better way”

  1. Kathleen Prasad, thank you for this article.

    I love animals and I always try my best to treat them well.

    On the topic at hand. Well, animals will continue to be mistreated in zoos. What I think we need is to keep creating more awareness about the need to secure the rights for these non-human beings and pray that the powers that be will find a way to rectify the wrong way the zoos are run.

  2. Insightful article & comments by all 🙂 I also believe religion and human overpopulation has manifested extinction and enslavement. Kathleen, I think you are spot on in regards to the public being the force of change. The Ringling elephant so-called “retirement” (to where and under what level of care who knows) was only accomplished by a massive push & outcry and heavy activism. Major change in our world from the rights of women to vote to the legalization of gay marriage has only been won through the shedding of blood sweat & tears unfortunately.

    Maybe the murder of Harambe will be another eventual major force of change to light the way for the public who buy the tickets. While the zoo is “back in business”, and the negligent mother is glad that “she can put this in the past and move on, and the city govt who failed to bring charges against her has resumed their greedy mode of operations, just maybe the next person that Strolls by the gorilla exhibit will see these beings in another light & join the movement to effect positive change.

    Also, thanks for mentioning Carol Buckley. Through her work I became more enlightened and became active in the elephant rights movement. But wait! To become passionately involved, I did not have to go purchase a ticket or invade their space. Rather, I got to “know” each elephant through her ele-diary writings, photos & videos which are so beautiful. Oh and speaking of technology, we were able to see these “girls” live, living naturally & at “home”. through their elecam. No purchase of a ticket for a cheap thrill could match the spirit and power that activism brought to ease their suffering and free them from their prisons.

    I think children (and eventually their parents) especially are eager to get actively vs passively (walking by their exhibit for 1 minute or less) involved to help the animals when they see what freedom looks like for the animals. For instance, what Carol Buckley created in Tennessee. Children are wise and can sense and draw their own conclusions rapidly even past their parents distorted filter. If a fire is lit in their bellies, through a teacher or a peer, or the media, & see how they can take some step however small that may be, writing a letter, making a phone call, drawing a picture in class, etc to join the movement to liberate and or improve the animals lives, they will ride that wave. I see it in my nephew 🙂

    In regards to the little boy who wanted to be close to the gorilla, I wonder as he gets older, if he will take that experience and perhaps be the one to bring an end to zoos as they exist today. It is my hope.

    1. Beautifully expressed, Lynne, thank you for your compassionate comments and for sharing what Carol Buckley taught you too 🙂 She is such a light in the world! Slowly, we are making steps in the right direction for animals 🙂

  3. I hesitate to interject in this forum of beautiful and heart-thinking people, but feel compelled to. Can a human population that doesn’t respect its own (unborn children, the handicapped, elderly and infirm) ultimately be expected to treat its non-human brothers and sisters with equal concern? Our animal brothers and sisters in situations like this seem to have no apparent rights to life and liberty, nor do our unborn human brothers and sisters, but for some reason the latter makes us squirm. And if we’re exchanging thoughts about human over-population and all that topic entails, are we thinking that the destruction of humans who have no voice is the answer? The matter is double-edged, and extreme caution and very prayerful consideration is critical when going down this path. I offer this in love and respect to those participating in this forum.

    1. Hi Kerri, Thanks for you comments. Because this blog grows from my animal Reiki work with rescues around the world, it therefore focuses on compassion for animal issues, however we always encourage compassion for ALL – starting with ourselves and radiating out into the world. As you say, we can see the results of non-compassionate choices in our treatment of humans, too and I am sure no one in this forum would disagree with that. There are so many areas to discuss with regards to compassion – please know that our focus on animal advocacy does not imply a lack of empathy and care for humans.

  4. I totally agree and have been boycotting zoos along with race tracks (horses and dogs), aquariums and the circus for many years. Animals were not put on this earth for our entertainment. Until we become one with all creatures and understand what we are doing to their freedom we will never be free of these terrible places.

    1. Hi Diane, I agree! For me, the spiritual practice of Reiki supports an inner awakening to our connection with all beings. Reiki promotes peace and compassion, which is such a beautiful light to shine in this world!

  5. In the mean time, while the wits and awareness level of humans rises to what we aspire, let’s all engage in helping in the moment… reiki all captive animals, whether held in zoos, shelters or unkind homes.

  6. Thank you for citing the work of Carol Buckley. Carol has been doing wonderful work with her newer organization, Elephant Aid International — http://elephantaidinternational.org
    largely in Nepal. Perhaps as exciting for those of us in the States, this year Carol and EAI will also be establishing a new sanctuary here in the U.S. —
    that will build on the experience and knowledge of the existing sanctuaries and go even further. Please support Carol’s new initiative — it’s so badly needed! Thanks.

    1. This is so exciting, Amy!! I wasn’t aware of her plan to build a new sanctuary in the U.S. I am happy to support her in any way that I can, and hope our readers will too! Blessings 🙂

  7. Karren O'Sullivan

    You have raised some very honest and troubling issues Kathleen. Reverence for all beings is paramount! Especially those of the animal kingdom whose right to live with honor and more freedom can be so dependent on human beings. My hope too is that Harambe’s tragic death will spur a great movement for change in zoos and other facilities to wake up, shake it up and create “a new way” to respect and learn about wild animals. Thank you for writing and for your unending devotion to being a great voice for the animals we are so blessed to live with!

    Love and Peace, Karren

      1. I think we can Kathleen, little by little…some baby steps forward, a few back. Together we can encourage one another to see with a new perspective and keep our creative minds engaged for positive change 🙂 As the article describes… An animal sanctuary created from a deep need for more dignity within humanity. I share your same hope, Karren

  8. Nice article. However, I’m surprised that you would ask people to support the National Wildlife Federation.

  9. Thank you Kathleen for being a voice for this important topic. My morning prayer is that humans learn to think, live, and make decisions from their heart center and not their ego. Then all animals, humans included, can live equally on this beautiful planet. There is much work to do, but I believe Reiki is the way.

  10. I so agree with this article…until animals are treated with compassion we will not reach our capacity to further the human race to a better plateau.

  11. How gratifying the global outrage of a humanity defending a creature far removed from his natural habitat.. removed from nature. How wise the experts who know the mind and intentions of these complex creatures. How remiss of humanity not to believe in the care, empathy, compassion, protective drives of such other species. A ‘zoo’ is now defined as a captive environment presided over by those with inadequate knowledge and abilities. Perhaps the latter term ‘ability’ should be withdrawn. Making a value judgement with limited insight does provide captors with an escape option ! Death is their deficiency.. and indictment ! An animals end and Mankind’s loss !

  12. A real “elephant in the room” with regard to this discussion is the rapidly growing human population which is displacing wild species’ habitat with our own. Human population growth, combined with corrupt and dysfunctional governments and war, poachers who exploit rare animals already squeezed into tiny reserves, and markets in “emerging economies” like China who wish to buy products from endangered animals…not to mention human-induced climate change…all this is making the future of wild species more and more tenuous. I believe that the ever-expanding human population problem is at the root of many of these woes for animals. It would be nice if that subject came up for discussion more often. It is nice to think that children should appreciate wild species in the wild (and they SHOULD!), and not in zoos, but that is becoming more and more difficult for the above reasons. And many zoos are the last hope for endangered species driven to near-extinction in the wild. But I do think zoos need to have better security and the largest, most safe and enriching environments for their animals as possible (at the minimum).

    1. I agree with everything you say, Robyn. I also believe uncontrolled human population growth plays a large role in the demise of many species, especially the endangered ones. Add to that the Speciesism that most humans subscribe to, along with the other contributing factors you state above, and the animals don’t stand a chance. Not without a great deal of the right type of human intervention. I do, however, disagree that zoos are the last hope for endangered species. I believe that keeping an endangered species from going extinct by imprisoning individuals from those species in captivity, again just for human amusement and profit, is not an answer. Zoos do not take into account the bleak semblance of a life those individuals will be forced to endure there. These magnificent living, sentient beings become nothing more than living relics in zoos. Unless there is a place in the wild for these endangered species, the animals themselves gain nothing from being kept in captivity. Let humans “learn” about them in books, in HD TV and movies. But before they go extinct, let’s as a group work to keep all the wild animals rightly in their natural environment in the wild.

  13. Thanks Kathleen,

    In a way we need to take it even a step further, and have no zoo’s at all, not even big sanctuaries, but try to restore their natural habitat and let them live in peace. But for that we first need to find peace within ourselves and learn how to live in union with nature and not destroy it. Thus we come back to the importance of self development so that we can become a real human being who is in union with nature.


    1. Very true Frans. We can all start today with our personal meditation practice. And for me, sharing Reiki and meditation with animals is a very direct way forward to this goal of peaceful coexistence. Thanks for your comment!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
*Refunds given before the assigned course in emergency situations on a case by case basis. Otherwise, students are given credit to take the class within a year of their original sign up.
Malcare WordPress Security