Zoos are always in the news, and it’s usually for cute reasons, like the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s newborn baby wolves, lemurs and warthogs.

But there’s been more attention lately to the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. The topic surged to the headlines in May, when the Cincinnati Zoo killed a gorilla to save the life of a toddler who’d fallen in its enclosure. It drove the National Aquarium’s recent decision to retire its eight dolphins to a seaside sanctuary. And it prompted Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta to announce late last month that the city would close its zoo and convert it into an ecological park. “Captivity is degrading,” Larreta said, adding that he believes the zoo “generates more sadness than happiness.”

These developments, as well as changing public attitudes about animal welfare, have raised intriguing questions about the future of zoos — how long they’ll last, how they’ll look in years to come, and what species they’ll house. To help consider these questions, Animalia asked people who are authorities on zoos from different fields — including zoo design, management, history — to write short opinion pieces on the topic. We’ll publish one a day for the next five days.

Our first submission comes from Ron L. Kagan, the longtime executive director and chief executive officer of the Detroit Zoo. Kagan has advocated for a “patient-centered” approach that focuses on animals’ quality of life, and under his leadership in 2004, the zoo closed its elephant exhibit because it said the animals needed more space and a warmer climate.

Here’s what Kagan had to say:

The rapidity at which society, at least in the U.S., is changing its views on the ethics of exotic animals in captivity may be outpacing the slower evolution of the zoological profession’s moral compass. Zoos will surely look and act radically different in 20 years, never mind 50.
“Immersion” exhibits will legitimately become natural spaces that are enormously larger and more complex than they are today. They’ll be situated in climates that are appropriate for the species, and the exhibits will provide animals with dramatically more opportunities, control and choices for natural activities and social interactions. The animals’ needs and desires will be central, more than the visitors’ — just as it is in the wild. And zoos will look and act like what we might now assume a real “sanctuary” might be like.
The animals, both individuals and species, that live in future zoos will only be ones that truly thrive and/or that are “rescued” from a worse fate. Fully meeting the needs of species like whales, dolphins, and elephants is almost certainly going to be impossible in captivity, even in the dramatically re-engineered zoo or aquarium of the future. Common sense tells us — long before science proves it — that it’s just not logistically or financially feasible to do it without serious compromises for the animals. That will not be acceptable in the future. Our amusement and selfish, albeit often well-meaning, desire to be close to other species isn’t enough to justify their life-long frustration. Of course that’s also true today.
Rescues will clearly be far more common than they are now, displacing some space for dedicated breeding programs: a trade-off of sorts.
A somewhat dramatic shift with respect to zoo and aquarium conservation work is already in play (somewhat belatedly for some). Greater investment in conservation is now being made, as well as more active and supported field work. This too will grow dramatically  And educational efforts will really focus on affecting public attitudes and values about nature and our relationship to others. We should and will become the key influencers in helping people be better eco-citizens.
If the zoological profession embraces the need for change, it will reshape public expectations. It will also align with much of the public’s current and growing concern for ethical treatment. I think the future can be a good one for visitors and for zoos. Given that life in the wild for many species and individuals is getting worse, that’s a good thing.

Read more: