Skip to main content

Buenos Aires Is Closing Its Zoo. Should American Cities Follow?

A look at the science on whether zoos teach kids about conservation.

By Francie Diep


Sandra at Buenos Aires’ zoo. (Photo Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images)

Buenos Aires, Argentina, plans to close its zoo, ship many of its 2,500 animals to nature reserves, and transform the zoo campus into an “ecopark” and rehabilitation center for animals rescued from illegal traffickers, the Guardian reports.

“This situation of captivity is degrading for the animals,” Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta said in a public ceremony this week. The zoo had previously faced criticism for not properly caring for its polar bears in the heat, and for keeping its orangutan, Sandra, in captivity. In 2014, an Argentine court ruled Sandra had rights as a “non-human person.”

The closure in Buenos Aires comes as the United States grapples with the ethics of zoos and aquariums in its own land. Earlier this month, zoo workers in Cincinnati fatally shot a western lowland gorilla after a little boy fell in the gorilla’s enclosure. As the news spread nationwide, many Americans protested and mourned what they saw as an unnecessary killing.

Pacific Standard talked with anthropologist and animal grief researcher Barbara King, who took the news as a “springboard to asking how we treat gorillas and how we should be treating them.”

Only 41 percent of children who went on guided tours learned anything conservation-related after a visit to the London Zoo.

“Should these very intelligent, sentient animals be in zoos?” King asked. “There are all these questions about not just thinking, ‘These apes are here for our entertainment,’ or ‘These apes are for breeding,’ but we must realize that they are thinking and they are feeling.”

Before the Cincinnati zoo case, the documentary Blackfish captured attention for criticizing SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas. Unfortunately, many of the animals that zoo and aquarium visitors most enjoy seeing — such as great apes, big sea mammals, elephants, and big cats — rank among the more intelligent species, which suggests that captivity would prove distressing on their more cognizant brains.

The Buenos Aires decision brings up the debate about whether all zoos and aquariums should close. One argument for keeping them open is that they teach kids to care for the environment. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums cites studies showing zoo and aquarium visitors “enhance the public’s understanding of wildlife and the need to conserve the places animals live.” But those studies are flawed because they ask zoo visitors whether they thought they learned anything, as Outside magazine pointed out last year.

A recent study of what visitors actually learned found only 41 percent of children who went on guided tours — and 34 percent of children who didn’t attend a tour — learned anything conservation-related after a visit to the London Zoo. Sixteen percent of children picked up false information. (A quick caveat about that Outside piece: It reports Costa Rica closed its zoos in 2013, which is not true, according to the Costa Rica-based Tico Times.)

Luckily for the U.S., Buenos Aires can now provide an example for what will happen if American zoos were to close.