When taking a microscope to zoos, aquariums, and marine theme parks like SeaWorld, such examinations inherently come with controversy. While some people enjoy a day at the zoo, others are skeptical, wondering if these institutions are ethical and eco-friendly—or simply tourist attractions.
On one hand, many zoos and aquariums offer animal rehabilitation, protect endangered animals, and offer education on wildlife and the environment. However, many will argue that captivity is inherently inhumane—that animals and marine life deserve to be free and not in cages or exhibits. So, there's a line drawn in the sand.
But zoos, aquariums, and similar institutions have a larger impact, too. To understand the environmental impact of zoos, aquariums, marine theme parks, and places alike, we consulted documentary filmmaker Erik E. Crown, whose work focuses on environmentalism and animal rights.
"Zoos and aquariums worldwide are accelerating the climate crisis by removing keystone species and important animals from performing their natural function, keeping forests regenerating,” Crown says. "With a record number of forest loss to the industry and disappearing reefs, we're able to see firsthand what happens when the balance of nature is disrupted. Every animal has a specific function in how they help keep nature regenerating.”
Keep reading to find out more about the environmental impact of zoos and aquariums—plus how these institutions can become more sustainable.
What Is the Environmental Impact of Zoos?
The answer to the question "are zoos good or bad?" isn't a simple one. While captivity and rescue may benefit a few individual species, and while wildlife education helps us understand animal behavior, zoos seem to have more negative impacts than positive ones—specifically in reference to the environment.
Even though a zoo may be a small environment of its own, it still impacts the whole environment on a larger scope. After all, environmental impacts don’t stop at a fence or plexiglass.
“Zoos and aquariums impact the natural world around them," Crown says. "Even though people consider them often conservation-oriented places, in reality, they are causing damage to the world that loses the animals from where they were meant to be."
Many zoo-goers also point to the conservation efforts most zoos make, such as rehabilitating injured or sick animals. But these efforts may not always be as positive as we think.
"Zoos are determined to breed endangered animals, but only to bolster the populations in the zoos and keep the exhibits filled," Crown says. "Species Survival Plan (SSP) is not intended to place any animals back into the wild."
The Species Survival Plan (SSP) was instituted back in 1981. With the goal of population management and conservation for select wildlife species, the program pertains only to captivity and seeks to ensure that certain endangered species don’t go extinct, stay genetically diverse, and overall, remain stable.
However, Crown is right. The SSP seeks to achieve many important goals, but returning animals to their natural habitats in the wild doesn't happen very often. Even if animals are released, going from a zoo environment to their natural habitat isn't easy.
A team of researchers from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom found the odds of animals—such as tigers and wolves—surviving freedom are just 33%. Animal sanctuaries, on the other hand, replicate the animal's natural environment and don't provide as much human interaction, making it easier for animals to adapt to their natural environment.
From an environmental standpoint, zoos being better at wildlife placement would have a great impact on the environment. Especially because animals don’t just affect other animals: They affect all aspects of the environment, including plant life and the release of carbon.
"While European zoos are currently considering culling multiple endangered silverback gorillas, they're listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List in the wild,” Crown adds. “Gorillas are keystone species, and their work as seed dispersal agents keep forests alive and abundant. As we lose them in the wild, we also see the number of trees dwindle. The tree is still the most powerful carbon sequestration agent out there, so to keep a gorilla in the wild today is to save a tree to help stabilize our climate in the future."
Many zoos may also hide behind promises of reducing carbon output without really achieving the goal or focusing on other sustainability goals that could move the needle.
"While some zoos and aquariums are making efforts to get a baseline on their carbon output, even fewer are looking for ways to reduce their carbon emissions," Crown says. "The Philadelphia Zoo is using solar-powered golf carts while other facilities are looking to reduce their water consumption, but they can’t become net zero by making operational changes. They have to buy carbon credits."
What Is the Environmental Impact of Aquariums?
Similarly, most aquariums have a large carbon footprint. And like zoos, they're not the most eco-friendly institution.
First thing’s first: aquariums require a lot of water, whether that’s freshwater or saltwater. For reference, the largest freshwater aquarium in the world is the Amazon Flooded Forest Aquarium in Singapore, which exhibits a total of 440,000 gallons of water.
Water is a valuable resource, and with so much of it going toward one aquarium, the environmental impact on waterways isn’t great.
"For aquariums, they still take from the oceans to fill their tanks," Crown says. He explains that this often leads to the killing of dolphins and the captivity of orcas, white Belugas, and other colorful fish. Most of this marine life is acquired by aquarium divers.
"The [diving] process disturbs the balance of nature when collecting and removing these species from their native environment," Crown says.
Despite the emphasis aquariums may put on conservation and education, aquariums actually put natural reefs at risk. How? Some areas don’t have fishing regulations, which attracts people looking to catch exotic fish. Hawaii is one such place. Without strict regulations to keep fishing practices in check, these areas are more likely to suffer from overfishing or destructive, non-sustainable fishing methods.
Marine life is often caught unsustainably. According to National Geographic, up to 90% of the tropical, saltwater fish caught each year for U.S. aquariums are caught illegally with cyanide, a toxic chemical compound. Not only does this cause massive destruction and trauma to coral reefs, but the chances of species endangerment also increases dramatically.
Take the Banggai Cardinalfish, a reef fish indigenous to the Banggai Archipelago in Indonesia. The Banggai Cardinalfish was listed as a threatened species in 2016 as a direct result of overfishing, showing what can happen when aquarium fish aren't regulated.
"On land or in the water, once these animals become ornaments, they no longer can do their work in nature as intended. And as we see today, our climate is paying the price," Crown explains.
What Is the Environmental Impact of SeaWorld?
We’d be remiss to not mention how SeaWorld’s reputation was undeniably dressed down by Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that examined the many human injuries and deaths at aquatic theme parks throughout the years. But most of Blackfish’s denouncing of SeaWorld had to do with the overall treatment of the orcas while in captivity. The documentary hardly assesses the amusement park’s environmental impact.
However, whenever institutions remove animals from their natural habitat, there is always an environmental impact. This includes, but is not limited to, the decrease of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, an increase in climate change contributors, and an increase in pollution. All of which have an overall negative impact on the planet and the life that lives upon it.
"Most zoo and aquarium mission statements focus on conservation, but their actions don’t seem to reflect that," Crown says.
And SeaWorld is no exception. In fact, SeaWorld San Diego has repeatedly been cited for numerous violations under the Clean Water Act of 1972. It has paid thousands of dollars in fines for violations that include ammonia, enterococcus, and total coliform runoff from SeaWorld San Diego’s sewage spilling into Mission Bay in San Diego.
Talk about irony—by polluting the very waterways SeaWorld supposedly rescues animals from, the company undermines everything it claims to stand for.
"As we remove animals from nature and place them into [the] sterile concrete environment, we're not only affecting the animals with zoochosis—where they lose their minds from boredom, causing them stress (as you can see when elephants rock from side to side)," Crown says. "But by removing their very important work in nature, the cycle is broken and we lose biodiversity in ways we are still scientifically understanding."
How Can Zoos and Aquariums Become More Sustainable?
Zoos, aquariums, and places like SeaWorld are in the hot seat. Hopefully, this newfound awareness results in more eco-friendly changes within the industry. Zoos, aquariums, and other similar institutions could become more sustainable by prioritizing carbon neutral certifications, renewable energy, more sustainable waste collection, and reducing pollution.
Single-use plastics are also a major problem at these institutions. Despite how harmful these plastics are to the environment—and how many institutions actively preach against them—single-use plastics are still sold at many zoos and aquariums.
"Aside from the clearing of the land and the removal of species from their natural areas and duties in biodiversity, the amount of plastics sold at these facilities are adding a new element of environmental destruction," Crown says. "These plastics fill our waterways and land with toxic microplastics that enter the food chain, and recently were found in every sample taken of humans."
All in all, there's a lot of work to be done in order to improve the sustainability of these institutions. But for now—until active steps are taken to make that a reality—it’s important for conscious consumers to understand the impact such places have.
The next time you're planning a trip to a zoo, aquarium, or similar attraction, be sure to do some research to fully understand the impact the institution has on the environment. Also, consider supporting an alternative instead, like legitimate animal rescues and sanctuaries that protect animals and the planet.