Aside from pets, the majority of people interact with animals in two ways: eating meat and visiting zoos. These two topics therefore receive their fair share of attention when discussing animal ethics. People question whether eating meat fits into the natural food chain or perpetuates a system of animal cruelty, whether zoos provide animals with caring homes or lock them in captivity for people’s enjoyment. People speculate whether hens and cows hold an exclusive right to their own eggs and milks or whether zoos promote animal education or the objectification of animals. However, the intersection of the two topics, the fact that zoos today actively promote animal protection and environmental conservation while still primarily serving meat, eggs, and dairy, elicits little, if any, attention.
Zoos today claim to care deeply about animals and the environment. The Philadelphia Zoo, for example, currently promotes the UNLESS project. In its new exhibit, the Zoo informs visitors that rain forest animals such as orangutans and tigers face rapid population decline to due excessive palm oil consumption. The UNLESS project promises that “advocates can help protect the forests where gorillas and other wildlife live. Together we can save them.” Other prominent zoos promote similar messages about wildlife and conservation. The Bronx Zoo website’s headline states “Bronx Zoo: Saving Wildlife and Wild Places” and includes a link to wcs.org, a non-profit that studies wildlife and enhances conservation on every continent. Likewise, the San Diego Zoo, arguably the most well-known zoo in America, links on its website endextinction.org, the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy, which asks people to “be a hero” and symbolically adopt an animal.
Zoos increasingly define themselves by these concerns. Except, that is, in the food court. The zoos implore visitors to consume consciously, yet at the one area visitors are nearly guaranteed to spend their money, their options remain far from conscious. The Philadelphia Zoo includes five courts that offer “traditional favorites like burgers, hot dogs, chicken fingers, fries, and freshly baked pizzas” along with the “All-Natural Pulled Pork Sandwich and the Bacon Cheddar Burger.” The description of each café includes the disclaimer, “We use responsibly raised meats at this location, which are raised without antibiotics and fed a vegetarian diet.” However, this states nothing about the treatment of the animals during their lives and the time of their slaughter and does nothing to help vegetarians and vegans find food. The Bronx zoo includes a note about “vegetarian options,” implying non-vegetarian food as the default, while the San Diego’s café, “Features a variety of unique dishes: seafood specialties, beef and chicken entrees, healthful pastas, pizzas, exotic salads, sandwiches, and a children’s menu.” At smaller zoos, such as the Maryland Zoo, their food/refreshment page includes three total vegan options: french fries, kettle chips, and a fruit cup, plus beer as a beverage. This starkly contrasts all the work zoos put into asking visitors to support their animal protection and environmental conservation cause.
Zoos hold a long, complex, and evolving history in terms of their relationship to animals. Zoos began as menageries in Europe: rooms brimming with captured and caged wild animals meant to exhibit aristocratic wealth and provide entertainment to visitors. The animals represented trophies or gifts that men conquered from far-off lands to assert dominance over both animals and foreign nations. For example, some of the most well-known menageries, constructed by King Louis XIV, include one with small decorative animals and one that forced animals to fight to death for entertainment. Neither owners nor visitors concerned themselves with the animals’ welfare. Unlike aristocratic menageries, traveling menageries and circuses simply meant to garner profit and amuse the public. Serving meat would fit directly into the paradigm of these institutions: humans dominate over animals both by capturing and caging them and by domesticating and eating them.
After urbanization contributed to an increased interest in natural history, the Zoological Society of London emerged in 1826 and scientific zoos began appearing in Europe. Once the environmental moment emerged in the 1970s, zoos began focusing on conservation with the American Zoo Association even citing conservation as its number one priority. In line with this reasoning, zoos stopped having animals perform tricks and began to create more realistic enclosures for their animals. However, at same time, intensive animal agriculture, also known as factory farming, began rapidly expanding. Therefore, just as zoos shifted their focus to the protection of animals, they began to purchase and re-sell meat that emerged from a system of mass animal abuse like never seen before in America. Many zoos include a farm area where visitors could watch grazing cows and fat pigs cooling in the shade. Yet not fifteen minutes later, after brushing a calf in the petting zoo, visitors could find themselves eating a different cow on their paper plate. Notably, calling zoos hypocritical for serving meat doesn’t necessarily mean that they accomplish and promote animal welfare and environmental protection in every other regard. Rather, it displays hypocrisy between their prominent message of the last few decades and what their money, and the money of their consumers by extension, supports.
That zoos put so much work into partnering with and promoting wildlife conservation only to offer plenty of meat in their cafes, honestly, makes no sense. However, this likely won’t last forever. Zoos underwent many changes since their conception as menageries and the conservation and animal protection focus remains rather new. Through the years, they made the environments in cages larger, more stimulating, and more similar to the animals’ natural environment. They removed bars from cages to minimize the idea that zoos represented conquests. Some zoos, such as the Philadelphia Zoo, recently installed tunnels for the animals to take breaks from their pack. Maybe next, zoos will lower their meat, egg, and dairy supply and began stocking more plant-based options.
I recommend that zoos switch their priorities with their food options. Make meat the backup option, not the primary one. Buy meat not only raised antibiotic free but also raised on family farms. Begin replacing meat with the plant-based substitutes and switching baked goods to their vegan counterparts. Consistently offer vegan substitutes, such Daiya Cheese and Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, for those who want it. Include signs and info-graphics educating the public about meat just as they do about palm oil so that customers make informed decisions about their food, especially after spending their afternoon enjoying the company of the animals. Making greater strides toward this ensures that both zoos and customers put their money where their mouth is — literally.