This question was prompted by a prior question where the OP happened to mention that they found zoos depressing but didn't want to tell their kids. I felt the same way as well, yet like other parents, I took my kids to the zoo.

My concerns centered around how bad zoo conditions were for those living there, and the ethical questions surrounding keeping animals in captivity for amusement (studies show that families use zoos to teach their children about social mores, that is, values centered around human needs - like the importance of family-centered activities and social bonding - not for the education of kids about animals.) There was disrespectful behavior towards animals by other zoo-goers. Often the hygiene was terrible. Animals were on display who had obvious signs of abuse (bite marks, lacerations, etc.) from aggressive cage-or-aquarium-mates.

There are some who postulate that taking kids to zoos decreases a child's empathy towards animals (whereas pets have a positive effect on childhood empathy), and the few studies claiming that zoos have a positive effect on attitudes towards animals are largely financed by zoos themselves.

This isn't meant to sound like an anti-zoo rant (I'm sorry that it does.) As I mentioned already, we took our kids to zoos a lot until perhaps 9 years of age, and they are certainly an ingrained and treasured part of childhood in many cultures.

I just wondered if there are any good ways parents know of to teach our children empathy for animals and lasting concern for their welfare - the purported reason for the existence of zoos - instead of just being quietly depressed?

There were obvious signs of stress and boredom in the animals, but I didn't exactly point that out to my kids. The education my kids got at the zoos was only superficially about animals; I didn't think it right to educate the kids on abuses of animals in captivity, the trichotilomania and head banging in apes, the treatment of animals with Prozac and behavioral therapy, or the decreased lifespan of animals in captivity.

Compromised Survivorship in Zoo Elephants
The Anticipated Utility of Zoos for Developing Moral Concern in Children

  • Oh, that sounds difficult. I have been lucky to be close to by pretty great zoos with large habitats all my life, but I suppose "go to a better one" wasn't an option in this case... – YviDe Dec 23 '15 at 7:48
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    Around my town, the zoo are more of a rehabilitation center or a place they keep old/injured animals. Also, animals usually don't do much during the day as they have instinct to conserve energy. If you have that type of zoo, go there instead and have the people that work there talk about how they take care of the animals. If it's really a bad place, don't give them your money! You could also look at local farms, some offer tours. – the_lotus Dec 23 '15 at 15:53
  • How old are the kids? – A E Dec 24 '15 at 13:55
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    Zoos vary considerably in quality. If the zoos near you have animals showing clear signs of poor treatment, don't take your kids there. Find more conservation/education oriented zoos, even if they're less convenient. – user420 Dec 27 '15 at 18:17
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    I think this is a great question, and I'd still like to see it answered. – Rose Hartman Mar 6 '17 at 2:25

Disclaimer: I'm not a parent, so I do not have personal experience with this, except for having visited zoos as a child, too.

This is based on the premise that you still want your children to enjoy the trip and not feel depressed and also children who are a bit older, but not yet teens.

1) Provide context for the children

Before you visit the zoo, you and your children can get informed about some of the animals you will see there. E. g. "group" the animals according to their natural habitat and then what it looks like. The more often you have visited zoos together, the more you could then focus on information about specific animals.

The children then see the contrast between the cages and aquariums and the animals' natural habitats. Once they learn more about the specific animals, they will be more familiar to them and they may see them differently.

As an illustration, imagine you didn't know cats or dogs - what kind of an impression would one of them make on you and how would it differ from how you see them now? Or take a more spectacular animal, perhaps with interesting social behavior, like a gorilla or an elephant - the latter: difference between a large, greyish animal with a long trunk, tusks and large ears and a herd of elephants roaming Africa with their calves, eating leaves, bathing etc.

2) Focus on the overall situation

If your children feel empathy for them, they may very well ask why they are kept in captivity in zoos. Since the trip to the zoo should not be too depressing, you could instead point to the large-scale problems (loss of habitat, decline in numbers etc.) and that zoos can help preserve animal species (breeding programs, educating people etc.).

This way, children then learn about the bigger picture and also don't (need to) feel bad about visiting a zoo.

3) When you see misbehavior, teach your children not to emulate it

There was disrespectful behavior towards animals by other zoo-goers.

Just like you would in any other situation when you see people act in a way you disaprove of, tell your child it's not okay. Maybe don't make a fuss over it, but point that out, and model the behavior towards animals you want your children to also show.

4) Don't visit problematic zoos

Maybe not directly related to parenting, but to the feelings you express in your question. If you notice the problems you describe, like very poor hygiene or abuse, don't visit that zoo anymore. Maybe also tell others. You'll feel better and you don't reward bad zoos but better zoos instead. You can very well be a bit choosy.

In general, I think it's easier to teach them empathy for zoo animals, the more contact to animals they themselves have, e. g. pets. They provide good examples. If not, you could still point out that animals have also feelings, needs and can suffer, to help your children understand.

The main point is to have your children know something about the animals, so a visit to the zoo "merely" shows those animals alive, unlike a trip to an amusement park or the like with their animatronics etc.

  • Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed answer. :) +1 – anongoodnurse Jul 27 at 18:57

This could be a partial answer, but it could help at the zoo and the children's whole life. "what they wouldn't like somebody do to them, they shouldn't do others" in the same vein on the positive side. I hope this answers your question a little.

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