What Goes on Behind Closed Cages?

Is The Smithsonian National Zoo guilty of animal cruelty?

Cameron Kwong-Murphy and Landen Smith

Jackson Waitley, Win TV Reporter

Do you believe animals within zoos are being properly treated?

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There are over 2,000 zoos in the U.S, one of those is The Smithsonian National Zoological Park located in the nation’s capital. The Smithsonian was established in 1889 with the goal to “preserve, teach, and conduct research about the animal world”. However, many wonder if the practices of The Smithsonian really act to “preserve” animal health. Therefore, visitors and animal activist groups both raise the question, what really goes on behind closed doors? Are these animals truly loved and cared for?


Bryan Amaral, a senior curator at the zoo, discussed the effectiveness of the care that they apply to the animals residing at the Smithsonian. One key factor they utilize to increase the effectiveness is the specific animals’ natural history and tendencies. This means the animals feel as if they are in their original habitat, especially when they use enrichment. Bryan described the enrichment process as applying certain things to the animal’s environment in order to, “get them to illicit natural behaviors that you would see if you went to their range countries where they lived.” When asked about the importance of the animals’ well being he said the best way to create an educational and entertaining experience for visitors is to make sure the animals are properly supported and loved. “The basis for what we do is based on the fact that the animals are doing well and are cared for properly.”


In contrast to Bryan’s professional opinion about the animals’ welfare, common zoo-goers may have different beliefs. Caroline Ewing, a tourist visiting the Smithsonian Zoo, was asked about her stance on if animals are better off without the presence of a confined space. Despite her conflictin  g emotions, she still felt that most animals would be better off in their respective native environment, free of human intervention. “There really is nothing like seeing an animal in their natural habitat. It’s absolutely breathtaking.” She later went on to express the sadness she felt in seeing the difference between an animal living in their indigenous domain and an animal living in what she described as “cages”.


To combat many of Caroline’s reservations, Ashley Thompson, an educator at the Smithsonian, explains the importance of displaying healthy animals to visitors.”You would not want to come to a zoo where the animals are not properly cared for. We think it’s important for the animals’ sake but also for the visitors.” Another important factor that would persuade the Smithsonian caretakers to properly care for the animals would be the AZA. The AZA, or The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, forces its members to promote animal welfare and conservation efforts, The Smithsonian National Zoological Park is a member of that organization. When discussing what it meant to be accredited by the AZA Ashely said, “we have really strict guidelines on what we do to take care of the animals and it means that we have to go through a process to prove we are taking care of the animals.” So if the Smithsonian fails to provide proper care and support for their animals, the AZA would certainly punish them.

While members of the public may never really know what goes on once the gates get locked, officials at the Smithsonian will continuously be confident in how they preserve the animal life. Staying with beliefs that have been there since the beginning.