According to recent research comparing the life expectancy of mammals in zoos with those in the wild, it looks like for most species, they live longer in captivity.
This may not seem surprising, since zoo animals don’t have to be concerned about predators, competition, or food scarcity. This means animals in zoos and sanctuaries can likely live as long, or longer, than they would in the wild. But it does illustrate some interesting things about captivity and successful animal husbandry.
There are arguments that keeping animals in zoos is unethical. While this study does not address that specifically, it does make it apparent that the wild is not a paradise for animals living in it. While zoos are attractions that need to bring in audiences to keep their gates open and their animals cared for, they do provide many opportunities to study those animals and, in some cases, to help rehabilitate them.
The other interesting thing about the study is that all of the animals whose lifespan was studied were, by necessity, already dead. This means that the animals in question were living in zoos that hadn’t yet adopted newer zoo management practices.
The last decade or so has seen changes in how longer-lived animals are cared for, and zoo management has generally become more ethical and humane over time. The movement toward not keeping elephants, for example, because they need far more room than a zoo can provide, means that elephants who may have appeared in this study didn’t benefit from those changes. It also means that animals living in zoos today are largely living better lives than those who appeared in the study.
Hopefully, this study will help us to better understand life expectancy of mammals in the wild as well, so that we might be able to find new directions for research into managing those populations. The last 40 years have been devastating for wild vertebrates, so finding ways to help them survive should be high on our list of priorities.