Captive Breeding Programs: The Pros and Cons to Building an “Arc”

Captive Breeding Programs: The Pros and Cons to Building an “Arc”

Blog written by Emily Temple

Captive Breeding programs are departments within zoos, rescues, sanctuaries and so on in which animals are kept in enclosures and are bred to produce future generations of their species. There is great debate over whether these types of programs should be continued. This article aims to provide a basic approach to both the pros and cons to captive breeding programs both in the aspect of animal behavior and in animal conservation.

So let’s start with the positive aspects to these captive breeding programs. Zoos are some of the biggest funders of animal conservation projects and research, and where does that money come from. Most comes from the general public who pay to visit these zoos each year, multiple times a year, and those who feel compelled to donate. Some of the special draw that brings these people coming to the zoos is the possibility of seeing new cuddling, exotic, and special baby animals. For example the recent birth of a clouded leopard at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is or will be a great draw for people to come and pay to get into the zoo to see the cute little cub. Now captive breeding programs are not only there to bring in a crowd, their main point is to help conserve animals that are endangered or threatened in the wild so that a species doesn’t become extinct. Extinction rates are going up and it is predicted that 20-50% of the world’s species will become extinct in the next couple decades [1]. So zoos can act as somewhat of an “arc” by holding the world’s species in captivity and saving their genetic material from total elimination. Some of these captive breeding programs also have goals for the reintroduction of these animals back into a natural or wild environment. These reintroductions can help in conservation efforts by keeping population numbers up and decreasing inbreeding and genetic drift.

Now, on the flip side, there are some cons to these captive breeding programs. A big problem that arises with captive breeding programs is the sheer numbers of animals in captivity. Most facilities don’t have the resources or the space to support a larger breeding program. Also captive breeding programs have a high cost to support and properly care for each animal so they consist of few animals that can’t sustain a proper breeding population [2]. Another major con to captive breeding programs comes in on the animal behavior side. Even though care takers try their very best to make captive enclosures as natural and stimulating as possible, they fall short of a wild/natural environment. So with this change in environment comes a change in these animals behavior. Some major changes in behavior are a decrease in predator avoidance, decrease in foraging abilities, increase in sleeping patterns, decrease in overall activity, and some problems in social behaviors. Some captive species even have problems in reproduction such as the endangered rhino populations, and that calls in to question the effectiveness of their captive breeding program. These changes in behavior are a major factor in whether these animals can be reintroduced into the wild and if it would benefit their population.

So overall, the question still exists. Are these captive breeding programs a good a bad thing? Isn’t it important to have some individuals of a species still existing somewhere rather than go extinct completely? Or is it better to try and just support the wild populations as they are and use other conservation techniques to keep the endangered species going even though that risks complete extinction. The debate is still up in the air and maybe should be evaluated on a species to species basis.



Rahbek, Carsten. “Captive Breeding-a Useful Tool in the Preservation of Biodiversity?” – Springer. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1 Aug. 1993. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. <>.

Snyder, N. F.R., Derrickson, S. R., Beissinger, S. R., Wiley, J. W., Smith, T. B., Toone, W. D. and Miller, B. (1996), Limitations of Captive Breeding in Endangered Species Recovery. Conservation Biology, 10: 338–348. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1996.10020338.x

15 thoughts on “Captive Breeding Programs: The Pros and Cons to Building an “Arc”

  1. amajor

    I’m a big supporter of captive breeding programs myself, but even I have to admit that captive breeding can only do so much for endangered species. I’m glad that you’ve pointed this out and still point out that captive breeding still does a good job. I personally say that zoos can be the ark for some important “keystone species” (species that are a vital part of the whole ecosystem, a sort of “spark” species that brings the ecosystem to life), but you still need to preserve wilderness areas for that not only could you can have a home for the future reintroduced individuals and populations, but also for the species that you couldn’t be able to breed in captivity, whether it was for behavioral problems, political reasons, a lack of scientists interested in breeding them, or that there’s no room in captive situations to breed them all. So, I would say that captive breeding is part of the solution, but it’s not the absolute gold bullet.

    Anyway, you did a grand job on this article, although it might be a bit better if you added a couple more articles as a reference, but that’s just me. All in all, good on ya.

  2. Amy D'Arcey

    Another situation where captive breeding is a really good thing is when you have an endangered species that doesn’t have a strong wild population but has an okay captive population. Or even a low captive population. In this case you would need a captive population to help repopulate the species but the last thing you want to do is take animals from the wild population to breed. So having that breeding captive population could be what saves the species or at least retains some genetic diversity. Or keeps the species on the planet at all, even if just as a reminder of all we squandered away.

  3. Lacey Humphreys

    I think that in some cases captive breeding programs can be very detrimental to a species survival. Like you pointed out in the case of the rhino, their reproductive rates are much lower in captivity than they are in the wild. However, for species that are extinct in the wild, captive breeding programs are the only way to sustain the species survival. I think it is a bit of a catch 22. Education to the public as to why these species are so highly endangered might be the key to ensure that their habitats are not degraded further.

  4. Lisa Angeloni

    Captive breeding programs have a lot of work to do in order to keep up with the current conservation crisis, and this posting does a good job of pointing out some of the pros and cons of these programs. Along with the issue of limited numbers of animals, there are also potential problems with taxonomic coverage. For more info on that issue/debate, check out: “Conde et al. 2011. An emerging role of zoos to conserve biodiversity. Science 331:1390-1391”. This article was then critiqued by a reply letter: “Balmford et al. 2011. Zoos and Captive Breeding. Science 332: 1149-1150.”, with a rebuttal from the authors of the original article appearing in the same issue.

  5. leorah

    I think captive breeding programs are a really complex topic. I agree that I think keeping an arc of keystone species is a good thing, but I also think that if we don’t have a chance to fix the bigger issues, it makes no difference because we won’t have the habitat to put them back into.
    Also, to the best of my knowledge, captive breeding programs like the Species Survival Plans in zoos are not necessarily there with the goal of reintroduction. These animals may still serve a purpose of bringing people into the zoos which can in turn support other, feasible conservation efforts for less charismatic species, but they might be reintroduced themselves.

  6. emtemple Post author

    I really have enjoyed all the comments so far and all the ideas and topic that you all have included on captive breeding programs. I agree that this topic is very complex and there are many more points in which I could have or should have included. Not wanting to make a novel out of this blog post I did alot of cutting down with this article and hoped to just cover the basics and scratch the surface. Hopefully getting some evidence to support both sides of the argument and get the topic out to the public. With that said I wish I had added something about how captive breeding in zoos maybe be used to just support captive animal populations and not really for conservation effort because that could be a detrimental flaw to the captive breeding programs usefulness. With that said I’m glad you have enjoyed the points I was able to make.

  7. Gabe

    This is a really interesting topic for me. It is interesting you brought up the fact that zoos “use” baby animals to draw in the public. The interesting thing about most of those animals is that they will never get released, in part because the breeding population is made to sustain captive populations, not to supplement wild populations.

    With the “genetic” ark idea, I understand the premise, but like you hinted at, where will we put all the animals if the “floods” do subside. The only available space is currently being occupied by humans, and we are ever increasing in number. Unless we expect people to start giving up their lives for biodiversity, asking them to give up their land or livelihood is just as overwhelming, and no one will buy un.

  8. amajor

    Look up an exhibit called the Masoala Rainforest at Zurich Zoo, Switzerland. This is a Madagascar exhibit like no other. Opened in 2003, it not only holds lemurs, it’s an actual operating 11,000 m^2 ecosystem, consisting on hundreds of species of plants and animals native to the Masoala National Park in Madagascar. It’s literally like a little piece of Madagascar, so you can say that it’s an actual Ark. Look it up and you’ll see what I mean.

  9. mberne

    I see both sides to captive needing programs. If there is a population in the wild that is not surviving well and consistently declining then I think captive breeding is a great way. As long as the behavior is understood to make it successful. Without captive breeding, some species would have no chance to ‘bounce back’. Some species are not able to go back into the wild, and there are programs specifically for that. Hopefully these kinds of programs can educate the public more on the overall topic of habitat conservation/ endangered species/ captive breeding programs and issues some of these species may face in the wild.

  10. sberg

    I think that captive breeding has so much work to do. For example making that population to be able to be released back into the wild. Also I’m glad you brought up about how the zoos do use baby’s as to attract more people to get more money out of it. It’s good for the zoos and such but is it really that good for that animal? I’m not so sure… That animal will probably always live there and not be released into the wild.

  11. ematth

    Captive breeding is a tough subject — most people love visiting and supporting zoos, especially when they know their support will help endangered animals. However, I have also visited captive breeding sites that are overcrowded with animals, causing debilitating health issues that completely contradict the purpose of captive breeding programs. I think you did a really good job contrasting the pros and cons of captive breeding. It is a huge issue right now, and it is only going to increase as global climate change and anthropogenic expansion puts more species at risk for extinction.

  12. reneev

    I agree with what you said about the animals’ behavior changing when they are in human care, especially those that are born in zoos and aquariums. From personal experience I’ve seen the differences between wild-caught animals and captive-born animals, and even within 1 or 2 generations there’s a visible change in their behavior. If animals grow up with humans from the moment they are born, they are usually more docile and tolerant, and if we want to release the great great grandchildren of those animals in the future, we have to consider their behavior and how that will be different from the wild animals of today.

  13. ssteele1

    As you and Gabe pointed out, most captive breeding programs are to sustain captive population without the intent of reintroduction. To some small degree, this could be useful. And if the SSP (Species Survival Plans) are being followed correctly, genetic diversity can be maintained. But in my opinion, if your breeding for popularity and guests, its not contributing much to conservation at all. I think the money invested in captive breeding programs should go to research on those species to develop successful techniques for reintroduction programs. Then if the animals from the research aren’t eligible for release the zoo can still keep them for entertainment factor, but more knowledge is available for conservative captive breeding.

  14. Savimay

    I have always thought it was wrong to breed zoo animals. I feel like the exhibits in zoos are already too small and then they have offspring that must be separated from their parents/siblings etc to be put in a different zoo to start the process over. And the zoos then use the publicity of a baby animal to advertise visiting. This also just reinforces inbreeding among animals within the zoo that supposed to be part of this “genetic” ark. Not to mention the animals are probably being selected on by humans to be more domesticated and easy to handle in captivity even further reducing their chances of surviving in the wild ever again.

  15. amccoy15

    I do support captive breeding programs, but like anything that anybody does we have to figure out a flow to getting things done correctly. So further research into animal behavior is essential for each animal so that reproduction is possible in captivity but of course its different with each species of animal and we have to figure out what best serves them for threading program to be successful. i feel that as years pass breeding program will become better because of the inclusion on behavior and observations being done now.

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