The Zoo Hypothesis: Are Aliens Watching Us from a Distance?

What if aliens are all around us, but we just don’t see them? What if they’re hidden, passively watching until the day we enter the galactic community, perhaps after we hit some kind of technological benchmark?

This idea is called the zoo hypothesis, first proposed by John A. Ball in 1973. It suggests that extraterrestrial intelligence, if it does exist, may be taking a hands-off approach to humanity, at least for the time being. That’s why we lack any evidence of their existence.

It’s essentially the Prime Directive from Star Trek.

Don’t Feed the Humans

A more literal interpretation of the zoo hypothesis is that we’re just an exhibit in a cosmic zoo, maybe even a science project to be studied (via UFOs, of course). But if that were the case, wouldn’t we see aliens as they pass by on the tour? Why aren’t they throwing us bits of food to see how we’d react?

The answer is another version of the Prime Directive: if they revealed their existence, they’d no longer be able to see us in our natural habitat, acting as we normally would. The illusion would be broken, the zoo would be ruined, and who knows what aliens do with defunct exhibits.

On the other hand, perhaps the aliens just don’t see the point. As Ball says in his paper “Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Where Is Everybody?”:

“The idea that we shall be welcomed as new members into the galactic community is as unlikely as the idea that oysters will be welcomed as new members into the human community. We’re probably not even edible.”

Returning to the zoo analogy, we may not even be on the same level as gorillas or bears or other “aware” animals. To the aliens, we might be seen as nothing more than an ant farm. This, as Ball states, isn’t the zoo hypothesis but rather something called the ants-in-the-jungle hypothesis:

“The so-called ants-in-the-jungle hypothesis would have us unaware of ETI [Extraterrestrial Intelligence] for the same reason that ants in a jungle may be unaware of people – no person has ever just happened by. People are beyond their sensory horizon…ETI may be beyond our intellectual horizon; some of the phenomena that we already see may be associated with ETI, but we don’t understand.”

Well, that’s a happy thought, isn’t it? Fish in a fishbowl, looking outside of our own little bubble but not even comprehending what we’re seeing.

But it’s just a hypothesis, one of many possible explanations for the Fermi paradox. What do you think? Are intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms out there? And if so, why are they so elusive?


Rob Schwarz

Rob Schwarz is a writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.


  1. I think for any alien race the prime concern will be how we would react if they did make first contact. I mean think about how it would really go down if aliens landed today.

    As cool as we might think it will be – it won’t be. People will freak out. Just from a religious point of view – everything will fall into complete anarchy. The idea that we aren’t alone in the universe on it’s own was controversial, never mind aliens actually arriving and interacting with us.

    An actual first contact will result in religious wars breaking out and chaos that will fling our planet into complete upheaval. Everything from people protesting against/for aliens to people wanting the aliens to take them away from Earth to people wanting to kill them. It would upset literally everything from governments to the common man on the street. Imagine billions of people all going nuts at the same time. It would take decades, if not hundreds of years just for humans to settle down and deal with the fact that we’re not alone.

    That’s not even to mention the concepts of alien religions that might exist – they most likely contradict each and every single thing we’ve come to believe as a species.

    Of course we’ll try get at the alien technology too so we can better kill each other and eventually travel to the alien home world so we can go kill them and everyone else we meet along the way.

    We’re a fundamentally flawed, violent and arrogant species. If we know this – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist of an alien to figure it out too. We’re simply too dangerous. Quite frankly – not worth the effort.

    1. And here I thought we were Mostly Harmless. ;)

      You mention alien religions. One of the things that always bothers me about aliens in popular media is that they’re more often than not represented as a monolith. Every alien from any given planet is identical, with no individuality whatsoever, as far as politics, race, religion, etc.

      Of course, it’s not like we’d be able to tell the difference, because just trying to imagine the life and culture on an alien world is almost impossible (especially if they evolved differently). That’s what makes them “alien,” I guess.

      Maybe somewhere along their technological and cultural evolution they transcend those differences, but I don’t know.

      Personally, I don’t think we’ve been visited by aliens or anything like that, if only because of the insane logistics of even getting here, and when they’d arrive. I have this image in my mind of aliens arriving thousands of years (or more!) after humans have destroyed themselves. Or maybe they popped over during the Cretaceous period, saw some dinosaurs, said “Well that’s neat,” and left.

      But yeah, the reaction down here on Earth would be something to behold.

      1. I don’t think aliens that lived in the period would have survived/retained knowledge until now anyway

    2. I think this is an interesting comment that follows the thoughts you presented. I always wanted to see a UFO. On a vacation late at night in the mountains I was convinced I was experiencing the sight of a UFO to the extent I was ready to wake up others at the small lodge. My feelings were the exact opposite of what I expected. I felt a total loss of self destiny, a fear of the unknown something akin to one must feel during an earthquake. Thankfully upon close inspection with binoculars I noticed less bright objects were behaving in a similar manner. My feet felt firm on the ground once again

  2. “Two possibilities exist:

    Either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not.
    Both are equally terrifying.”
    -Arthur C. Clarke

    1. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
      – Arthur C. Clarke

  3. I think there is a slow drip feed of indoctrination, the gates of the zoo are slowly opening. I don’t think that they will open in my lifetime but one day the truth will come out.

  4. We Haven’t Found Aliens Because We’ve Hardly Started Looking