In defence of zoos

Public perception of zoos is at an all-time low; people are turning their backs on them at an unprecedented rate, and it has conservationists worried.


To an extent, public scepticism of the zoo environment is understandable. Earlier this year the South Lakes Safari Zoo controversy was another blow to the industry, unnerving us that such blatant animal abuse can occur in such a public setting. Individual zoos and exhibits will not always be perfect, and these are not the types of zoos that I want to defend. But I want to clarify that it’s important to make the distinction between a good zoo and a bad zoo.


The role of zoos in the conservation of biodiversity, particularly for ex-situ conservation (meaning outside of the animal’s natural habitat) has been a legal obligation in Europe since 2002 under the European Zoos Directive. Whether due to this directive or the palpable shifts in public interest in animal welfare, there has been a notable change in the role of zoos from a spectacle to a learning opportunity. The onus of the modern zoo is to achieve something beyond simply entertainment, but it is unquestionable that some have been much more proactive than others in achieving that goal.


What often escapes public knowledge is that a number of zoos in the UK are actually non-profit institutions. Of the 400 zoos in the UK, 40% operate under charity status including big names like Chester, Edinburgh, Whipsnade and London Zoo. A non-profit zoo is by no means automatically a good zoo, but it certainly challenges the narrative of the money-spinning owner. Profits primarily feed into research, conservation and public engagement and education, the three pillars of a successful conservation strategy.


Many visitors to zoos may not even be aware of the wealth of conservation and research projects that their ticket sales fund. Chester Zoo’s Sustainable Palm Oil Challenge aims to create a demand in the UK for sustainable palm oil, while they are also part of a reintroduction programme to bring pine martens back to England and Wales. ZSL London Zoo’s Net-Works programme enables fishing communities in developing countries to sell pollutant waste fishing nets to be recycled into carpet tiles. Marwell zoo is currently intervening with emergency action to save Grévy’s zebras from a drought in northern Kenya. These examples are just scratching the surface of the work taking place at each institution.


Weighing nets in the Philippines. (Photo:


Aside from the benefits to conservation, a discussion about zoos cannot be had without considering the welfare of the animals in them. The living requirements of captivity are a contentious science – it is very difficult to assess the happiness of an animal that cannot tell you how it feels. Some behaviourists would argue that one that is willing to breed in a captive environment must feel comfortable and secure to do so. Others would say that the fact that almost all animals in captivity enjoy longer lifespans is indicative of a good life. But, simply put, without the stresses and trials of nature are these animals bored?


The zoo’s answer to this perceived boredom is something called enrichment, which can take many forms specific to the animal it is provided to. From giant burritos for elephants, perfume-laden rags for lions, scent trails for bears and wolves and much more, the purpose is to allow the animals to exercise natural behaviours that are absent in captive life.


Another big issue that many people have, even with good zoos, is that most captive animals have their natural ranging space slashed dramatically. Polar bears, elephants and big cats can travel thousands of miles in their lifetimes, and yet are expected to thrive in mere acres in most zoo environments. There is certainly an argument to be had here. But in many cases, these animals have large range states because they need to wander in order to survive; to avoid harsh weather conditions, to mate, to find food, to escape predation, and so on. All of these things are controlled in the zoo environment, negating the need for animals to travel these long distances. In addition to removing the need to roam, these animals are not left to suffer from the harsh realities of a wild existence, including starvation, drought, parasites, disease and possibly a gruesome demise from a predator.


Many would understandably still argue that all these animals should be in the wild, able to exercise their natural behaviours and occupy their role in their respective ecosystems. But for the few who serve such an important purpose in zoos, is it really so bad to remove these stresses from their lives?


Colchester Zoo houses two critically endangered Amur Leopards, a species that only has an estimated 35 individuals left in the wild. (Photo: Charlie Debenham / TU)


Something else that I am challenged with quite often is the question of why animals not currently threatened in the wild are still kept in zoos. If the message is about conservation, why do people need to see animals that aren’t in any danger of disappearing? Firstly, even if these animals are categorised as being ‘common’ or ‘not threatened’ on a global scale they can still be threatened at the local scale or be under future potential threat from growing issues such as climate change. But the majority of the time these animals are needed in a zoo simply because people want to see them.


For example, meerkats are, in my experience, currently one of the most popular animals in British zoos. The zoo where I was employed had two meerkat exhibits at opposite ends of the zoo, just in case visitors needed a second round of meerkat madness. They are currently comfortably seated in the ‘Least Threatened’ risk category according to the IUCN Red List and have no major threats to their wild populations. But zoos are, at the end of the day, a business, and if the big-draw, charismatic species are what will get you through the door so you can learn about the animals that do need our help, then that is a valid reason to have them there. The need to provide these big name animals has not gone without challenges from the conservation community, to ensure that a significant amount of endangered species remain under zoo care.


All of this ultimately comes down to the same questions. Without zoos, what mechanism will take their place to achieve the same goals? Where will the lost conservation funding come from? Where will breeding programs be housed? Where will the public get their education on conservation? If there were simple answers to these questions then the role of zoos could be questioned. Unfortunately, we live in a world where 1 out of 6 species are threatened with extinction and, at least for now, zoos are necessary in the fight to combat that. How can we dismiss zoos as out of touch for modern sensibilities when we continue to cause irreversible destruction to these animals’ habitats?


A young boy observes two Bengali tigers. (Photo: Duncan Rawlinson / Flickr)


Critics including the Born Free Foundation argue that there is currently “no reliable mechanism” to assess the significance of zoos contributions to conservation. The issue here is that many benefits that zoos impart to the public cannot be quantitatively measured. By keeping animals in the public eye – living, breathing animals that aren’t viewed vicariously through a TV screen – interest in animal conservation and welfare is heightened. Visiting zoos is not necessary to breed a love for animals, but I can safely say that they had a strong role in my interest in conservation from an early age. So if you want to visit or bring your children to a zoo, please do so – but make sure that you’ve done your research first, so that you’re visiting the right ones. Its up to us to keep the zoo system in check, but if we can, then the benefits are considerable.

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2 Comments on “In defence of zoos

  1. You can’t learn anything from seeing a live animal trapped in a cage. You can see live animals in sanctuaries where they are actually practicing real conservation and trying to give the animals the best life possible. Zoos on the other hand, even the nonprofit are about making money and not at all about the welfare of the animals in their care.

    1. Hi Toni,

      I’d have to disagree with you there. “Sanctuary” is not an absolute definition when it comes to captive animal attractions, but it generally refers to either a protected area (that, while still valuable, are not a viable conservation solution for many species and can only be offered to species native to that area) or somewhere that offers a home to rescued animals - whether they were injured in the wild, taken from private owners or circuses, etc. If anything these latter places are less likely to engage in conservation activities as they are focused mainly on animal rescue (not that that takes away from the amazing work that they do!). There is also no evidence to suggest that these types of sanctuaries offer the animals under their care better lives than animals in zoos. Yorkshire Wildlife Park and Whipsnade both have the space to provide their animals with massive, lush enclosures, but both of these are zoos (YWP is also a for-profit!).

      As someone who has seen behind the scenes, I can promise you that I have never met a zookeeper in the UK who isn’t 100% dedicated to the welfare of the animals under their care. I can’t guarantee that this is true of all keepers, but people do not tend to just ‘fall’ into animal husbandry roles. These roles are typically both highly competitive and poorly paid, with the only real benefit being enjoyment of the work itself.

      It makes no logical sense to suggest that nonprofits are just about “making money”. The money made from nonprofit institutions goes back into the animals - research, education, conservation in the wild, etc. It is usually where profit is the primary driver of a business that leads to corruption and poor practice.

      Finally, I just wanted to give you an example from the reptile house of a zoo that I know well behind the scenes. They keep a very strict inventory of their animals that is constantly reviewed. Every single species serves a purpose - whether that be research (for conservation), conservation through captive breeding or education. So for an example of each of these, they might run a captive experiment on a species of highly endangered frog to see whether they have immunity to chytrid fungus compared to their wild counterparts, they might be breeding a species of snake that is being wiped out on the only island it is known to inhabit with the intention of reintroducing them to the wild, or they might keep on display a species of turtle which is being exploited for turtle soup in Asia. Conversely, the second that these animals do NOT serve a purpose, i.e. the experiment is unsuccessful, the animals won’t breed or they feel there is no educational value to keeping them, the animals will be moved on to other zoos throughout the globe where they might serve a better purpose.

      To reiterate what I wrote in the article, does this example represent the practice of all zoos? No, it absolutely does not. But it’s important to give credit where credit is due, and a lot of zoos (as well as the hardworking and poorly paid people in the background!) simply don’t deserve your disdain.

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