I want to have a discussion with you all, because it is something that I have been very interested in for some time. When I was at university I actually did a whole dissertation on whether zoos were good or bad for animal welfare. I went in thinking that there was no way that zoos could be a good thing, however through my research it actually turned out to be a very grey area of animal welfare. I am therefore very keen to see what all of your thoughts are on this subject.
Now this is by no means a comprehensive essay: My dissertation was 10,000 words and even that required a lot of editing down! But I wanted to bring to light some of the main arguments for and against zoos, and the issues that come with them. I have tried to include as many links as I can to articles and research, but as I say I cannot include every single piece of research that I have ever done on this subject. If you have any other interesting or useful reads, please do leave them in the comments below!
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, any animal in captivity is covered by this act. Zoos and aquariums are also covered by the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 although this act was amended in 2002 to create more obligations on Local Councils when deciding whether or not to license a new zoo, as well as to ensure that animal welfare practices were more in line with the EU directives. In summary, the animals are to have a suitable environment, prevention and protection from harm, suitable food supplies and their living must be as close to the wild as reasonably possible to achieve.
The issue with legislation though is that it is a blanket. It has to cover so many different species, situations and objectives that it can fail when it comes to practically applying the rules contained within it. A study carried out in 2002 by Clubb and Mason found that elephants die far younger in captivity than they do in the wild. One suggestion is that these animals especially have very complex social structures, one that can be hard to recreate in a captive environment. Their social structures are also constantly changed by the zoo, either to keep groups small or to trade members for a new member to either increase chances of mating or to bring in new visitors to the zoo. Elephants are known to create lifelong bonds with the children and other members of their group, and to constantly have your social group changed undoubtedly has a negative impact on the animal’s emotional and mental well being. They are also huge creatures that are used to walking miles everyday – roughly the same distance from London to Oxford! There is no way any zoo are able to create an environment that really allows for this amount of exercise, and when they do not have the adequate amount of exercise, they can develop a number of physical conditions which they would not have had they been in the wild.
There is also the common knowledge that highly intelligent animals struggle to cope mentally within captivity: If you have not yet watched the 2013 movie Blackfish, I would highly recommend it. It shows very graphically what can happen when a highly intelligent animal is stuck in an stimulating and unrewarding environment. The film highlights very clearly that not only is animal welfare needed for the safety of the animals, but also for the safety of the staff, handlers and keepers who look after these animals. There are countless articles about zoochosis, whereby animals in captivity begin to show symptoms of mental and physical illness: This can include pacing, biting and headbutting the environment around them, heightened aggression towards keepers and other animals in the enclosure, swaying and over grooming to name a few. Some animals, such as great white sharks most infamously, do not even survive a year in captivity: The longets a great white was ever held in captivity was for 198 days.
However this tends to be most common in the larger (usually hunting) animals: bears, killer whales, elephants, big cats and primates. Prey animals, such as meerkats, giraffes and gazelle, tend to do quite well in captivity and are less documented in exhibiting signs of zoochosis. The logical conclusion to this information is that prey animals undoubtedly live longer in captivity because they are not being constantly hunted by bigger animals: they do not need to run and hide at every noise, they do not need to be on alert while eating. For many captive prey animals, the ones born in captivity have probably never even seen a predator. Granted some of this nature will be innately woven into their DNA – to be skittish and scared and on edge at all times – however if you have never seen a lion before, would you know to run? Are these animals still suffering? Of course there is a lack of research surrounding this area and the affect it can have on every animal, but it does make you wonder and is something to be contemplated.
A paper by William Conway suggested that while conservation efforts were needed, regulation still is not universal enough to ensure that every single zoo does the same level of work and to the same standard. Every country has their own legislation in place to ensure that zoos carry out a degree of conservation work, however this varied largely across the world. Conway suggests that work needs to be done to create a more cohesive world wide plan, since zoos rely so heavily on other zoos for their animals.
London Zoo, for example, spend a large amount of their profits carrying out conservation efforts, with Woburn Safari Park carrying out multiple conservation projects at their own zoo as well as fundraising to support the efforts of conservation charities abroad. A large part of conservation though is understanding the animals and their natural behaviour and this may not always be possible to monitor in the wild. Zoos allow scientists to observe animals around the clock, to check on their psychical and mental characteristics so that this information can be published to other zoos and experts, and better conservation efforts can be made to suit the needs of the animal in question. Conservation methods can be made to be specific and measurable for that exact animal species in question, rather than trying to use a blanket method for a number of different species.
Education and awareness
This is probably the biggest reason why zoos exist, especially nowadays. I remember going on many a school trip to London Zoo and getting to spend all day hearing about the animals and their different characteristics. As a massive animal lover, there is something truly magical about seeing these amazing creatures in real life. I imagine for some people, it gives a real life animal to put to the horrible stories of deforestation, poaching and climate change that we see on the news. It is one thing to see images of a poacher standing proudly over their kill of a wild lion, but quite another to see that same lion standing before you in a zoo. You see the animals that we as humans are affecting and impacting with our actions and it can really drill home to you the changes that need to be made worldwide to protect them.
A large part of zoos (and I know in some of them they do this anyway) should be to show the impact that we humans are having on these animals. Yes these animals should be in the wild, however these are why animals cannot survive in the wild anymore: orangutans are losing their habitats to deforestation and rhinos are being poached to extinction for the belief that their horns hold medicinal remedies. More awareness needs to be raised around these issues, and it is up to zoos to not only educate the general public to take action, but to also step up and demand better protections are granted to these animals so that they do not end up in zoos as the only means for these animals to actually survive. In 2020 alone, roughly 50 species of animals went extinct (not including the 100s of species of plant life which also went extinct), and the number of animals classed as endangered rose by 16,000 in the last year alone. There are now around 40,000 endangered species around the world, and for many people the only time to ever see these endangered species in the flesh will be at a zoo.
This links very closely to conservation and animal welfare, because unfortunately the trading of animals amongst zoos is necessary for conservation efforts: The European Endangered Species Programme is made up of a number of zoos across Europe, who all work together to increase managed breeding within their endangered species. It is quite obvious therefore that animals are constantly being traded between each zoo, especially when you think that without trade between these zoos, the risk of inbreeding heightens with every new generation born – and this is clearly not going to be helpful for conservation plans.
Now I think we all know that the animals are not transported in first class accommodation: of course there are laws in place to say what an animal must be transported in, but I doubt they are in a luxurious plane all to themselves with entertainment and food available whenever they wish. They’re not on Qatar Air right? Unfortunately that is just a reality of the industry, and way more work needs to be done to ensure that these practises are improved and sustained for the future. But as with all of these things it is a work in progress and it will take more than this blog to kick the whole world into implementing change.
Is the trade industry necessary? For conservation plans, yes, undoubtedly it is. Without these trades, managed breeding programmes would not be able to exist past the first new generation as the risk of inbreeding becomes far greater and harder to manage in one zoo on their own. However, would the entire EEP even exist if better measures were put in place world wide to stop the unsustainable killing, deforestation and poaching of these animals in the wild? Another debate for another time but it is something that needs to b e weighed up when discussing this issue.
Something that also needs to be considered is the economic impact that zoos have on a city. London Zoo alone have roughly 1.25 million visitors every year and with a day ticket costing around £35.00, that is an obscene amount of money being raised. That doesn’t even include the amount of revenue brought in for the food and drink, plus donations from supporters. The taxes that they pay must be in figures that the likes of us may never even imagine. Zoos are also a massive tourist draw, with people travelling all over the world to see different animals. San Diego zoo on its own is an entire day out – look at the size of this place! Every country in the world relies heavily on tourism to bring people into their country and to show off their what their country has to offer, and a massive part of that may be their world renowned zoos.
This also doesn’t even begin to cover the amount of people it takes to run a zoo and the amount of jobs that a zoo creates: Aside from the actual keepers and handlers, you also need to account for chefs, waiting staff, retail assistants, security, account teams, corporate managers, HR staff, garment makers for the clothes on sale and the toys which can be bought, the graphic designers for the zoo signs and information boards and the architects and labourers who build the exhibits and the enclosures. Millions of people world wide are employed by zoos, so to get rid of them completely would mean millions of people lose their livelihood. Even I worked at a zoo while I was studying at uni, as a part time waitress, and I was just one of a team of 50 people. Zoos are a massive industry and for many keepers, I imagine their entire life has been in training to work at a zoo, to care for these exotic animals that very few people ever have the chance to see let alone care for.
Personally, I am still so conflicted. I know that zoos are important and I think it would be incredibly damaging to abruptly close down an entire industry. I also believe that zoos are beneficial for some animals and actually provide a better quality of life than they would have had in the wild. But that does not mean I am happy that these animals can’t live in the wild. In an ideal world, these animals would all be left to live, thrive and enjoy their environment without us humans barging in to take from them. I try my best to always advocate for animal welfare, but it would be naive of me to ignore the impact that zoos have on this work. The donations they provide to other charities that carry out real groundwork in other countries is fundamental in helping create change.
Now would I chose to go to the zoo if I had a day off and nothing to do? Probably not. But if my nephew or my family wanted us to take a trip to the zoo as part of a family day out? I would go, not only so that I could spend time with my loved ones and see these beautiful and majestic creatures up close, but also because again it is the education and awareness that zoos can create that can inspire new people to take a stand to protect an animal they have just fallen in love with. I hope one day every animal can be at peace and at home in the wild, but until then I want to support conservation and education efforts.
As I said, this is by no means meant to be comprehensive, and it is only meant to provide you with a basic overview of some to the main issues surrounding zoos and the work that they do. But I hope it has at least inspired a thought in you, and has inspired you to do more research into what you as an animal lover can do to help protect them – both in captivity and in the wild.