The Ambivalence Of Zoos

I’ve been meaning to get my views on zoos condensed into a blog post for a while now, but each time I approached the subject in my mind, it got complicated, lacked clarity and seemed destined to result in an incoherent ramble.  Then I read Chris Packham’s engaging column in this month’s copy of BBC Wildlife Magazine and it gave me the nudge I needed to try and clearly assemble my stance on what is often a morally murky issue.  It’s not often that I agree completely with someone’s opinion piece, however, this was one exception.

Even as a child, I was torn between wanting to see the animals, but melancholic about the fact they were not living with the freedom to roam in the wild.  This mindset developed to a point in my late teens where I could have been labelled as being anti-zoo; believing that zoos should only exist for the ‘critically endangered’ or ‘extinct in the wild’ creatures.  Now, at the age of thirty-two, I take a more balanced view, although it’s by no means set in stone.  Zoos have their place for informing and educating the masses, and crucially, for stimulating an interest in wildlife, nature and the environment in children.  That said, I believe these institutions need to be far more selective when it comes to choosing which animals to ‘display’.

To echo Mr Packham’s sentiment: there are many species that are wholly unsuitable for life in captivity- a view solidified a few years ago during a trip to the Highland Wildlife Park near Kingussie, where I observed an adult polar bear pacing backwards and forwards in its enclosure in apparent distress.  After all, this is a creature that would have ranges extending hundreds and even thousands of miles in the wild; yet it’s confined to an area of 10 acres- and by wildlife attraction standards, that’s excellent.  Furthermore, in the interests of balance and fairness, the Highland Wildlife Park gives their polar bears more room to live in than any other organisation I know and their enclosure is regarded as the best of its kind.

This gets to the crux of my argument against our current blueprint for zoos: can it be morally and ethically right to effectively imprison a wild animal in claustrophobic, unnatural surroundings for let’s face it, the entertainment of the public?  I think the answer to that has to be no.  But then that poses a further question in my mind: can it be justified if their mere presence in these enclosures is enough to generate sufficient public interest that it leads to more conservation donations and the nurturing of a new generation of conservationists that ensures their future survival in the wild?

Then there is the more pragmatic role that zoos play in conservation. Without their assistance, some species may already be extinct. Animals such as the Scimitar Oryx, Amur Leopard and Addax spring to mind.  Yet this has to be tempered by the fact that captive breeding programmes are rarely successful and so it begs the question: shouldn’t more time, money and resources be spent improving their chances of survival in the wild, instead of creating an artificial haven that often institutionalises them to an extent where they can neither breed successfully, or survive if reintroduced to the wild.

I think more thought has to be put into creating more naturalistic surroundings in enclosures, to the extent that a mini replica ecosystem is created in which the animal in question can truly integrate into it.  Some zoos are addressing this, but there’s still a long way to go.

Zoos are undoubtedly a valuable mechanism for allowing people to connect with wildlife, but when compared to the feeling you get when you encounter a wild animal, it doesn’t compare.  It’s listening to the radio versus going to a live gig.  I think the antidote to this comes in the form of the rewilding movement.  But zoos do provide us with the low-fat, synthetic substitute and wildlife in general would probably be worse off without them.

So before this descends into a ramble, I’ll wrap it up and probably revisit the issue sometime soon.  As you can probably tell, I’ve still to arrive at a conclusion, however, there is one certainty to come out of this.  It’s been many years since I visited a zoo- I think it’s time I changed that.  More to follow….





7 thoughts on “The Ambivalence Of Zoos”

  1. I agree Gordon zoos are not the ideal to preserve species, though in Ausralia they are actually breeding and releasing into the wild various species, trying to rehabilitate them in various protected reserves, The Regent Honeyeater being a good example of a critically endangered species. The move in zoos here, as in the Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo is to habitat the captive zoo animals in more spacious and natural surroundings to where they originally came from, which gives a better environment for the animals. In Australia out west we have the room to do this. One can actually go on a zoo safari like weekend where you can explore the various animals in their habitats. I agree the move in the 21st century should be to breed animals and birds to be released back into the wild and reestablish reserves and places where they can thrive again protected.

    1. Cheers for the thoughtful comment, very interesting and good to hear. Well, Britain’s zoos certainly support a lot of conservation projects and expeditions around the world, but conservation of our own native species is still wrapped up in too much red tape. And don’t get me started on the giant panda gifted to Edinburgh Zoo. A great PR stunt, but also, a colossal waste of money and resources.

  2. I also agree with your sentiments and that of Chris Packham. I think that zoos do have a place in educating people, but that each one has to be taken on its own merits. When it comes to access of wildlife, personally, I’m pretty content knowing that tigers roam in Siberia; I don’t need to see one in a zoo to understand what a tiger is or satisfy my urge for a photo. Do we have a ‘right’ to have access to all wildlife? I’m not sure we do.

    If a zoo isn’t releasing animals into the wild (which is hard when you stick them in an enclosure and habituate them to humans), then surely the only justification for their existence is that they contribute to the conservation of animals in other ways, such as buffer stocks, fund raising and education of communities.

    My partner and I are currently travelling the world and after getting burned by a couple of bad experiences, have vowed to not visit any wildlife attractions at all unless the animals are wild or semi-wild (free to come and go). The standards of zoos is generally quite high in the UK, but in the developing world and even other developed nations, the standard of care and/or conservation is appalling. I think back to one particularly horrible place in South Africa where they have a lot of big cats kept in small enclosures and offer ‘experiences’ where you can have your photo taken with a white tiger, lion cubs, cheetah cubs etc. Sorry, but that’s just blatant profiteering. There’ll be no releasing them – they’re condemned to a life behind bars. And don’t get me started on the Tiger Kingdom place near here in Phuket, Thailand. Evil.

    1. Thanks for your insightful comments and I agree with everything you say. Viewing wildlife as commodities is a growing problem for sure and south-east Asia is probably the worst offender for that. Just when I was thinking of visiting Edinburgh Zoo out of sheer curiosity, I watched a video clip of a young couple banging the glass of a Macaque enclosure and getting them really wound up and distressed. Let’s just say it put me off visiting for a bit longer…..

  3. I understand what you mean, as a kid I loved to go to zoos and see the animals, but as I learned more about animals and there natural environment and behaviour, zoos were not that attractive any more.
    I know how important zoos are for some species survival, although it might help a population or species from extinction, you can ask yourself what the influence is of the individuals, bred in zoos, that are released into the wild to save this population/species.
    Furthermore, space is often the problem, causing this stereotypic behaviour in zoo animals. For example, the Netherlands is small and has a lot of infrastructure and houses, so extending the zoo is often not possible. However, they are around 40 zoos! Some are specialisted in birds or reptiles, but in most of the zoos you see the same animals. Some of the zoos are working together with breeding programs, but, as you point out, how about the size and quality of the enclosures? If you have 40 places across the country, but they mostly show the same, why not all specialise? Instead of having five small enclosures for polar bears in five different zoos, have a large enclosure in one zoo. Ofcorse this is less attractive for humans, but what are the priorities?

    1. Thanks for giving some feedback, much appreciated. You’re right, the whole model needs changed, or there needs to be a shift towards turning our open, derelict spaces back into truly wild spaces again, so we can have wild, truly natural zoos on a larger scale.

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