Zoos are an often contentious part of the responsible wildlife tourism debate, with those who are against all animal captivity on one side and those who believe responsible zoos play an important part in conservation on the other. I’m going to argue that despite claims to the contrary, zoos are an integral link in the conservation chain and should be part of any responsible tourism itinerary.
Wildlife tourism is big business within the travel industry, and zoos have played an integral part of that since the late 17th Century, far longer than that if you include their earlier incarnations as simple menageries. Yet in recent years zoos have found it difficult to justify themselves in an era of increasing responsible tourism and animal conservation, especially in the growing understanding and popularity of seeing wildlife ‘in their natural habitat’, a tourism ‘trope’ which itself has many nuanced implications.
I’m just going to come out and say it, I love zoos. I do. A lot of people may be surprised at that statement given my vocal support for wildlife conservation, but that is often because many people misunderstand the vital role zoos play.
It is precisely because I am passionate about wildlife conservation that I do have this love for zoos, and try to visit as many of them as I can whenever I travel.
To some, zoos can never be responsible and fall under the very large ‘unethical captive animal’ umbrella. The Born Free Foundation is one such organisation and argues that zoos can never be ethical or responsible.
“Born Free believes such confinement and exploitation should be a thing of the past. The Zoo Check programme is at the heart of Born Free, and since 1984 has worked to prevent captive animal suffering and phase out zoos.” Born Free Foundation.
It is not as simple or as black and white as that however. The truth is much more nuanced than that and I find it hard to agree with such a hardline stance. On the whole I don’t disagree with their motives in wanting to protect animals and fight for their conservation rights, but the truth is that with some obvious exceptions, not all captive animal facilities are negative. Zoos are not all ‘a thing of the past’, and can in fact be a very important part of the future of conservation.
Of course there are bad examples of zoos out there. Zoos that are there simply to exploit the animals for profit with little or no care for their welfare or for conservation efforts. Not all are like that however.
Now when I visit zoos on my own travels, I don’t always get it right. I try and do as much research as I can beforehand of course, but it isn’t always possible to know exactly what a zoo will be like before you get there. Unfortunately I have seen many examples of bad zoos, but fortunately I have seen many amazing ones too, and it is these facilities that I love visiting and supporting with my hard earned money.
“It was this big, Guv, honest!”
Shouldn’t animals be roaming free?
It is certainly a noble ideal isn’t it?
I am a strong and vociferous advocate for animal welfare and responsible wildlife tourism, and despite my strong support for zoos I do also have a natural affinity with their opponents who often do not agree with animals being kept in captivity at all. I just don’t completely agree with their conclusions.
In part I can see some of their points and don’t always completely disagree with them, I mean who can really argue with a general statement that animals should be left to roam free in a natural environment away from human interaction, or at the very least with very limited human interaction?
No one is arguing that open, protected spaces with minimal human interaction for the animals in that area isn’t one ideal, me least of all. In fact I also support the numerous conservation camps, rehabilitation centres and other forms of wildlife habitats that are supported by tourism too.
Conservation camps, rehabilitation centres and open spaces are not ‘responsible alternatives’ to zoos, but are instead responsible partners.
At the other end of the scale I do think there should be protected wild spaces were wildlife can roam free without any interaction or disruption from humans or tourism. I also think there should be large, protected spaces where wildlife can be viewed from a distance with responsible safari tours, and rehabilitation centres that act as a conduit to placing various species back into the wild where appropriate or acting as a half way house for animals that can never be fully rehabilitated back into the wild.
At the end of the day it is the estimated but still vast $600 billion revenue worldwide – according to figures from Dr Robin Naidoo of the WWF – that facilities like these bring in that helps fund conservation efforts, and should prove that responsible tourism is far more profitable that traditional tourism.
But they are far from the only solution.
In fact I would argue that both zoos and other responsible wildlife tourism facilities can – and should – exist side by side for the overall positive effect on animal conservation and care.
I would argue zoos are a vital link in the conservation chain, a link that cannot be removed without breaking the chain itself.
All of these options should exist side by side, all working together to improve the conservation status of all species. Arguing that zoos should not exist in favour of more open alternatives is wrong, and completely ignores all the positive things that zoos actually do both within the tourism industry and also in terms of wildlife conservation and preservation.
What good do zoos do?
Zoos have now evolved far beyond the Victorian menagerie they once were. They are no longer simple sideshows were animals are kept in cages for a visitors amusement.
Good zoos, and I do make that definition because there are of course bad examples out there that should rightly be shut down, generally abide by the rules and regulations set down by international bodies such as the Association Of Zoos And Aquariums, as well as holding themselves to account from various wildlife charities and groups as well as local and international animal welfare legislation.
The modern zoo now focuses predominantly on research, education and conservation, and plays a vital role in each of these key areas and more.
Zoos have for a long time been family orientated places that bring in vast numbers of visitors every single year, and good zoos can have a profound influence on visitors through interactive exhibits and active educational programmes. Zoos do not simply serve as entertainment to the public, but as a socialising agent by educating their visitors about the species themselves and the conservation issues surrounding them.
Zoos are unique in this regard because in the Western world, they give a much deeper connection to conservation than any book, classroom or documentary ever can. They can provide a face to face experience with wildlife that shows a deep commitment to animal welfare and conservation. This influence can not only educate and highlight the plight of many species as well as the conservation efforts needed, but give people a reason to care about it too.
In general terms, human beings require a connection to something to care about it. It isn’t enough to have a vague abstract concept of a thing in a distant land somewhere, and numerous studies from academic institutions as well as organisations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or National Geographic among others have found time and again that zoos provide that natural connection. They argue that visitors to zoos gain a deeper understanding of and connection to nature and wildlife as a result of their visit, and reconsider their roles in conservation. In short, once visitors see animals in zoos personally, they gain a deeper connection to them and see themselves as part of the conservation solution.
Many zoos around the world also contribute heavily to a wide variety of conservation initiatives including habitat conservation, reintroduction programmes, research and information dissemination.
Often working alongside other academic institutions and wildlife organisations, zoos contribute heavily to numerous academic and scientific advancements in fields such as evolutionary ecology, evolutionary genetics, wildlife diseases, reproduction biology and reproduction management.
The Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, is a significant research facility of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums which aims to not only understand why and how wildlife populations are threatened by modern society, but also how best to assist species natural adaptation and survival in the wild in the face of anthropomorphic change. Basically speaking they are looking into saving wildlife and their habitats from us.
Homing the animals.
Zoos provide a vital resource to conservation efforts by providing a home for animals that have been rescued from the wild and need caring for, or homes for those animals that have been born in captivity and will never be able to return to the wild.
Organisations such as Born Free argue that these initiatives do little to help the conservation or the long term survival of the species, stating the fact that there have been very few reintroduction programmes of captive born wildlife that have been successful, for certain species anyway. But there is evidence to suggest they are missing a lot of vital points.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums argue that reintroduction programmes are vital in stabilizing, re-establishing, or increasing in situ animal populations that have suffered significant declines, and have provided a list of species that have benefited from successful programmes in the past here.
Homing the animals in natural habitats in the wild and enabling them to survive and flourish themselves is just one way zoos provide vital resources to the conservation efforts.
That is why there is a place for zoos alongside other alternatives such as true rehabilitation centres where wildlife is assisted only as much as is necessary and some at least are reintroduced fully back into the wild using a staging system.
Fortunately successful rehabilitation programmes do not rely solely on reintroducing a captive born animal directly into the wild. There are a variety of stages and initiatives that will lead from captive born (or kept) animals being introduced and supported to wild born and raised animals. This orang utan rehabilitation centre in Sarawak in Borneo is an excellent example of that.
The truth however is that not all animals will be able to survive in the wild, and they will need to be housed somewhere. Unfortunately opponents of wildlife captivity do not provide any solution of what to do with those animals if there was nowhere to keep them.
If there were no zoos at all, where would these animals go exactly?
Those that cannot ever be fully released into the wild, including captive born or rescued animals, can be cared for in facilities like good, ethical zoos that still fulfill a strong conservation role.
Zoos play a vital role in swaying public opinion toward supporting animal welfare and conservation issues.
Bad zoos that have inadequate facilities and do not met any international standards for welfare or environment can promote negative views toward conservation issues by promoting a sense of apathy and normalisation amongst the public who come to see the animals. By allowing the public to see dangerous or inhumane conditions as normal, it simply reinforces the message that this is okay, and conservation issues are stalled before they even start.
On the other hand, by acting as a positive reinforcing agent, good zoos can show the general public how things should be done, and act as a thought leader in not only swaying public opinion to supporting animal welfare and conservation issues, but also by leading by example and showing others how it should be done.
By making themselves positive role models and changing public opinion, good, ethical zoos can raise the bar for all zoos. Public opinion, when swayed in the right way, can force bad zoos to change their ways or close. It can force conservation issues to the forefront of public conciousness, and that is a direct role zoos can play in the conservation fight.
It is a simple fact that without zoos, many species would now be extinct.
Responsible zoos also play a significant role in international species survival plans. These are breeding programmes that are held up to international standards and scientific cooperation that ensure the survival of many species.
It is unfortunately not an exaggeration to say that many species still alive today are so because of these programmes, and other species who are on the brink of extinction in the wild are being assisted by them.
It is unfortunately necessary to breed many species in captivity, such as rhinos, tigers and pandas as just a few examples, simply to keep the species alive, due to the fact that the species may have very little or no natural habitat left thanks to their human neighbours, or their natural habitat is simply not safe due to hunting, deforestation or any number of reasons.
“Protecting rhinos in the wild can be very challenging and uncertain. Hence, viable populations in captivity are also important as ultimate reservoirs of genetic and demographic material for reinforcement or re-establishment of wild populations as need and opportunity occur. When populations get so low like the Sumatran rhino it is important to have an insurance population in captivity and carry out breeding programmes”. Save The Rhino Foundation.
So if there were no captive breeding programmes, would many species still even exist?
This shouldn’t in any way be confused with the ‘programmes’ that are touted by facilities such as the Tiger Temple, which do not hold to any international standards and instead breed tigers illegally, contribute to illegal wildlife trafficking and breed simply to fill a profit driven need.
Thankfully responsible zoos take part in international programmes that are vastly different.
It isn’t a perfect solution by any stretch of the imagination, and I do not completely disagree with many groups such as born free that state it is better for wildlife to be born, raised and thrive in the wild, of course it is. In an ideal world there would be enough protected land for every species to do just that and mankind would be forced to reign in their greed and destructive urges to protect that land and the species living on it. But at the moment given the lack of an alternative for many species, it is a solution, and one that should be supported until other alternatives have been put in place.
But captivity isn’t right for all animals all of the time.
Saying all this, there are without doubt examples where captivity is clearly wrong. And this is where a lot of the issues become a grey area.
A zoo is a term that is unfortunately also used by a variety of small roadside attractions that keep animals in small cages and use them as photo props or entertainment for tourists. It can also be used as a term to describe facilities that are clearly not in the animals best interests.
The Tiger Temple In Thailand is a clear example of how bad captive wildlife facilities can get. This is a facility that has been investigated by authorities and international animal welfare groups for years now, and has been shown time and time again to be abusing the tigers and actively working against international conservation efforts. It is an absolute disgrace that the authorities haven’t shut it down despite numerous chances.
Captive cetacean shows are another example where captivity does far more harm than good. Housing animals in as ethical a way as possible in a way that benefits conservation efforts is one thing, keeping them in tanks that are inadequate enough to cause harm and simply exploit them for profit is another.
This is especially true when it is still the case that these species are still captured en masse for the sole purpose of placing them in exploitative entertainment shows in the travel industry, and that is wholly wrong. That is why Richard Branson through his Virgin Holidays company has declined to support any organisation that continues to take cetaceans from the sea. As for those already in captivity, it is not an easy debate by any means, but no facility that uses them in exploitative shows, or allows unethical dolphin swimming programmes or any such activity can ever be supported or described as ethical or responsible.
The captive cetacean facilities would do well to model themselves much more on the good zoos, get rid of all animal shows and activities where the general public can jump in a pool and hug a dolphin or get pushed out of the water on the tip of the dolphins nose. Have larger ocean based pens, not ridiculously small ‘pools’ and allow viewing from a distance or via underground domes of those cetaceans born in captivity.
Where there is a clear and distinct conservation and education role in keeping animals in good zoos, no such roles exist in the case of dolphin or whale shows that are the norm in facilities that house them. Seaworld for example is almost exclusively there to put on shows and entertain a paying audience, which is nothing but exploitative and wrong.
In this case, as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society argues, there are much, much better alternatives to seeing dolphins and whales, and responsible and ethical companies that promote viewing them in the wild from a distance are providing those alternatives.
This is the difference between a good zoo and captive wildlife facilities that are only there to exploit wildlife.
And then of course there are the bad zoos too. Zoos that do not conform to international standards of welfare, and pay lip service only to the vast conservation works that are funded and undertaken by good, ethical zoos.
These bad zoos are no different in my opinion than the Tiger Temple or captive cetacean facilities or in fact any facility or organisation that exploits and harms wildlife simply for profit. I understand that with the sheer level of greenwashing that goes on it can be difficult to tell the difference sometimes, but there is a clear difference.
Critics of zoos often site these examples when arguing their case against animals in captivity, but they are not the same. Arguing they are is simplifying a very complex issue.
So let it be clear, when good zoos are used as an example of responsible wildlife tourism and ethical wildlife captivity, these bad examples are not included in that.
All zoos are not created equal.
Not all zoos are positive examples of conservation and wildlife protection however and I will be the first to admit that there are bad zoos out there. Remnants of a time long past were animals are kept in inadequate enclosures, poor conditions and are used for exploitation and profit. Even good zoos don’t get it right all of the time, I was very against London Zoo’s quite frankly moronic and disrespectful ‘Zoo Lates’ drinking parties for example and there are still times where profit overrules good sense and animal welfare.
Where bad zoos exist I have no hesitation in calling for their immediate improvement or shutdown, where bad practices start to creep in, I am likewise just as vocal in calling for them to be scrapped.
Where facilities exist solely for the exploitation of wildlife and harm, abuse and mistreat them simply for profit, I will never agree to that and will happily campaign against them.
How to tell the difference between a responsible zoo and an irresponsible one.
It isn’t always easy to tell the difference sometimes. If you have been going to zoos all your life and you have been exposed to certain practices like animal shows, or the relentless greenwashing that is normal behaviour now.
The good news is that there are resources you can use to help you make your decision. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a good place to start, but the fact of the matter is you really do have to do your own research. The best way to do that is to ask yourself these key questions about the zoo you are about to visit.
- Are the enclosures humane? Are they sized appropriately for the animal and are they natural habitat style enclosures that promote wellbeing as opposed to mere cages?
- Are the animals treated well and looked after? Are they fed well and do they have enrichment programmes in situ to keep them occupied and in good mental and physical health?
- Does the zoo have a strong educational focus? If so how is it implemented?
- What conservation role does the zoo play? Does the zoo use profits to implement or support research, rescue and education projects?
These are just examples of questions you should ask to see if zoos practice what they preach and if they are genuinely good zoos. There are good examples out there that are more than worth supporting, and any one of these good zoos will be open to scrutiny such as this.
Zoos as a force for good.
Many zoos are not perfect, but on the whole they are a positive force for good and deserve their place on any responsible travellers itineraries. Good zoos are a vital link in the conservation chain. They provide endless enjoyment for travellers and tourists alike, provide good, safe and healthy environments for their animals and play essential roles in conservation and education.
Yes there are other alternatives for tourists to interact with wildlife in a responsible and ethical manner. Conservation camps, rehabilitation centres, rescue centres, all of these different groups have many examples of how wildlife can be protected, looked after and conserved in a responsible way, and in a great many cases how travellers can view or even interact with the wildlife in a positive and responsible manner.
But these alternatives aren’t always perfect either, and are certainly nowhere near as well funded or resourced as many zoos. The fact is as much as zoos are there for profit, they also fund a vast amount of conservation efforts and I can’t think of a better way for the tourism industry to give back than to provide a direct route for tourist dollars to provide an income for locals as well as a steady income for numerous conservation projects and research.
In that light, there is a role for all of these options when working towards wildlife conservation, and all of these options, zoos included, deserve their place in the context of responsible wildlife tourism.
So I urge all of you out there, do your research, look for good, ethical zoos with strong conservation practices and support them on your travels. Go and enjoy yourselves, have a good time and do your bit to support and contribute toward the welfare and conservation of many of the species you go to see.
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