Conservation or preservation?

With so many animals suffering in zoos and theme parks around the world, is this form of entertainment still acceptable?

Many of us have fond memories of visiting the zoo with our parents or on a school trip. We have also grown up thinking zoos play a complimentary role to wildlife parks. Zoos claim they provide education and that they inspire people to contribute to wildlife preservation.

The reality is that most zoos around the world exist purely as collections of wild animals for display to the public. Unlike properly managed wildlife rescue centers and sanctuaries that minimise human-animal contact with the interest of the animals taking precedent, many zoos are run as businesses that rely on ticket sales to maintain profits and operational costs.

What are they?

There is a long history of maintaining wild animals in captivity in menageries and zoological collections. Zoos are defined as ‘all permanent establishments where animals of wild species are kept for exhibition to the public for 7 or more days a year’. The conditions for animals kept in zoos can distort their behavior significantly especially with a lack of knowledge by the animal’s keeper. Physical, psychological or health problems for animals often result from small living space, overcrowding, unsuitable temperatures or frequent human contact. Severe cases of neglect also cause extreme suffering and premature death.

What you should know?

  • At least 5,624 species of vertebrate animals are threatened with extinction worldwide. Humankind’s contribution to the rapid loss of the earth’s flora and fauna is now a widely acknowledged phenomenon. To date, 190 countries have pledged to make a concerted effort to conserve the world’s threatened species by signing up to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
  • The role of zoos in the conservation of biodiversity, and specifically ex situ conservation, became a legal obligation in Europe in 2002 with the implementation of the European Zoos Directive. The Directive was fully incorporated into UK zoo legislation in 2003. Perhaps recognising an opportunity to refute growing scepticism over the keeping of animals in captivity, zoos assumed the role of animal ‘arks’ and promoted their new conservation purpose. However, despite claims by zoos that their contribution to conservation is significant, to date there has been no reliable mechanism to assess zoos’ performance.
  • At least 69% of the public believe zoos spend more on conservation in the wild than they actually do. The CCZ (Consortium of Charitable zoos – reputed as the most progressive group in the UK) appears to spend an estimated 4–6.7%of gross income on conservation in the wild. The public believes zoos spend about four times that amount. The public also believe that at least 41% of species kept in zoos are threatened in the wild but the CCZ has less than 25%.
  • Outside of the UK, most of Europe, Northern America and Australia the situation is very different with tens of thousands of animals kept in cramped and unsuitable conditions without sufficient food and water. However, in Thailand, Spain, Africa, Eastern Europe, and South East Asia amongst others, there are many zoos where animals will be suffering in very poor conditions.
  • The majority of zoo enclosures lack sufficient quantity and quality of space, despite advances by some zoos to provide their animals with a more naturalistic captive environment.   Many of these zoos still feature animal shows, with wild animals performing for the public. The majority are trained, often using force and horrific techniques, to perform unnatural, circus-like stunts. Elephants standing on their heads or walking a tight-rope, parrots and orangutans riding bicycles and tigers balancing on horseback are just some of the examples that have been reported.
  • Zoos in the UK have a legal requirement to participate in conservation and to promote public education and awareness of biodiversity conservation. Zoos frequently promote themselves to the general public as centres of conservation and education.

 What you can do

  • If you care about wildlife and have an interest in learning about and helping to protect wild animals and conservation, consider visiting national parks and protected areas. Your patronage of these places can help conservation, as tourism can become a viable incentive to protect wildlife habitats.
  • You can also visit wildlife sanctuaries and rescue centres if they have a visitor and education program. These facilities provide shelter and care for rescued, injured, confiscated or abandoned wildlife with short or long-term refuge and when possible rehabilitation. Animal welfare should be the primary concern.
  • Be aware however, some zoos and wildlife breeding farms are unfortunately starting to add to their names words such as ‘sanctuary’, ‘reserves’ or ‘orphanage’. A notorious example of this is the Tiger Temple in Thailand, which proclaims to rescue orphaned tigers and provide lifelong care, but was later found to be involved in illegal tiger trade as well as masking a variety of welfare and safety issues. See Care for the Wild’s report here. A rescue centre or sanctuary is not a zoo and should not be engaged in breeding or trading in wildlife. Allowing animals to reproduce also limits the resources needed to care for or provide space for other animals in need.

Where does this occur?

Zoos can be found all around the world.

Links to organisations for further information