Over the past few years, a question which increasingly divides people’s opinion is that about zoos: “are they good or bad?”
The reality is that trying to put all zoos and other captive environments into one box isn’t very helpful or informative. Each institution, be it a zoo or sanctuary, needs to be looked at on an individual basis. There are some zoos in the world that are doing absolutely fundamental work in saving species from extinction (both through captive breeding programmes and reintroduction efforts) and they need as much celebration and support as possible. However, sadly, there are others that are like prisons, exploiting innocent animals, with little or no interest in animal welfare or conservation. So, when travelling, what are some ways of working out if the zoo you are thinking of visiting is ethical or not?
1. Do they have any form of accreditation?
Accreditation of zoos generally signifies that the institution maintains the highest standards of care for their animals and provides funding to conservation projects worldwide. For any zoos in Europe, look for accreditation from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), or the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) if you are visiting the UK. These zoos will also be involved in captive breeding programmes aimed at maintaining viable populations of animals so as to ensure their long-term survival, and they will have contributed to the release of animals back into the wild. They will also have research programmes looking at all aspects of animal biology to improve our understanding of how they live and interact, thus contributing important knowledge that can be used for the conservation of global biodiversity.
When it comes to the US, the highest standard of accreditation is by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This shows that the animal’s welfare is of utmost concern and that these institutions participate in conservation and community engagement. Out of the approximately 2,700 animal exhibitors with any form of license in the US, less than 10% are AZA accredited – so their standards are high.
Other accreditation programmes exist across the world, but it is important to note that in some countries, the standards necessary for approval are very low, giving rise to some quite extreme variations in standards between countries so, just because a zoo is accredited, it does not mean it is necessarily ethical or that is has the animal’s best interests at heart, so it is important to do further research alongside this.
2. How are the animals acquired?
Legitimate institutions will not be removing animals from the wild to keep in captivity. This should only ever be done in the most extreme circumstances, where there is no other alternative to save that species. This process requires intricate planning and legislation to be in place, and is only done with the intention of captive breeding those individuals for re-release back into the wild, such as the work that has been done to save Przewalski’s horses and scimitar horned oryx. Zoos that are removing animals from the wild, particularly babies, are most likely doing this illegally and should not be supported.
‘Good’ zoos will obtain animals via ex situ breeding programmes that follow genetic studbooks, managed by accredited institutions, and interchange individual animals between institutions based on which individuals are needed where, and with selections having the objective of maintaining the most genetically viable populations possible.
3. Do they allow interactions with animals, if so, are they animal or people focused?
No reputable zoo will allow hands-on interaction with animals. The only interaction that may be allowed is the feeding of an animal (from the other side of the fence) or touching of a domesticated animal, such as a cow or donkey. Physical interactions with wild animals should not be allowed and, if it happens, it indicates that the zoo cares more about its visitors than the animals in its care. Alarm bells should go off in your head as soon as you find out a zoo is involved in interactions such as elephant riding (instead of having smooth spinal disks, an elephant’s spine is made up of bony protrusions, that are damaged and cause excruciating pain when ridden), animal performances (where animals are made to perform tricks in shows), and posing for photos cuddling an animal (for example a drugged tiger cub or a slow loris which has had its teeth pulled out). Going to the zoo should be about watching the animals living in the most natural possible way and enjoying and respecting this from a distance, just as if you were watching that animal out in the wild in their natural habitat.
4. Can you find photos of the enclosures?
Normally, a very simple way of gauging how the animals are treated is by trying to find photos of their enclosures, either on the zoo’s own website, or from people that have previously visited and shared photos online on sites such as TripAdvisor. If you are able to find photos, look at them and see if you genuinely believe that that animal has plenty of space. Does the enclosure replicate where they would be living out in the wild? The fauna should match that of their native habitat, not be covered in concrete and steel bars. Also, look at how many animals are in an enclosure and whether that is natural for that species e.g. if they are normally solitary or group-living animals. Enrichment is another critical thing to look out for; this is typically food based (making food more challenging to obtain) or non-food based (such as sensory enrichment) and acts to encourage animals to exhibit the same behaviours that they would out in the wild. Signs of enrichment in enclosures may include food puzzles, balls, logs, hammocks, ropes, hides, and so much more.
5. Where does their money go?
Be very wary of zoos which use all their finances internally. Many zoological institutions are actually non-profit organisations that use the vast majority of funding for the conservation of wild animals. In the last 50 years alone, over 60% of species have gone extinct (and those statistics are only taking into account vertebrates, so the situation is actually far worse than what it is being made out to be). We do not live in an ideal world, and there are many conflicting demands on our environment, which is why conservation work is of vital importance to save species, each which have critical roles within ecosystems, and have vital roles in supporting human populations around the world.
It’s not just conservation work that good zoos will fund; they will also invest into both education and research. Education is vital to ensure that people, particularly the younger generation, become engaged and involved in conservation, aiming to inspire them to make changes in their lives to help to support animals and to protect the planet on which we all live. Also, if we are going to have any chance of saving threatened species, we need the knowledge of how to do this, which can only come from scientific research carried out by professionals.
6. What is your gut reaction?
This may seem like a strange suggestion, but for most people, you can instinctively tell if somewhere seems legitimate, and that it has the genuine interest of the animals, their welfare, and conservation, at the forefront of the running of the zoo, or not. Trust that instinct when making a decision about whether to visit a zoo or not. If you do go to a zoo that isn’t meeting the criteria above, act upon it: report them to an organisation and spread the word to warn others. If a zoo does all the things that mark it as a “good” zoo, then spread that message too, and support it so that it can continue with its vital work.