As a child I lived on the edge of Regents Park, not far from London Zoo. Sometimes at night we would hear the uncanny howling of wolves and the occasional deep-throated roar of a big cat.
Family visits to the zoo were exciting, with creatures only previously seen in picture books doing funny and bizarre things, entirely I assumed – as a six year old – for my entertainment. The only shadow of doubt was cast by the big cats. Even that young, I felt a sense of unease as I watched them endlessly pacing back-and-forth behind the bars of their cages.
Since then, with a far greater understanding of the impact of captivity on wild animals, the design of their environments has been transformed, together with sincere attempts made to marry the competing demands of a paying public, keen to see as much as possible of the animals, with the welfare of the animals themselves. Nevertheless, my doubts have grown about the morality of keeping wild creatures confined to enclosures in zoos and away from their natural habitat. So it was with real anticipation that I joined a session held at the Royal Geographic Society in London on 28 November, organised by the Born Free Foundation and billed as Beyond Zoos.
Refuting the case for zoos
I wasn’t disappointed. Given the wide-ranging experience of the panellists – Chris Packham, Damian Aspinall, Greta Iori and Winnie Kiiru – it was bound to be a fascinating couple of hours. What I hadn’t expected was such a passionate refutation of the case often put forward for the existence of zoos – that they provide close contact with exotic and endangered species and an essential education for increasingly urbanised populations. Many also promote their role in helping to save critically endangered species in the wild and further scientific research into animal behaviour.
The session was opened by Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, and son of the founders Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers. He took us through some key facts and figures, demolishing pro-zoo arguments one-by-one.
Do they play a role in preserving endangered species? In 2013 only 23 percent of the species held by 10,000 zoos globally were judged to be at risk of extinction – so the vast majority in captivity were not there because their existence was threatened in the wild.
Do zoos provide valuable educational opportunities? A survey of 2,800 schoolchildren visiting London Zoo found that only 34 percent demonstrated some sort of positive learning experience. A minority actually came away with more misunderstandings about animal species and habitats than they had previously held.
Zoos often exaggerate their contribution to valuable field conservation work – figures cited by Travers compared the 231million dollars annually spent by the American Zoo Association on field conservation work with the 4.9 billion dollars that they committed to operations and construction in 2018.
Zoos are commercial rather than conservationist
And so the evidence mounted… and whilst we did not hear from the opposing side, one of the most convincing speakers against keeping wild animals in captivity was Damian Aspinall, whose father John founded Port Lympne Zoo in Kent. Aspinall described the long and painful path that he had travelled, from being totally engaged with the zoo he had known since birth, to eventually concluding that “not one single animal should be in a cage”. He described himself as “enemy number one” of the “zoocrats”, claiming that his own rewilding schemes had been bitterly opposed by some sections of the zoo-keeping profession with mindsets that “would rather cull than rewild”.
Both Aspinall and Chris Packham were scathing about conditions in most zoos – “Millions of animals are enslaved in sometimes terrible conditions for you, the public, to go and gawp at.” Which underlined the argument put forward by all four speakers – that zoos are commercial organisations, needing to make money and draw in more punters to fund their activities. Fun fairs set up alongside animal enclosures, further reinforce the public’s impression that the principal role of a zoo is to entertain rather than to educate and support species conservation.
Missed opportunities and media mistakes
Kiiru and Ioru pointed out that global capitalism shapes the narrative around zoos, and that using animals to generate money is essentially a moral question. Zoos in developing countries tend to follow the model established by older organisations, missing opportunities to introduce their populations to the often rare species that exist on their doorstep.
The media also play a part in presenting a misleading picture. Kiiru said that most David Attenborough series show animals in landscapes devoid of people, so that there is no understanding of human and animal interactions in the wild. Sometimes that relationship is difficult, sometimes complementary. (Think elephants intruding on vegetable gardens and maize fields, crucial to the living of local farmers).
Effective field conservation projects rather than zoos
The final question put to the panellists was – if not zoos, then what? They all agreed that zoos should be phased out over time, and that government financial support would be crucial in helping them to de-commission. Money previously spent on animals in captivity could then be focused on attacking the corruption that prevents the success of many field conservation projects. Wildlife is currently big business, and the third biggest contributor to global crime and corruption, after drugs and arms.
Would it matter that the public would no longer see wild animals in the flesh? Packham replied that millions of people worship Taylor Swift when they will never actually see her in the flesh. With the development of AI technologies and the example of Abba’s sell-out hologram performances there were plenty of models that could be adapted to replace the real animals currently confined in zoos.
I’ll leave the last word to Packham. “We do have the answers – so it’s time for us all now to act.”