Zoos - 20th century anachronism or biodiversity preservation tool?

Are zoos an essential tool for preserving biodiversity in the 21st century or a Noah's-Ark-style anachronism riddled with woodworm and sinking fast?

Dr Miranda F Stevenson B.A., MBA., PhD. Currently Director of the Federation of Zoos of Great Britain and Ireland, the professional body representing zoos in Great Britain and Ireland. Has been connected with the zoo world for some thirty years in various capacities - starting as a keeper in Chester Zoo and onto a PhD in Animal Behaviour at Aberystwyth University. Also interested in the business side of zoos and in 1996 obtained an MBA at Edinburgh University. Presently a member of the Zoos Forum which advises on the role of zoos in Britain.


Daniel Turner, a chartered biologist with a background in conservation who now works in the evolving field of animal welfare. He has worked for the international wildlife charity the Born Free Foundation for four years and coordinates Born Free’s core campaign Zoo Check. Find out more about Born Free’s work at www.bornfree.org.uk.

Dear Daniel,

In a perfect world there would be no need for zoos, or any other conservation organisations. Nor would we be living through this period of mass extinctions. Fortunately, good zoos have risen to this challenge and are becoming a united and potent force for conservation.

The role of zoos has continued to change over time: from the private menageries of state rulers, to exhibitors of exotic species to a curious public and the more scientific living museums first developed in Victorian times. Zoos' ability to change has resulted in them embracing much-needed conservation initiatives, and led to the saving of several species – notably, the Arabian and scimitar-horned oryx. Both species became extinct in the wild in the 20th century (the scimitar-horned oryx as recently as the late 1990s). But managed zoo populations have resulted in it being possible to return them to part of their original ranges, where they can once again roam – albeit, under protected regimes.

This is the reality of the 21st century. The future of many species depends on them being managed through a continuum from ‘captive’ to ‘wild’. The latter will often involve fencing and protected areas.

Much of our knowledge and expertise in the management, reintroduction and trans-location of these small and often isolated wild populations comes from experience gained in zoos. The science of small-population management has evolved through cooperative zoo breeding programmes.


Thanks to man’s impact on and exploitation of the environment, the wild is now a fragmented and dangerous place for many species. The ability of the better zoos to become powerful and influential forces for conservation is having significant positive effects on the future survival of many species and the preservation of their habitats.


Dear Miranda,

Even in an imperfect world there should be no zoos. The Born Free Foundation is opposed to the unnatural and unjustified confinement of millions of wild animals. Life in the wild is complex, unpredictable and frequently dangerous, but it is there that wild animals have evolved to meet the challenges of survival. That is where they belong.

Artificial environments are no substitute. Many animals suffer physically and psychologically in captivity. Most could never be released into the wild.

The survival of all species requires us to change our behaviour to minimise our impact on the environment, species survival and animal welfare. We may also need to benignly manage certain wild places and wild species. However, taking an animal away from the wild to the 'safety' of a zoo is not the answer.

Born Free believes, fundamentally, that wildlife problems should be tackled in situ. And before you say that animals are no longer taken from the wild, consider the 11 wild elephants recently forced to exchange thousands of acres of natural habitat in Swaziland for less than five acres in zoos in the US.

For most animals life in a zoo means exactly that – life. It is a sad indictment that the list of zoo 'success stories' remains distressingly short. Can the reintroduction into the wild of a handful of captive-bred species justify the lifelong incarceration of millions of wild animals in thousands of zoos?

Born Free works with local communities, finding practical solutions to the problems that arise on the real conservation front line – from anti-snaring and anti-poaching patrols to the relocation of threatened wild animals. We provide employment and training, building awareness, understanding and compassion in the process.

Zoos have been around a long time – too long. You say they are rising to the challenges of the 21st century (presumably after having failed to meet the challenges of the last 300 years), and that the future of many species depends on zoos. I think not, for the zoo ark is riddled with woodworm and is sinking fast.


Dear Daniel,

We are certainly in agreement that the future survival of species and habitats requires change in human behaviour. But we both know that this is more easily said than done. Good field conservation requires a mix of ecological management and humans living in a sustainable manner.

The absence of this combination is, as we both know, the fundamental reason of the African bushmeat problem. European zoos, through the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), are playing an important and active part in the campaign to end the bushmeat trade (see www.thebushmeatcampaign.org). This campaign is just one example of zoos working in partnership to support conservation projects. Good zoos are an increasingly important force in conservation.

I have never understood why Born Free seems to dismiss the fact that zoos have evolved. One of their great assets is the combination of skills they possess. Their staff can help teach and participate in the management and movement of animals in the field. And veterinary expertise developed in zoos can be transferred to the wild.

It is the wealthy countries in the West that are the world's major consumers and whose behaviour most needs to change. Zoos can play a major role in bringing such change about. Over 100 million people visit EAZA member collections each year. This gives zoos a unique opportunity to pass on vital messages about sustainability and conservation.

Daniel, we are in agreement about the need to conserve the wild and change human behaviour. It is just that you can’t accept the important role that zoos have in this difficult work.


Dear Miranda,

I am sure we can agree on all sorts of laudable objectives aimed at making this a better world: sound environmental management, delivering benefits to local communities, conservation of species, the continued evolution of viable ecosystems, and so on. But the question is what are zoos doing – and at what price?

You say zoos have evolved, but quite frankly I believe the zoo concept has reached an evolutionary dead-end: millions of captive animals in inadequate, unnatural conditions, many suffering or displaying abnormal behaviours, few endangered species and even fewer released to the wild. The concept is inbred, has hit a genetic bottleneck, and simply does not ignite public sensibilities and turn concerned citizens into advocates.

If 100 million visits are paid to zoos each year across Europe, the fact that less than 2 per cent of these visitors have been motivated to sign the bushmeat petition tells me that the 'vital message' you claim zoos offer is largely being ignored. In the early 1990s Born Free raised a 2 million signature petition against the ivory trade on its own; and that was without 100 million visitors a year going through any gates. Inspirational conservation and education can be achieved without the confinement and exploitation of animals. Take a look at Born Free’s conservation projects (see www.bornfree.org.uk) and you will see how much is possible.

Zoos are in turmoil. Thousands of animals are suffering in zoos around the world. Animals are reportedly starving to death in Naples Zoo, dolphins and elephants are caught from the wild, and institution after institution in the US is facing massive budget deficits. Even the National Zoo in Washington DC has been accused of negligence and worse following a series of controversial animal deaths. I would gladly show you the hundreds and hundreds of photos of captive animals suffering in zoos that we receive. The animals pictured, and many others like them around the world, are paying a price and that's way too high.


Dear Daniel,

We’ve got to the stage where we need to explain the term ‘zoo’. The organisations that have evolved to become potent forces for conservation that I have been describing are, for want of a better term, good zoos. The ones that you are taking about (like Naples, and those that take dolphins from the wild and put them in inadequate enclosures) are bad zoos.

Like any other group of organisations, there is a range from excellent to really dreadful. It is no more fair (or indeed helpful) to lump all zoos into the same category than it would be to do so with, say, restaurants.

It is also important to note that countries with zoo legislation (such as the UK) control and remove bad zoos. What I am extolling is the role of good zoos. I am as keen as Born Free to phase out the bad ones. However, it has never been completely clear to me why Born Free finds it so difficult to make such distinctions?

The zoo community, mainly through its professional organisations (such as the UK's Federation of Zoos) is committed to raising standards in, and the conservation role of, zoos. Thus, the federation's most recent award winners ranged from projects promoting the conservation of primates and environmental education in Cameroon and Brazil to ones helping stem the spread of rabies in both wild and domestic dogs in Africa.

Collections of Federation of Zoos members are not in any sort of turmoil; far from it. They had an excellent year in 2003, with increasing visitor numbers and a variety of successful programmes.


Dear Miranda,

In assessing and evaluating the performance of UK zoos Born Free follows scientific procedures and specific guidelines to ensure our results are representative of the whole UK zoo community. It would be completely unscientific, unethical and subjective of me to focus on specific zoos.

Born Free uses the only true definition of a zoo – that of the Zoo Licensing Act of 1981 (see http://www.bornfree.org.uk/zoocheck/zczoos02.htm), which does not categorise zoos as 'good' or 'bad'. It is the law that 'lumps' all zoos together not the Born Free Foundation.

All zoological collections in the EU have to be licensed and inspected so that all, without exception, meet the same minimum standards. I find it completely unjustifiable that you seek to wash your hands of any responsibility when it comes to the conditions and the performance of institutions that are not Federation of Zoos members – about 85 per cent of the UK zoo community.

You say you want to 'phase out' bad zoos. I am reminded of Kabul and Baghdad zoos, both of which were partly destroyed during the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whose few animals were kept in appalling conditions following these wars. Instead of 'phasing out' these two 'bad' zoos, the international zoo community (including the Federation of Zoos) raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to finance their reconstruction.

Regarding your comment on dolphins, are you saying that it is OK to take dolphins from the wild providing they are given adequate enclosures? I am sure many people would disagree with you. You conveniently fail to address my concerns about capturing and displaying elephants.

You claim zoos are fine. Born Free knows they are not. The public increasingly realises that locking animals up and calling it 'education' or even 'conservation' will not save life on earth.


Dear Daniel,

Sorry Daniel, but you seem to have misunderstood me. We are not ‘washing our hands’ of any responsibility for conditions and/or performance of non-Federation of Zoos members. On the contrary, our aim is to provide support and help in enabling all zoos to reach high standards. However, you do seem to be accepting the fact that there are some good zoos.

Kabul and Baghdad zoos are cases of pure and simple animal welfare issues. Through the EAZA, the responsible zoo community has been very active in providing support and training to enable staff and vets at Kabul Zoo to provide better conditions and care for their animals. Surely, this is to be applauded.

The ethics of when it is beneficial to a species or to its individual members to move animals from their wild range to a captive environment obviously have to be looked at on a case by case basis; diverse factors need to be taken into account, including the quality of the captive space and threats to the wild population. The responsible zoo community always considers all these complex issues, which is why the EAZA recently stated that it saw no justification in, and could not support, a recent export of adult penguins from the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha to South Africa.

The involvement of zoos in projects like the re-introduction of corncrakes in the UK highlights the potent force for conservation that zoos have become.


Dear Miranda,

No, I have not misunderstood you. Indeed, there are some zoos that meet the legal minimum; there are some zoos that currently do not but may in the future; and there are many zoos that do not and will never do so. However, being an EAZA zoo is not, in my view, a guarantee of good welfare, high standards or ethical conduct. Some zoos may strive for high levels of welfare, seek to educate and attempt limited conservation. However, such efforts are, in my view, of marginal significance: the concept of keeping wild animals in zoos is flawed.

Born Free remains concerned that the zoo community seems unwilling to accept responsibility for the thousands of wild animals exhibited in cramped and barren enclosures. Wild animals in zoos suffer physical and psychological problems, and display distressing behaviours only seen in captivity. A number of zoos, including some Federation of Zoos and EAZA members, still make their animals perform circus-style tricks to entertain the public. These animals are described by zoos as species ‘ambassadors’ so as to justify lifelong confinement and exploitation.

You cite the EAZA’s opposition to the export of penguins as evidence of ‘responsibility’, but surprisingly (or, perhaps, not surprisingly) you are quiet about recent exports of wild-caught African elephants to zoos in the US, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland. This is the third time I have asked for your views on such cases.

As you know, elephants do not fare well in zoos, but experience high infant mortality, reduced longevity and an abysmal breeding record. Neither WWF nor the African elephant specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) recognise that captive breeding contributes significantly to elephant conservation. By their silence, I can only deduce that the Federation of Zoos and the EAZA support the capture of wild elephants (and dolphins, for that matter) and their incarceration in zoos when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they should not be there. The readers of the Ecologist deserve to know why such evidence is seemingly ignored and why such decisions are made in the name of conservation.


Dear Daniel,

It looks like we will have to agree to differ over the good zoo issue, mainly due to the fact that you and Born Free appear to be philosophically opposed to the keeping of wild animals in any sort of containment – no matter how good the quality.

I note that you don’t respond to the comments in my previous letter about the Federation of Zoos and the EAZA being very active and effective in improving conditions in poor zoos. Indeed the EAZA has a committee devoted to this very issue.

Although the IUCN’s African elephant specialist group does not recognise that captive breeding per se makes a contribution to elephant conservation it does endorse and acknowledge the existing (and future potential) contribution of zoos to elephant conservation. In the case of elephants in Asia, where the endangered wild population numbers less than 50,000 animals and one in three elephants are captive, the IUCN’s Asian elephant specialist group recognises the important work of the zoo community – not only in assisting conservation efforts, but also in providing guidelines (like those recently produced by the Federation of Zoos) for the successful captive management of the species. I agree that there have been, and still are, some problems with keeping elephants, but we are solving them. This is shown by the rapidly increasing birth rates indicating self-supporting populations of captive elephants in Europe by 2010.

Good and responsible zoos are not stuck in the past, as Born Free suggests, but are forging ahead. This will be an exciting year, as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is about to publish a new conservation strategy. Endorsed by the IUCN, this document will provide opportunities for collections to incorporate its recommendations into their action plans, and will enable them to become still more resourceful and effective in their conservation work.


Dear Miranda,

Let’s be clear: Born Free is opposed to the unjustified ‘containment’ of wild animals. There are thousands of animals in captivity worldwide, and, while it is impractical for all zoos to close overnight, by implementing a non-breeding, non-replacement policy zoo numbers would decline – thus bringing a humane end to this strange experiment. Do we really need another ‘committee’, Miranda? Born Free is improving the lives of captive animals, acting on the very legitimate concerns of the public and encouraging a change in priorities away from captivity in favour of keeping wild animals in the wild – where they belong.

The 1993 WAZA conservation strategy ambitiously set out to change the public image of the zoo. Instead of just exhibiting animals to entertain, the 21st century’s zoos would show a greater commitment to wildlife by using ‘entertainment to educate the public about the need for conservation action’. A decade later, little has been achieved. Born Free research from 2000 to 2001 indicated that, at that time, a surprising 95 per cent of all taxa (species or sub-species) displayed in zoos were not categorised as endangered, and that a staggering 97 per cent were not part of European captive breeding programmes. Less than 1 per cent of ‘endangered’ taxa have ever been introduced into the wild. A summary of this research can be viewed at www.bornfree.org.uk/zoocheck/zcukzoo01.htm.

The first African elephant brought into the UK was for King Henry III in the 13th century. We’ve been importing elephants from the wild into zoos ever since, with little to show but a record of failure. (The death of Houston Zoo’s one-day-old female elephant calf in December is the latest sad statistic.) Who’s stuck in the past?

You can carry on supporting the lifelong incarceration of animals in unnatural conditions in zoos around the world. Born Free will keep on alleviating captive animals’ suffering and protecting elephants, tigers, wolves, gorillas and other species in their natural habitats. Let the public judge which evolutionary path they prefer. 

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2004


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