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For many of us, our happiest childhood memories include family outings to the zoo – watching monkeys swing from tyres, hand-feeding giraffes and maybe even riding a camel. For families who can’t afford a week in the Serengeti (which, let’s face it, is most of us), a trip to the local zoo is the kids’ best opportunity to come face-to-face with the exotic creatures from their bedtime stories.

Zoos have come a long way in the past thirty years or so, but there are still some uncomfortable truths to confront. No matter how good a zoo’s conditions, wild animals are kept in confined spaces, where they are prevented from carrying out the behaviours that come naturally to them, such as hunting, socialising and travelling over long distances. In fact, Peta UK (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) condemns zoos as ‘animal prisons that cannot even guarantee their inmates’ safety.’

Add to this a string of high-profile accidents, and things don’t look good for zoos. In 2017 a keeper at Hamerton Zoo Park in Cambridgeshire was killed when a tiger entered the enclosure she was in. And who could forget the emotive case of Harambe, the gorilla shot dead at Cincinnati Zoo after he picked up a three-year-old boy who had climbed into the primate enclosure?

Feeding zoo animals is a happy memory for many


Zoos offer a live animal experience

Those in favour of zoos might well argue that these freak accidents are incredibly rare and often the fault of humans not abiding by the rules. They might add that animals kept in zoos live the life of luxury – they are well fed and don’t have to worry about the dangers they would face in the wild, like predators, freezing climates or starving to death.

Another plus point, as far as parents are concerned, is that a day out at the zoo means getting the kids out in the fresh air and away from their screens. Encountering wild animals, albeit in captivity, is a live experience – you can touch and smell them. Seeing animals in books or on TV simply doesn’t come close.


There are plenty of studies to show that raising children around animals has many benefits, including relieving stress and helping them develop empathy and compassion. There’s also research demonstrating that kids with special needs respond incredibly well to animal interaction, where human intervention has been less helpful. Where it’s not possible for a family to have a pet, visiting a zoo can be a great way to encourage animal-focused interests.

Sadly, some of the wild animals that kids love most, such as tigers and giraffes, are endangered species in desperate need of care and conservation. The South China tiger now only exists in zoos, and the Amur leopard and blue-eyed black lemur are at risk of extinction. Port Lympne Reserve in Kent was especially proud when one of its Rothschild giraffes gave birth in 2016, as there are only 750 left in the wild.

At zoos, kids can come face-to-face with endangered animals and learn about the concept of extinction. It’s a great opportunity to educate them on the causes of population decline, such as climate change. Zoos can therefore help kids learn about the environment and the impact they have on it, which can inspire them to get involved with eco activities such as recycling. Kids might be surprised to learn that they can have a direct positive impact on the lives of the animals they love so much.

Indeed, the main argument in favour of zoos is that they provide education and do vital conservation work, and in doing so, inspire the next generation of conservationists. UK zoos are required to abide by regulations that protect animals, in order to keep their licences. The regulations state that zoos must provide optimum care for animals and undertake work to help animal populations thrive; for example re-introducing animals into the wild or breeding some species in captivity.


This is certainly a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, it is impossible to ensure that all the physical and emotional needs of the animals are being met daily, as inspections can be infrequent. This has lead the Born Free foundation to say that the current regulations are inadequate to ensure the welfare of animals’ needs.

What’s more, despite most zoos claiming that they are there for the benefit of the animals, a study by Born Free found that only 17% of animals in UK zoos are listed as ‘threatened’, and just 3% as ‘critically endangered’. This means that the vast majority of animals in zoos are not there for conservation purposes.

There are over 400 zoos in the UK and naturally, some are better than others. The good news is that many are genuinely doing good and measurable work to protect wildlife. ZSL London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, for instance, have made important contributions to sustaining and repopulating some of the world’s damaged environments. Animal research teams at these institutions carry out studies into animal physiology and behaviour, and develop revolutionary veterinary procedures that could save the lives of animals in the wild.

It’s difficult to monitor whether all zoo animals’ needs are being met

In these cases, the contribution to conservation is real. The scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild, until Whipsnade Zoo bred and released them back into their native habitat, where they have already began to breed. Similarly, ZSL’s Project Seahorse has created 35 protected marine areas and led to bans on the export of seahorses from Vietnam, Senegal and Guinea.


Many zoos do serious conservation work

ZSL also leads the #oneless campaign, working to reduce the number of single-use plastic bottles in the UK and therefore helping to protect the environments in which the animals live. This is alongside specialist programmes for conserving pangolins (small scaly mammals), promoting sustainable palm oil farming for the Sumatran tigers and mitigating conflict between humans and elephants in Thailand.

In 2019, can we justify keeping animals in enclosures for our own entertainment? In a perfect world, where no animals were endangered and every family could afford an African safari, we wouldn’t need zoos. But in the real world, if human entertainment is offset by genuine and measurable conservation efforts, and a vital education for our kids, then perhaps zoos aren’t always a bad thing.

 

What can responsible parents do?

  • Before going to a zoo, make sure it is a member of BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums). BIAZA hold their members to very high standards and focus on protecting animals and their natural habitats. Members include:

Battersea Park Children’s Zoo | Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park | Blair Drummond Safari & Adventure Park | Bristol Zoo Gardens | Chessington World of Adventures | Chester Zoo | Drayton Manor Zoo | Drusillas Park | Flamingo Land | Hobbledown | Isle of Wight Zoo | Jersey Zoo | London Aquarium | Longleat | Marwell Zoo | New Forest Wildlife Park | RZSS Edinburgh Zoo Twycross Zoo | West Midland Safari & Leisure Park | Woburn Safari Park | WWCT Newquay Zoo | ZSL London Zoo | ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

  • If your kids are old enough, have an honest discussion about the pros and cons of zoos, emphasising the importance of treating animals well.
  • Think about ways your family life impacts on animal welfare. If you’re a family of meat-eaters, consider where you source meat and dairy products. Perhaps take the kids to a free-range farm and start their education there.
  • Explore other ways for kids to learn about wild animals. There are amazing exhibitions about the natural world at the Natural History Museum, London.
  • Embrace technology. Thanks to advances in technology, kids can get close to wildlife in a virtual world. Sea Life London Aquarium collaborated with BBC’s Frozen Planet, in an awesome exhibition where people could interact with virtual reality orca whales and polar bears.

Find out what Family Traveller columnist Mariella Frostrup thinks about zoos