Zoos: Conservation or Cruelty

When we think of zoos, we think of family days out and beautiful animals. What many of us don’t think about is the dark history of zoos and the mistreatment of animals that is ongoing in parts of the world. Shocking cruelty and misguided breeding efforts spark an ethical debate: What right do we have to keep animals in captivity? Should we be advocating zoos as a society or should we campaign for their closure?

Zoos date back to Ancient Egypt where animals were displayed in cells from around 1500 BC. In the UK zoos became extremely popular in the Victorian era and were filled with exotic species brought back from explorations, crammed into tiny cages and forced to perform for audiences. As late as the 1950’s, “human zoos” were widespread through Europe. African people were kidnapped and exhibited for the public to stare at, adding to the sobering history of zoos. Find the full timeline of British zoos here.

Today, there are over 10,000 zoos worldwide attracting 600 million visitors. Times have changed, and the regulations on enclosures has tightened. However, there are still thousands of establishments treating animals with cruelty.


Seven Star Park in Guilin, China. Britta Jaschinski 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Harrowing images of such places fuel the moral argument against zoos. These are wild animals: what gives us the right to put them in a cage? Animals suffer from severely altered behaviour and psychological disturbance as a result of being in captivity1. Even zoos in the developed world are supporting some questionable activities. The Isle of Wight zoo offers a “Big Cat Training Experience” for the handsome sum of £140, in which budding zookeepers “train” the cats to “touch sticks with their nose or paw. It is shocking that training animals in this way goes on right under our noses. The focus of zoos has shifted from entertainment to breeding and release programs, but many zoos do not contribute to these schemes. Breeding animals in captivity results in low genetic diversity and programs are hugely biased towards charismatic species. The Giant Panda is a point in case and efforts often seen as being in vain, but millions of pounds are spent trying to rear a successful offspring. Is all of this just a waste of time?

Zoos that treat their animals humanely hold the potential to benefit the world of conservation. Zoos fund conservation projects across the globe, which contribute to the preservation of species. Check out some of the projects funded by Chester Zoo here. In-situ breeding programs boost the numbers of endangered animals or even provide the only refuge for an otherwise extinct species, such as the South China Tiger. A major benefit is their ability to promote a connection with wildlife that so many people are lacking. As David Attenborough puts it: ‘Today more and more of us live in cities and lose any real connection with wild animals and plants.’ (David Attenborough, 2004). Zoos provide a platform to raise awareness about global issues, meaning people are more likely to donate to conservation schemes.2,3 They also play an important role in animal research, providing conclusions about animal behaviour and responses to climate change.4,5

The ethical debate around zoos is a particularly tricky one: do the research and education benefits outweigh the moral issues of captive animals? You can make up your own mind about zoos, but they have been around for a long time, and don’t seem to be going anywhere quickly.


  • Hediger, H. (1955). Studies of the psychology and behaviour of captive animals in zoos and circuses. Oxford, England: Criterion Books.
  • Miller, B., Conway, W., Reading, R.P., Wemmer, C., Wildt, D., Kleiman, D., Monfort, D., Rabinowitz, A., Armstrong, B. and Hutchins, M. (2004). Evaluating the Conservation Mission of Zoos, Aquariums, Botanical Gardens, and Natural History Museums. Conservation Biology, 18: 86–93.
  • Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., Hughes, K. and Dierking, L. (2007). Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: lessons from research in zoos and aquariums. Environmental Education Research 13: 367-383.
  • Barbosa, A. (2009). The role of zoos and aquariums in research into the effects of climate change on animal health. International Zoo Yearbook, 43: 131–135.
  • Fernandez, E. J. and Timberlake, W. (2008). Mutual benefits of research collaborations between zoos and academic institutions. Zoo Biol. 7: 470–487.


By Izzy


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