‘Should We Close Our Zoos?’ – Our Verdict

Dear Friends,

This is possibly one of the most important (and longest) blogs I have ever posted but please persevere. I think you might agree.

In March 1984 when, originally called Zoo Check, a small group of individuals (including my mother, father and myself) dipped our toes in the murky waters of the the zoo world, we were dismissed by the then Director of the London Zoo as a ‘nine day wonder’.

The bare-faced arrogance and cheek of it. A bunch of ‘actors’ and ‘luvvies’ questioning the purpose and existence of zoos. Preposterous!

And not just practical matters like animal welfare; the quality of the captive environment; the prevalence of abnormal ‘stereotypic’ behaviours; the apparent lack of real education; the validity of captive-breeding programmes and the so-called ‘conservation dividend’ – but the ethical and moral justifications for locking wild animals up for life on the basis that they are ‘ambassadors for their species’ and that their sacrifice would be the species’ gain.

My late father Bill spent most of the last three years of his life travelling round numerous European zoos, filming, recording and exposing the physical and mental suffering of the numerous animals he saw. The strange, repetitive, seemingly pointless behaviours he saw he called ‘zoochotic’. And, as had been the case so many times in the past, he was years ahead of his time. He proved that the zoo industry, a multi-billion-dollar global business based on the incarceration of millions of wild animals, was out of time.

On Sunday the 17th April 2016, BBC Two broadcast a Horizon documentary entitled ‘Should We Close Our Zoos?’. Modern broadcasting. Contemporary, insightful, probing, fair but tough. Liz Bonnin asked the same questions we were asking over 30 years ago and she seemed to draw the same conclusion.

We said it then, and we have been saying it ever since. Based on the evidence, in our view, the ‘zoo experiment’ has failed.

For this very special blog, I have asked my mother, the co-founder of the Born Free Foundation and the constant moral compass of this organisation for more than 30 years, to offer her thoughts, not only about the past and the present, but of the future.

Here are her thoughts:

At last. A programme that scientifically analyses and questions the relevance of zoos, the future of zoos, and the significance of zoos. I am grateful to Liz Bonnin for courageously challenging the zoo establishment. I must give credit to some individuals, some from the zoo world, for being more than usually frank about the true reality of ‘saving species’. I wish to especially acknowledge the contribution by David Hancocks, Professor Georgia Mason and Dr. Sarah Bexell.

Can conservation in zoos have any relevance whatsoever? Education is obviously a non-starter. I recall, according to Horizon, that just 3% of larger zoos’ massive global income is applied to conservation in the field.

The first and most urgent need is to ensure that wild areas and the wild species they are home to must be effectively protected. Zoos, with their massive resources have, so far, spectacularly failed to make the kind of investment needed to secure wild places and biodiversity. Cherry-picking a handful of the world’s most charismatic species (as David Hancocks so accurately points out) is not really conservation, as does Sarah Bexell who, having invested 20 or more years in the idea that captive breeding can make a measurable and significant contribution to conservation, comes to the painful conclusion that the experiment has largely ‘failed’. My goodness how I feel for her and admire her honesty.

Keeping millions of wild animals alive as living museum exhibits is no solution and puts us, their ‘keepers’ to shame.

While, I must admit, I was a little disappointed that there was no spokesperson from Born Free – considering that it was many years ago (32 to be exact), that we first publicly set out our views on the relevance (and humanity) of ‘conservation’ of species in captivity, I am enormously gratified that the concerns we have expressed for so very long are now, perhaps, the mainstream and are no longer the preoccupations of a few ‘misguided actors’.

Years before Zoo Check, many years before The Born Free Foundation, Bill wrote: ‘We can learn as much about lions by studying them in their cages as we can about men by studying them in their prison cells’.

The evidence has been staring us in the face since then. How many more years must pass before we admit our mistakes, not out of a sense of guilt but in a desire to do the right thing, to make things better, to learn?

It would be more humane and wise for zoos to recognise that the experiment is over, that we must make amends now before the future of wildlife on earth is over and all we have to remind us of our misguided past – are zoos.

My mum is 85 this year. They say that with age comes wisdom. Will we have the wisdom to listen to her and act?

I would ask you to please share this blog. Thank you.

Blogging off.


PS You can watch the programme here:


(Available to viewers in the UK; if you are outside the UK, you may not be able to view the programme).

And visit our Zoo Check pages here

7 Responses to “‘Should We Close Our Zoos?’ – Our Verdict”

  1. Anna Spencer Says:

    BillTravers had great insight, when he said years ago
    that you can learn as much about animals in captivity
    as you can by observing prisoners in gaol.
    It is morally reprehensible to keep animals as
    prisoners in zoos for the public to gawk at, when
    there are countless animal documentaries
    available for them to watch. Zoos should be phased
    out as soon as possible, with no more animals
    incarcerated to live a life of misery.


  2. Donna Mackenzie Says:

    Well said Virginia and Will. While the programme was, in places, difficult to watch it was very well done. If I wasn’t already of the opinion that zoos are wrong I would be after watching this. Even zoos that are well intentioned simply cannot give the animals the space they naturally require to thrive. When you look at some of the enclosures they may at first seem okay(ish) but when you stop and think about the fact that that is the animals’ entire world is when you realize how wrong this type captivity is. And all so that visitors can give them a passing glance, take a photo then move on and forget about them. One of the (many) things I like about Born Free is the focus on the individual animal, we cannot leave so many individuals to the mercy of zoos any longer. Hopefully this programme will have allowed many more people to see the light and reality.

  3. Peter Tucker Says:

    Thank you Will and Virginia. The public badly need educating on why keeping wild animals in captivity is always wrong: whether that be in zoos, pet-shops, circuses, establishents like Seaworld – they are all about profit with animal cruelty and subjugation being the by-product. The Born Free foundation are performing an invaluable service highlighting this, and so many other wildlife related matters.

    I’ve just been reading Born Free’s latest “Wildlife Times” magazine – the articles that you have both written for it – “A New Era Dawns” and “Fify Year On” are both very moving.

    Thank you again: you will always have my support.

  4. Bob Baylis Says:

    You were right all those years ago Will (and Virginia) and you are right today. The days of zoos (as they are) are numbered.

  5. Catherine Clarke Says:

    It has been many years ago that I visited a zoo (not be repeated). I came out feeling sad and depressed. I’ve always wondered why people want to see animals out of their natural environment. What does it say to our children?

  6. LOEUIL Says:

    Je souhaite ne plus voir d animaux dans les cirques .
    Celà représente trop de souffrances….ces animaux sont prisonniers , malheureux , maltraités et pas faît pour cette vie.
    Pas plus que les dolphinariums .
    Tout cela ne devrait plus exister . Born to be free ….

  7. LOEUIL Says:

    Please stop to use animals in zoo .
    They are born to be free …not for this horrible Life .
    Thank you .