Zoo Check team member, Katie Richards, blogs on her recent trip to Edinburgh Zoo

Dear Friends,

As part of Born Free’s long term agenda, I have been visiting zoos for over 30 years. Whilst I have seen some improvements along the way, the vast majority are still significantly substandard. My colleague, Katie Richards has recently been to Edinburgh Zoo and explains all about her visit in her guest blog below.

Blogging off
Will

The newest member of our Zoo Check team, Katie Richards, blogs on her recent trip to Edinburgh Zoo

Since taking up my role within the Zoo Check team 8 months ago, I have visited several zoos across the UK to monitor conditions first hand and to keep an eye on the welfare of the animals. It has been a surprising and sometimes shocking few months, as I have seen many cases of woefully inadequate environments, often lacking in the most basic care, in some of the UK’s most popular zoos.

A recent visit to Edinburgh Zoo stands out in particular. Zoos in the UK have a legal obligation to educate their visitors about biodiversity conservation and to accommodate their animals in appropriate conditions. Yet, on the day of my visit, a capuchin in the indoor primate area was repetitively pacing back and forth in its indoor enclosure, and twisting its neck in exactly the same spot each time. I returned 3 hours later to find, sadly, that the monkey was following exactly the same sequence. Having previously worked at a primate sanctuary, I am familiar with the behaviour of capuchin monkeys in captivity, and it was evident that this monkey was displaying stereotypic behaviour: repetitive, functionless behaviour that develops in some animals in captivity as a result of impoverished or frustrating environments that it may be experiencing or may have experienced in the past.

Capuchins are intelligent primates and it was distressing for me to see this particular individual displaying stereotypic behaviour. It is of course possible that this monkey developed this behaviour elsewhere before arriving at the zoo, but nevertheless it was still on display to the public without any explanation. How can this ever be justified as educational?

Unfortunately, the abnormal behaviour was not limited to the capuchin. I witnessed stereotypic behaviour in the giant anteater, a red-fronted macaw and several other animals.

What was particularly troubling was how visitors appeared to interpret the abnormal behaviours of the animals. For example, at the Asiatic lion enclosure, barriers had been put up with a note to explain that the lions needed privacy. Despite this, several people stood watching as the lions walked back and forth, continuously pacing; again, indicative of stereotypic behaviour. While I stood videoing the lions a young child of around 6 or 7 stood beside me and innocently asked her parent “why is the lion doing that?”. Desperately wanting to answer, I continued to film waiting to hear the response, hoping that the parent would explain that the animal is in fact showing a behaviour that is abnormal. Sadly, the child’s question went unanswered and I can only assume she went home none the wiser.

That one moment really brought home to me just how easy it is for zoos to avoid being truly educational. By presenting visitors with a fleeting encounter with animals in an unnatural environment, how easy it is to overlook the problems of life in captivity. And what little hope there is of inspiring future generations to actively contribute to wildlife conservation, if we must rely on education in zoos. I can honestly say that I have learnt so much more from wildlife documentaries than I ever will at a zoo. While it is so tragic to know that the child never got the correct answer for why the lion was pacing, it is even more tragic to think that a single visit may be the only time that child comes close to seeing an Asiatic lion. It begs the question as to why the animal is there in the first place. Is it a true representation of how lions live naturally in India’s Gir Forest? Not by a long shot, in my opinion. Will the lions currently at Edinburgh Zoo ever be reintroduced back in to the wild where they belong? I am very doubtful.

After my visit, I shared some of the footage on my personal social media account. As usual, the videos received quite a lot of attention with many people commenting on how they have witnessed similar behaviour during their trips to zoos and how it has put them off visiting again. However, I was surprised to receive a comment from someone who works as a zookeeper, saying that the video was a “misrepresentation” of how the lions live at the zoo.
Now, if my video, simply recording what the animals at the zoo were doing on the day of my visit, was a “misrepresentation”, surely the biggest misrepresentation of all is keeping these animals in captivity in a zoo in Scotland, in enclosures that bear little resemblance in terms of space and complexity to their natural habitat – in the name of education?

It is all too easy to forget that we are looking at living, sentient animals in zoos, and it is not good enough to simply accept claims that zoos are educational and necessary for conservation, especially when there are questions about the welfare of these animals.

The downside, it seems to me, far outweigh the meagre ‘benefits’ on offer to either animals or people.

Katie Richards
Zoo Check Officer
Born Free Foundation

One Response to “Zoo Check team member, Katie Richards, blogs on her recent trip to Edinburgh Zoo”

  1. Donna Mackenzie Says:

    Thank you Katie for highlighting the plight of the ‘prisoners’ in this zoo. I live about 30 miles away and was taken there once as a young child. My only memory is of an elephant in a concrete pit, swaying and distressed. Even then I knew this was wrong. I have only been back once, about 10 years ago. The poor elephant was long gone but the sight of, particularly the big cats, in pitfully small enclosures, either pacing or lying staring with eyes which showed total despair will also stay with me forever.

    My friend questioned why an information board stated an antelope (or similar) was native to the flat sandy deserts of Africa yet the animals were housed on a grassy hill in Edinburgh. Exactly. All so visitors can give a passing glance, take their photo then move on and zoos can pretend this is education and conservation.