Zoos have their origins in the ancient menageries of kings and emperors, but ‘modern’ zoos evolved in the 19th Century. Animals were largely kept as indications of wealth and power, or displayed as a curiosity. Animals were perceived as objects and little thought was given to their own physical, environmental, social or psychological needs. They were confined to small spaces in barren cages, permanently on show to the viewing public. Their enclosures bore little resemblance to the natural habitats in the wild.
In recent years, pressure from animal welfare organisations, changing public attitudes and updated zoo regulations have, in some cases, led to improvements in animal welfare in zoos. Some zoos have moved away from the “living museum” concept of earlier decades and the 'cageless zoo' concept began to take hold. However, the majority of zoos are poorly financed or lack the necessary skills or motivation and have failed to make these changes. There are still zoos in the UK and around the world which remain stuck in an era of concrete and iron bars.
Born Free believes that even the ‘best’ zoo can never recreate the complex environment that most species encounter in the wild, or simulate all the stimuli which keep the animal active and alert. Life in the wild is complex, unpredictable and frequently dangerous, but wild animals have evolved over millennia to meet the challenges of survival in their natural habitat. Boredom and the frustration trying to cope with captive conditions often result in an animal developing abnormal behaviours.
Increasingly, zoos have tried to reposition themselves as centres of conservation and education. The Born Free Foundation believes that the conservation benefits claimed by zoos do not justify the keeping of wild animals in captivity, and challenges the effectiveness of captivity-based conservation and education.
Born Free, through its Zoo Check programme, confronts the multi-billion pound global zoo industry, raises awareness about the plight of captive wild animals, assesses the status and performance of zoos and exposes malpractice, unjustified claims and the suffering of captive animals. Born Free seeks to prevent animal suffering; promotes improvements to and compliance with animal welfare legislation; and influences and encourages an informed public to redirect their support away from keeping wild animals in captivity to their protection in the wild.