Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild


Although some of the worst zoos have closed or, in some cases, improved over the years, there are still many thousands of substandard captive wild animal facilities in existence in Europe. There are believed to be around 2,000 ‘zoos’ in the European Union (EU) alone. However, if all premises in the EU displaying captive wild animals to the public are included, this figure could be more than 4,000.

Born Free’s high profile investigations have revealed that many European zoos do not provide their animals with conditions that meet their physical, environmental, social and psychological needs and, in many cases, conditions are appalling. 

Some zoos in Europe have changed little in the last 30 years

In 1988, the Zoo Check Charitable Trust (now the Born Free Foundation), carried out the first Europe-wide investigation into the number and type of zoological collections to be found within the European Union called the ‘European Survey of Zoological Collections’. Previous best estimates had put the number of zoos at less than 300. However, our survey located over 1,000 zoos, the majority of which were of an extremely poor standard.  It was this evidence that helped persuade the European Commission that pan-European zoo legislation would be necessary, in addition to national zoo laws and zoo industry voluntary standards.


In June 1998, the Council of EU Environment Ministers agreed proposals drawn up by the UK Presidency for an EU Zoos Directive aimed at strengthening the conservation role of zoos. The European Council Directive 1999/22/EC was ratified on 9 April 1999 and by 2002 this required all EU countries (Member States) to draft national systems for the licensing and inspection of zoos. Since then, all countries that have become members of the EU have been obliged to transpose the requirements of the Directive into their national legislation and, from April 2005, fully implement and enforce its requirements.

The Directive defines zoos as (‘all permanent establishments where animals of wild species are kept for exhibition to the public for seven or more days a year, with the exception of circuses [and] pet shops…’). The Directive requires that all zoos (as defined) in the EU be licensed and regularly inspected, to ensure that they meet specific requirements, including: 


  • Participating in research, training or information exchange relating to species conservation
  • Promoting public education and awareness in relation to the conservation of biodiversity and habitats
  • Ensuring that the animals are kept in suitable conditions with high standards of husbandry
  • Preventing the escape of animals in order to avoid threats to indigenous animal species
  • Maintaining up-to-date records of the zoo’s collection

All zoos in the EU are expected to provide their animals with suitable living conditions that meet their biological needs and ensure their wellbeing.  Failure to meet these requirements should result in the closure of the zoo. The European Commission is responsible for overseeing and ensuring the effective implementation of the EC Zoos Directive by Member States and for taking legal action in the event of non-compliance. For example, Spain was penalized in 2007 for failures in compliance.

In many countries in Europe, but outside the EU (with the exception of Switzerland and Norway) there is often little to no specific legislation that aims to protect wild animals in captivity.  However, countries wishing to join the EU are obliged to meet the legal requirements of the EC Zoos Directive.


Our investigations have revealed terrible conditions in European Zoos

Whilst Born Free aims to end to the keeping of wild animals in zoos, we also work to highlight poor conditions and the plight of individual animals in need, ensuring that the relevant country authorities are aware of the issues, have the ability to affectively apply any relevant legislation, and take action. 

Born Free’s European zoo work is mainly focused on zoos in EU countries.  With EU legislation in place there should be some protection given to wild animals in zoos.  However, it is clear from our investigations that zoos often fail to meet the needs of many of the animals they keep.  Our efforts have concentrated on identifying and tackling the problems in these countries, whilst building the capacity of authorities and encouraging better enforcement.  Once the current problems have been addressed in the EU, we hope there will be scope to look more closely at zoos in other European countries. 

In 2006, Born Free Foundation established ENDCAP, a coalition of European animal welfare organisations and wildlife professionals who, recognising the welfare problems associated with keeping wild animals in captivity, seek greater protection for these animals and agree that wild animals should not be exploited for human entertainment. ENDCAP establishes and coordinates projects that help to improve the welfare of wild animals in captivity within the European Community.  It also campaigns to end specific forms of captive wild animal exploitation. The majority of Born Free’s work in Europe takes place in conjunction with ENDCAP, particularly with regard to political lobbying at the European Parliament. For further information visit the ENDCAP website at

Many European zoos fail to allow their animals to express most natural behaviour

Born Free Foundation, in association with ENDCAP, conducted an investigation called The EU Zoo Inquiry 2011, evaluating the implementation and enforcement of the legislation relating to the keeping of wild animals in zoos in the EU.  During this investigation a total of 200 zoos in 20 EU countries were visited and assessed.  Findings revealed that not one of the 20 countries investigated met all their legal obligations.  Zoos are still failing to meet the requirements anticipated by the EU Zoos Directive (1999/22/EC), and specifically, their responsibilities towards conserving biodiversity and maintaining high standards of animal husbandry.

Born Free Foundation and ENDCAP’s exhaustive efforts to ensure the welfare of wild animals in captivity is recognised by the European Institutions and within EU policy.  In 2009, we launched ‘Europe’s Forgotten Animals’ in Brussels and, together with this publication, efforts were applied to convince the European Commission and Parliament that this genre of animals deserved the same degree of protection as other animals in the EU.  In 2012, these efforts paid off, and wild animals in captivity were officially recognised within the EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2012-2015 and Council Conclusions. Read more about our work to achieve this goal here.


Having secured the above important objective, our EU lobbying work is increasingly focused on establishing capacity-building measures to facilitate greater understanding and protection of the welfare needs of wild animals. This includes actions as part of EU-wide initiatives to improve animal welfare education and projects focused on improving legal compliance and the care of captive wild animals within specific EU countries. These initiatives provide an opportunity for stakeholders to help ensure that Europe ‘respects captive wild animals’.

Born Free Foundation has been working with Spanish NGOs, FAADA and ANDA, since 2006, under the collective name of InfoZoos which investigates and exposes the poor conditions in Spanish zoos and assesses their compliance with Spanish law and the requirements of the European Zoos Directive.  Read more about the InfoZoos Pilot Zoo Study, and investigations into zoos in the Canary Islands and Valencia. For further information about InfoZoos visit

Bella the lion, rescued from a Romanian zoo in 2009

Over the years, Born Free has rescued or rehomed many animals from European zoos, where they had been living in squalid or substandard conditions. These animals were given new homes at a Born Free sanctuary or Born Free supported sanctuary. Read more about these animals and the rescue centres here.

Visit the Zoo Check Publications page to read more about Born Free’s investigations.

Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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