Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Zoos and Aquaria - UK

Pole Pole London zoo
The premature death of elephant Pole Pole at London Zoo led to the launch of Zoo Check (now the Born Free Foundation)

There is a long history of maintaining wild animals in captivity in menageries and zoological collections in the UK. The menagerie at the Tower of London was set up in 1235 during the reign of Henry III; and London Zoo opened as a ‘scientific’ zoo in 1828.

Today, a large number of establishments display wild animals to the public in the UK - latest estimates put the number at well over 500, with 465 such facilities in England alone.

These include traditional zoos, safari parks, aquaria, aviaries, vivaria, butterfly parks, falconry centres and more - most of which are required, by law, to be licensed and inspected as ‘zoos’.


The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 was put in place to ensure that animals in such premises are provided with a suitable environment, through a process of inspection and licensing of all zoos in Great Britain. The Act has been updated to reflect the requirements of the EU Zoos Directive (European Council Directive 1999/22/EC). Northern Ireland has separate legislation.  Zoos there are licensed under the Zoo Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003.

Under the Zoo Licensing Act, a zoo is defined as an establishment where wild animals (those not normally domesticated in the British Isles) are kept for exhibition (other than a circus or pet shop) to which members of the public have access, with or without charge for admission, on seven or more days in a year.

The Act places a requirement on zoos to contribute to conservation. Zoos must participate in at least one of the following;

  • Research from which conservation benefits accrue to species of wild animals;
  • Training in relevant conservation skills;
  • The exchange of information relating to the conservation of species of wild animals;
  • Where appropriate, breeding of wild animals in captivity; and
  • Where appropriate, the repopulation of an area with, or the reintroduction into the wild of, wild animals;

The Act also requires that zoos contribute to education, either formally (through school visits and the provision of education resources and materials) or informally (through informative signage).  

According to the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, zoos are expected to promote ‘public education and awareness in relation to the conservation of biodiversity, in particular by providing information about the species of wild animals kept in the zoo and their natural habitats.’

There are public safety concerns in many UK zoos
Many UK zoos are putting the visiting public at risk

The Act is supplemented by the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice (SSSMZP), which sets out guidance on accommodation and general zoo practice.  Other considerations that are taken into account include public safety, public facilities and staff training, all of which are assessed during the formal inspection, which should take place approximately every three to four years.

Local Authorities in Britain are responsible for the licensing and inspection of zoos. Government-appointed Zoo Inspectors assist Local Authorities in considering zoo licence applications, renewals and periodic inspections.  Zoo inspection reports inform the Local Authority of the Zoo Inspector’s opinion regarding the conditions of the zoo and whether the zoo is meeting the legislative requirements.

They can include recommendations for improvements that should be made to the facility.  There is also a provision for the Inspector to recommend that the Local Authority attaches specific conditions to the zoo’s licence requiring the zoo to make compulsory improvements within a set period of time to attain the required standards.

Our Work in the UK

Twycross zoo
Zoo Check monitors UK zoos and campaigns to end captive suffering

Every year, Born Free’s Zoo Check team receives reports regarding many zoological collections and captive animal facilities, investigates concerns and collects information in order to assess and evaluate the performance and standards of UK zoos.  Over the years, Born Free’s investigations have revealed that many UK zoos do not provide their animals with the best possible living conditions or standards of care and sometimes put the visiting public at risk. 

Born Free is concerned that the current zoo licensing and inspection system often fails to guarantee the welfare of animals in UK zoos.
A 2012 analysis of the reports of government-appointed inspectors from 192 British zoos, highlighted a number of concerns about the inspection process itself, and identified areas where changes would lead to improvements in both the inspection process and the monitoring of animal welfare standards in zoos. See The Assessment of Animal Welfare in British Zoos by Government-Appointed Inspectors.

Many UK zoos fail to allow their animals to express most normal behaviour
Many UK zoos fail to allow their animals to express most normal behaviour

Zoos frequently promote themselves to the general public as centres of conservation and education.  However, the conservation of ‘Threatened’ species does not appear to be a priority in many UK zoos and the level of public education can be poor.  In 2007, the Born Free Foundation undertook a series of investigations to assess the conservation commitment of the UK’s more ‘progressive’ zoos. Our Animal Ark or Sinking Ship report revealed some startling findings, which called into question whether the conservation credentials of zoos should be taken on trust alone. 

In 2012, the Born Free Foundation surveyed 25 randomly-selected zoos across England as part of The EU Zoo Inquiry, an EU-wide evaluation of the implementation and enforcement of the European Council Directive 1999/22/EC.  This investigation assessed these 25 zoos’ participation in any conservation activities; public education; enclosure quality; public safety; and animal welfare, evaluating the findings against the legal requirements of the EU Zoos Directive and the Zoo Licensing Act.  The performance of Local Authorities in England was also assessed.  Overall, the findings of The EU Zoo Inquiry indicated that zoos in England were not fully compliant with the Zoo Licensing Act.  The investigation found that English zoos appeared to making an insignificant contribution to the conservation of Threatened and endangered species.  Just 17% of the species found in the 25 zoos were officially classified as ‘Threatened’ and only 3% as ‘Critically Endangered’.  Read The EU Zoo Inquiry, England report

Visit the Zoo Check Publications page to read more about our investigations.

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

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