I have recently started at Born Free as our Captivity Campaigns Manager.
As part of the role, I have visited five zoos in the UK in the last few weeks. I hadn’t been to a zoo since I was at school, as I just don’t like seeing animals in cages or enclosures for my entertainment. Observing animals in their natural environment feels like a positive and exciting experience, but the feeling from a zoo visit is just one of sadness.
I have been shocked and saddened by what I have seen and heard at these zoos. In all cases, I asked about the conservation work being undertaken by the zoo. The largest I visited, which has over a million visitors a year, had not returned a single animal to the wild in its 60-year history (according to the zookeeper I asked).
I also have grave concerns about many of the captive animals I have seen, in terms of their welfare. I witnessed birds in barren enclosures, and a mixed enclosure of 15 emu, alpacas and goats with just a single small shed for shelter – possibly space for five of them at most to escape the elements. I also saw animals exhibiting repetitive behaviour – tigers pacing up and down; a parrot chewing on metal and a turtle swimming back and forth. This is completely unacceptable and shows that even with regulation, UK zoos are unable to cater for the complex needs of the animals in their care.
One of the saddest moments for me was seeing a huge male gorilla in its enclosure. I watched for quite some time and he just sat there staring at the people passing by. I heard at least three people saying how sad it was; one lady even apologised to him.
I watched a penguin feeding session at a zoo recently. The zookeepers spent their time telling us the ‘pet’ names of the penguins. They had about 50 people watching and did not provide any meaningful education at all.
As a parent, I understand wanting to teach our children about animals. But there are so many other ways. I am also curious to know how much people really learn from a ‘day out’ at the zoo.
My visits have given me a lot of food for thought. What information do we need to give people for them to rethink whether the zoo is a good choice… especially for people who love animals?
My commitment to this issue has redoubled since these zoo visits. I have seen public opinion change dramatically on a number of issues recently (for example, single-use plastic). I am hopeful that, as a nation, we can move away from zoos and engage with animals in a much more positive way.