Born Free brings together expert panel to look ‘Beyond Zoos’

On Wednesday 29 November, Born Free hosted an inspiring evening of discussion exploring the moral, ethical, conservation, educational and economic questions posed by the keeping of animals in captivity, and what a future ‘beyond zoos’ could look like.

A panel of five people sitting on a stage, with large projector screen behind them and large audience in front

To a packed floor at London’s prestigious Royal Geographical Society, a panel of world-renowned speakers were introduced to the hundreds of supporters, industry professionals and press joining, both person and online, Born Free’s ‘Beyond Zoos’ event.

Hosted and chaired by Born Free’s Co-Founder and Executive President, Will Travers OBE, the fascinating evening took place in the Ondaatje Lecture Theatre where, for more than a century, thought-provoking debate has taken place. And ‘Beyond Zoos’ was no exception.

The evening, kindly sponsored by the FinTech group Nukkleus Inc, was a ground-breaking opportunity to discuss whether greater support for conservation, biodiversity, animal welfare, public education and effective research can be delivered in a future where animals are no longer held captive in zoos.

The audience was warmly welcomed by Will Travers OBE, who began “We’re going to talk about Beyond Zoos. So tonight, we’re not going to be arguing about the merits and demerits of zoos specifically. But we’ll be discussing the challenges that face the natural world, whether the response from zoos is up to the mark and what a world ‘beyond zoos’ might look like, if we are to meet those challenges and try to mitigate, and even, overcome them.”

Will then set the scene for the discussion, presenting background information and research highlighting the many flaws in the conservation, research, animal welfare and education claims made by zoos and their proponents. “There are around ten thousand zoos around the world, and they hold millions and millions of animals in captivity,” he stated. He proceeded to share figures showing how zoo expenditure on conservation is dwarfed by the sums of money facilities spend on building expensive enclosures, how few animals in captivity are threatened species and reported data on the limited time zoo visitors engage with educational information on display. The audience were left aghast as he shared, “of the eleven zoos in the UK that house elephants, eight have car parks bigger than their elephant enclosures.”

The speakers then took to the stage, to outline their own profoundly unique, personal and professional journey that has led them each, for differing reasons, to believe that now is the time for conservationists, wildlife lovers, politicians and the public to humanely push for change away from the zoo model.

L-R Will Travers, Greta Iori, Damian Aspinall, Winnie Kiiru, Chris Packham, stood in front of a Born Free logo board

L-R: Will Travers OBE, Greta Iori, Damian Aspinall, Dr Winnie Kiiru, Chris Packham CBE

Speaking first was world-renowned Kenyan research scientist Dr Winnie Kiiru, Executive Director of Kenya’s Mpala Research Centre and a wildlife biologist with over 25 years of experience in wildlife management, environmental policy, and global environmental advocacy. Dr Kiiru spoke about her experience in the field working at MPALA  which she described, much to the delight of the audience, as a “not zoo”.

She brought to life not only the experience of seeing wildlife in its true natural environment, but the value and importance of the research conducted involving animals as part of their eco-system, not in unnatural habitats. Dr Kiiru also spoke of the hugely important role the communities who live alongside wildlife play in ensuring there is a future for animals, in their natural habitats, beyond zoos.

“Often when you look at movies”, she said, “you get to see Africa without people. That is a narrative that is incorrect. Africa has people, and it is because of them that the wildlife survives. And if we are going to have wildlife in the future, it is because we recognise the people of Africa and the contribution they make, sharing their resources and their space with wildlife.”

Next, the Chairman of the Aspinall Foundation and The Howletts Wild Animal Trust, Damian Aspinall, spoke frankly and personally about his realisation that his life’s work as the owner of two wildlife parks, was in his own words, ‘wrong’. He explained to the audience, “you think you’re doing this wonderful work for conservation, and slowly, over a period of time, it dawned on me what we were doing was actually letting the animals in our care down, and we were actually letting you down, because we were leading the public to believe, like all zoos do, that we were doing great conservation work, and that’s a myth, it’s just not true.”

He went on to outline how he transformed his foundation into the preeminent rescue and rewilding organisation in the world today, and his belief that re-wilding is part of the future ‘beyond zoos’ – and he says he has the proof that it can be done. He was damning of the zoo fraternity’s attitude to change, stating, “You’d think now we’ve rewilded more than 1,200 animals, including 70 gorillas, 300 primates; that zoos would be wanting to follow our path, but they don’t. So, I want to try and persuade public opinion that things have got to change.”

Damian was followed by Greta Iori, an Ethiopian-Italian environment and wildlife conservation adviser and Director of Program Development for the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation. Greta spoke eloquently about the huge complexities of looking ‘beyond zoos’, and how any future without animals in captivity is impossible to imagine without simultaneously addressing huge issues such as climate change, capitalism and inequity between the Global North and the Global South. She strongly advocates for a future where solutions to the biodiversity crisis and captivity are identified by conservationists, including some in the zoo community, and that people and the public work together to bring about change.

Greta stated: “We need to stop arguing amongst ourselves about the nitty gritty, because it is wasting time. Zoos are funnelling a lot of money into something that is completely useless, but, if we come together with less aggressive disagreements, I think we have a much stronger narrative and we can work together to build a world in which humans and wildlife can co-exist.”

The final speaker of the night was acclaimed naturalist and broadcaster, Chris Packham CBE. “Zoos are a fixture of our lives, they’ve always been there, and thus they sadly have become for many ‘background noise’: too familiar to question, something that just is, just happens,” he said.

“But the world has changed way more rapidly than the vast majority of zoos. The core ethos of many is outdated, and few are fuelled with a genuine desire to accept the changes they so desperately need to make. I grew up in zoos, my partner Charlotte inherited a zoo, but that was then. Now, more than ever, we, and they, must robustly question their roles and radically change their practices.”

Will Travers stood at a lectern

Will Travers speaking at Beyond Zoos

After each speaker had given their presentation, Will Travers took to the floor to discuss some key ‘talking points’ with the panel about the realistic alternatives to captivity; what funding models for conservation without zoos might look like, how to break away from the culturally engrained practice of visiting zoos, and changing public opinion so footfall in zoos, and therefore revenue streams, are cut. This was followed by insightful comment and questions from the live audience, who raised important points about education, the difference between zoos and sanctuaries and how technology could play a part in a future ‘beyond zoos.’

Bringing the event to a close, Will summarised: “What we are faced with is both a practical and moral dilemma. There is a great moral component to the notion that we find it acceptable to lock up fellow travellers on this planet for our own entertainment.

“And we have got to take the politics out of this. The protection of our planet, the restoration of nature, the conservation of the ecosystem that we all rely on, should not be political. It should be universally accepted by every single elected leader that we have, and with that should come the resources to make sure that we invest in nature.”

A night of challenging, passionate and rousing discussion was dedicated to Born Free Co-Founders Dame Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers MBE, whose vision to look ‘beyond zoos’ more than 40 years ago inspires the charity to this day.