How does coronavirus affect animals in zoos?


As Britain is in the middle of a period where opportunities for people to leave the house are restricted, and as some zoos plead poverty and threaten to kill their animals, we need to consider carefully what this crisis means for animals in captivity – now and into the future – says Dr Chris Draper, Born Free’s Head of Animal Welfare & Captivity

Across the world, visitor attractions are closed in an unprecedented and almost universal response to a global threat to human health. Here in Britain, all zoos have now been closed to the public, and people are required to stay at home except for absolute necessities.

While the government appears to have thought of, or be in the process of responding to, many of the human problems arising from the coronavirus shutdown, the fate of wild animals in captivity in zoos remains uncertain. Zoos are non-essential, and to some will be of little consequence compared to losing their income or dealing with the threat to loved ones. However, to many of us, alongside our concerns for our family, friends, community, society and the economy, this presents a deeply troubling situation. Can zoos, which rely so heavily on money from visitors, ensure the welfare of their animals while their source of funds is in lockdown?

Several zoos have already made pessimistic and shocking pronouncements, indicating that they will be forced to kill their animals if they do not receive financial support from the public. 

There is a common misconception that many or all zoos are charities or not-for-profit: in fact, a great many zoos in the UK are run for profit, meaning that the fates of the animals may be closely linked to whether or not the zoo owners or shareholders are making money. This does not, of course, mean that zoos make big profits; in fact, many almost certainly operate with very risky margins. But what is clear is that for almost any zoo, a huge downturn in zoo visitation will have significant impacts, with many animal lives and human livelihoods on the line. 

We certainly don’t want animal lives to be negatively impacted by the economic effects of coronavirus, and like everyone else, zoo employees do not deserve to have their livelihood snatched away. While we are in a crisis situation, common sense and compassion must prevail, and zoo operators must work to ensure the adequate care of their animals. There are significant challenges to be faced, such as maintaining food supplies and keeper care. Whatever our view of zoos, if there is a way to ward off the loss of animal care staff and the genuine possibility of animal starvation, it needs to be considered. Perhaps, if possible, this should include government support: not only for staff wages, as is currently being provided to all employers, but to address the costs of animal food and veterinary care, if necessary. Such an approach has already been proposed by zoos in Germany.

On the other hand, we must not let our genuine concern and compassion for animals compel us to unnecessarily fill zoos’ coffers, or temporarily shore up inherently failing zoos. For decades, Born Free has advocated that all zoos should pay into a financial bond to ensure the appropriate care for their animals in the event of the zoo’s closure. Unfortunately, this recommendation has yet to be adopted by government or industry. We hope that the current situation will lead to this being reviewed.

Earlier this month it was revealed that tigers at the Bronx Zoo in the USA appear to have been infected with covid-19. While this development needs careful examination and consideration, there is no need to panic: this is, as yet, an isolated case, and there is no evidence that these infected animals can shed the virus and infect humans. Nonetheless, this situation exemplifies just how unnatural zoos are: the proximity between an infected zookeeper and captive tigers permitted the virus to pass from human to animal.

So when the confusion and panic clears, we must avoid returning to business as usual when it comes to zoos. This is an opportunity for zoos to look for alternative business models, to reduce and consolidate their animal collections (and consequently their outgoings – animals are expensive to keep), envision a different future where genuine support for wildlife occurs in the wild instead of ventures that hold the lives of captive sentient beings in their hands.

Just maybe, there will now be a chance to re-evaluate what is important to us, to humanity, and recalibrate our seemingly endless exploitation of the natural world. The coronavirus outbreak is a tragedy, but it could also serve to remind people that we are not invincible, but vulnerable to diseases when we hunt, harvest, and consume wild animals. The outbreak has caused tremendous suffering, but also provided brief moments for the planet to catch its breath, for pollution levels to drop while so many of us have been stopped from driving and flying. Let’s look for the silver lining and not be overwhelmed by the dark cloud, and in future I hope we will recall that wild animals do not exist on this planet for amusement or exploitation. And throughout our period of captivity, let’s try to remember just how similar our experience is to animals in zoos; even though, for us, it is hopefully temporary.


24th April 2020: Defra has announced an emergency funding package to be made available to zoos in the UK. However, Born Free believes this support must come with conditions to ensure it does not simply prolong the inevitable, with zoos facing the same situation again in a month or two. We would strongly advocate that zoos lacking the necessary long-term financial stability should be funded on the proviso that they close, and the funds be used to ensure the humane rehoming of their animals to other facilities, rather than being temporarily shored up.

Image: George Logan