Zoos and the energy crisis


Born Free’s Captivity Research Officer, Chris Lewis, reports on the potential impact of rising energy bills on UK zoos.

A tiger stands in a zoo enclosure surrounded by people taking photos of it with their mobile phones.

Over the last two weeks, reports have begun to emerge about the potential impact of rising energy bills on UK zoos. Like all businesses, zoos do not benefit from an energy price cap, but unlike other businesses which may be considering adjusting their heating, lighting etc. this is largely not possible for zoos. Many of the species they keep depend on specific environmental conditions which use large amounts of energy to control. As a result, a familiar spectre begins to loom. 

Chris Lewis

The threat that animals may need to be euthanised.

The threat that “vital” conservation work will need to be stopped.

Speculative threats have already begun to trickle through. Edinburgh Zoo’s chief executive has warned that with their monthly energy bills set to quadruple, their conservation and community pledges will need to be scaled back. The owner of Sealife Adventure in Essex has stated if the attraction closed to save money over winter that all animals would “have to be euthanised or we find [them] other homes.” Their annual energy costs have tripled.

But wait, are you feeling a sense of déjà vu? Have we not heard this before?

You would be right. These kinds of stories originally emerged during the Covid-19 lockdowns. In January 2021, Edinburgh Zoo’s chief executive made a similar statement about stopping conservation projects. Several zoos threatened the possibility of euthanising animals, and many set up donation campaigns to help keep their animals fed and watered through the pandemic. One zoo which described itself as a “Conservation Powerhouse” in one breath claimed in the next that they were “fighting for our (sic) future”. As of April 2021, the fundraising efforts of Bristol, Chester, Edinburgh, Marwell, Paignton, Twycross and London zoos had raised in excess of £4.8 million, while smaller zoos also received thousands via their own appeals. The government’s Zoo Animals Fund was inaccessible and fundamentally flawed. It remains to be seen if these or similar fundraising campaigns by zoos reappear as we approach winter.

There is no denying the energy crisis will result in serious financial challenges for zoos, as did the situation caused by Covid-19, and it is vital that financial support is made available to secure the welfare of zoo animals in dire need. That is not to say failing zoos should be propped up, but rather to ensure animals are cared for and their welfare prioritised in the event of closure. However, it is completely disgraceful and immoral of zoos to threaten the possibility of euthanising animals on a whim in order to obtain additional donations from members of the public, many of whom are also struggling financially.

The financial fragility of zoos is once again being brought to the fore and there is a distinct possibility that some smaller zoos will be forced to close. Born Free’s report Zoos: Financing Conservation or Funding Captivity in 2021 highlighted that even the largest charitable zoos in the UK had an average of 2.7 months of financial reserves pre-pandemic to cover temporary closure. The pandemic further highlighted how financially ill-prepared some zoos were for the potentially significant and negative impact of prolonged enforced closure. Measures within the proposed revised Standards of Modern Zoo Practice for Great Britain will require zoos to have access to a minimum of 6 months financial reserves. For many zoos, 6 months is still an unrealistic timeframe to ensure animals in the collection are humanely and responsibly rehomed following closure.

Born Free has written to Defra to reiterate its call for the creation of a Zoo Insurance Bond. As stated in our “Financing Conservation or Funding Captivity” report, “A Zoo Insurance Bond, similar to ATOL protection established by the travel sector, should be designed to ensure the care of animals for up to three years after a zoo is forced to close… A Zoo Insurance Bond would also obviate the need for headline-grabbing statements that animals may be euthanised if a zoo closes.”

Few of us expected the headline-grabbing statements to re-emerge so soon. The establishment of a Zoo Insurance Bond, designed to safeguard the welfare of animals held by zoos that are closing (whether as a result of financial issues or the withdrawal of their operating licence) should be a high priority not only for legislators but also the zoo industry.

The pandemic was a wakeup call all too quickly forgotten. This time the issue must not be ignored.