A giraffe is bending over in an indoor zoo enclosure with the photo taken through bars

UK Zoos and Aquaria

UK zoos vary in scale and scope. A diverse range of premises including bird of prey centres, aviaries, farm parks with exotic animals, safari parks, traditional metropolitan zoos and aquariums are issued licences to operate as zoos by their local authorities.

Born Free maintains the most complete and comprehensive database of zoos in the UK. There are currently more than 350 licensed zoos in operation across the country, and more than 50% of local authorities have one or more licensed zoos within their constituency.

What are the problems with UK Zoos?

Born Free’s investigations have revealed that many zoos in the UK do not provide their animals with the best possible living conditions or standards of care. Every year, we receive many visitor reports concerning animal welfare in UK zoos.

We investigate these concerns, where possible, and raise concerns with the UK authorities, as well as encouraging the wider public to speak out.

Practices in many UK zoos, such as the use of bullhooks on captive elephants, the pinioning of birds’ wings to prevent flight in captivity, and the culling of surplus animals are all major issues of concern. Born Free is concerned the current zoo licensing and inspection system in the UK often fails to guarantee animal welfare.

Researchers from Born Free and the University of Bristol published an analysis of the reports of government-appointed inspectors from 192 British zoos.

This analysis highlighted concerns about the inspection process, and identified areas where changes would lead to improvements in both the inspection process and the monitoring of animal welfare standards in zoos. Overall, the findings indicated that zoos in Britain were not fully compliant with the Zoo Licensing Act.

Incidents in UK zoos, such as the exposé of conditions at South Lakes Safari Zoo and the frequent escape of many animals from zoos, highlights the urgent need for improved standards and more rigorous inspection processes to ensure the basic animal welfare and safety standards are in place.

Born Free exposes suffering and neglect, challenges the UK zoo industry, and lobbies for policy change.



An adult and child watch a penguin swimming through a round window at a zoo

© georgelogan.co.uk

Since 1984, British zoos have been required to meet the standards set out under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Under the Act, a zoo is defined as an establishment where wild animals (those not normally domesticated in the British Isles) are kept for exhibition (except in a pet shop) to which members of the public have access, with or without charge for admission, on seven or more days in a year.

In Britain, local authorities are responsible for the licensing and inspection of zoos. Government-appointed zoo inspectors, who carry out formal inspections every three to four years, assist local authorities in considering zoo licence applications and renewals. Operating licences are renewed every six years.

Zoo inspection reports should inform the local authority of the inspector’s opinion whether the zoo is meeting legislative requirements. Reports can include suggestions for improvements that should be made to the facility, and recommendations that the local authority attaches specific conditions to the zoo’s licence, which require the zoo to make compulsory improvements within a set period of time.

The Act is supplemented by the Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice, which sets out guidance on animal accommodation and general zoo practice. Other considerations taken into account include public safety, public facilities and staff training – all of which should be assessed during the formal inspections. In 2022, DEFRA consulted on proposed new Standards of Modern Zoo Practice for Great Britain. Born Free has added extensive comment to this consultation.

The Act places a requirement on zoos to contribute to species conservation and public education in relation to the conservation of biodiversity, either formally (through school visits and the provision of education resources and materials) or informally (through informative signage).

The Act was updated to reflect the requirements of the EU Zoos Directive (European Council Directive 1999/22/EC). Northern Ireland has separate legislation, where zoos are licensed under the Zoo Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003.



A white tiger paces behind a wire fence

© Aaron Gekoski, Born Free

Many UK zoos frequently promote themselves as centres for species conservation and public education.

Born Free questions whether the conservation credentials of UK zoos should be taken on trust alone. For example, despite frequent claims of their role in conservation, almost every zoo in the UK keeps more species at lower risk of extinction than those threatened with extinction. Our 2021 reports, Conservation or Collection and Zoos: Financing Conservation or Funding Captivity? highlight that the majority of species found in the UK’s ‘Consortium of Charitable Zoos’ are not classified as ‘threatened’ in the wild.

The funding of conservation in the wild by zoos is also a relatively tiny sum, especially when compared to the funds zoos spend on building new enclosures, advertising and catering, for example.

The evidence for the positive educational impact of zoos is inconclusive, with research into this field hampered by poor methodology. Despite claims to the contrary, it is not clear that visiting zoos leads to beneficial educational outcomes for children or adults.

If you are unhappy about your child participating in a school-organised trip to a zoo or attending a mobile zoo, please contact the organiser to explain your feelings about the problems associated with captive wild animals and why you do not want your child to take part.

Find out more and view our template letters here


Born Free challenges the UK zoo industry and lobbies for policy change.

We investigate, expose suffering and neglect, and recommend improvements to animal welfare and legislation, while encouraging an informed public to consider directing their support away from the keeping of wild animals in zoos and instead protect them in their natural habitat.

As a priority, Born Free is calling for the following actions in the UK:

  • For the government to review the Zoo Licensing Act (1981)
  • Establishment of a full-time and centralised independent zoo inspectorate to ensure consistency in the licensing and inspection of UK zoos
  • The publication and independent review of summary statistics on animal escapes and the causes of animal deaths in UK zoos
  • When considering planning applications for the development of UK zoos and similar facilities, the introduction of a mechanism to assess whether the animals’ welfare is likely to comply with existing animal-keeping legislation and standards before permission to build is granted
  • An end to the import of elephants into the UK, the introduction of moratorium on the breeding of elephants in UK zoos, and an end to the use of ‘free-contact’ handling of elephants and the use of the bullhook
  • Removal of the legal exemption which permits the pinioning (wing mutilation to prevent flight) of birds in UK zoos
  • The creation of a Zoo Insurance Bond to ensure the care and welfare of animals at a zoo which is forced to close, and their humane dispersal to other appropriate facilities during what may be a prolonged closing-down period
  • A mandatory licensing condition ensuring a minimum financial commitment by zoos to in situ conservation, representing a proportion of the income generated via the operations of the zoo.

UK Zoos: Publications & Films

A polar bear paces behind bars in an indoor enclosure

Born to Roam: The Suffering of Polar Bears in Zoos

Born Free's new report looks at the welfare concerns of polar bears kept in zoos, the true risks facing polar bears as a species, and what action needs to be taken to protect this magnificent species.
An elephant bobbing its head

Elephant-Free UK

Born Free calls on the UK Government to phase out the keeping of elephants in zoos so we have an Elephant Free UK.