Animals Kept in Zoos -
Good or Bad?

Animals kept in zoos - is it good or bad? Do they serve a purpose or should zoos  be banned?

Let's take a look at a few facts as well as some pictures of zoo animals. But first of all, a bit of background on how zoos came about and why.


A (Very) Brief History of Zoos

Zoos are said to have started round about 1500 BC when the great Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt built a zoo. About 500 years later around the year 1000 BC, the Chinese emperor Wen Wang built a huge zoo covering about 1,500 acres called the Garden of Intelligence.

Smaller zoos were built in between 1,000 and 400 BC in Africa, India, and China to as displays of power and wealth. The ancient Greeks also established zoos for students to study animals.

When explorers found the New World in the 1400s, they captured exotic animals and brought them back to Europe. It is from this date that the modern zoo has evolved.

Above: Wolves (Dalian, China) by Anne Darling

Present Day Zoos

Today, many animal species are disappearing from our planet and this is used to justify keeping animals in captivity, however, less than 10 per cent of animals kept in zoos are endangered species.

Zoos are a multi-billion pound industry which only spends an estimated 1  percent of profits on field conservation.

Did you know that it costs approximately 16 million GBP to captive-bred and reintroduce the Arabian Oryx to the wild? UK zoos are breeding surplus animals. The baby zoo animals are exhibited as attractions but what happens to the excess adults? 

Above: Arctic Fox Sleeping in its own Excrement by Anne Darling

Abnormal Zoo Animal Activities (Stereotypic Behaviour)

Abnormal behaviour in animals kept in zoos can be widespread and may include repeated pacing, rocking, vomiting and even self-mutilation. The term for this obsessive, repetitive behaviour is zoochosis. Zoochosis is caused by: 

  • removal from natural habitat 
  • inability to adequately perform natural behaviours 
  • enforced idleness, boredom, frustration 
  • direct control by humans, loss of personal control 
  • loss of life in normal social group or solitary status 
  • caging - a totally alien environment 
  • artificial infrastructure, lighting, predictable diet, unusual noises and colours 
  • unnatural proximity of other animals and human visitors 

Stereotypic behaviour can include: 

  • pacing 
  • circling 
  • tongue-playing - licking the walls, bars or gates 
  • bar-biting 
  • neck twisting - unnatural twisting and rolling of the neck, often combined with pacing behaviour 
  • swaying - head and shoulders or even the whole body 
  • head bobbing and weaving - moving the head up and down or to and fro 
  • rocking

Above: Two Polar Bears in an Indoor, Fluorescent-Lit Tank by Anne Darling

Other abnormal zoo animal activities include rushing haphazardly around in an attempt to escape, refusing to eat in captivity, self inflicted physical harm, over-grooming to the extent of pulling out hair or feathers, hyper-sexual activity, apathy, mothers attacking, killing or abandoning their offspring, animals not maturing properly, uncontrolled aggression, vomiting and regurgitation, unnaturally playing with and eating of excrement.

Petting Zoos

Some zoos advertise themselves as 'petting zoos' where you (or more often your children) are allowed to get up close to certain animals and pet them. Bu is petting zoo animals really a harmless activity? The promotion of 'hands on' experiences where the public can physically interact with animals is potentially dangerous. 

Zoonoses are diseases that can be transmitted between people and vertebrate animals. This could include petting zoo animals such as those found in children's zoos or meet-the-animal sessions where members of the public are encouraged to stroke, hold or feed animals kept in zoos.

Above: A 3-legged Bear Kept Out of Public View by Anne Darling

(Note that the 'debris' under the cage is the bear's own excrement)

Become a Zoo Checker

Zoo Checkers help in raising issues, activating others, questioning the role of zoos. A Zoo Checker gathers relevant information about animals kept in zoos by gathering data, investigating claims, uncovering facts and completing reports.

With information about a captive animal's 'environment', Zoo Check can assess whether the requirements of each species are provided for, including suitable shelter, food, water, shade, privacy and proper standards of hygiene.

Zoo Checkers do not analyse the information nor do they run campaigns. 'General' investigators gather information about anything relating to animals kept in zoos. 'Specialist' Checkers focus on a particular species or topic, for example polar bears, stereotypic behaviour, the illegal pet trade, or aquariums.

In order to become a professional Zoo Checker you start training at level one as an unpaid volunteer. At level 7 you are considered qualified to work as a professional in full-time employment.

  • Level 1 join Zoo Check
  • Level 2 produce a Zoo Check report
  • Level 3 attend a Zoo Check workshhop
  • Level 4 produce higher quality reports
  • Level 5 attend a Zoo Check one-week course
  • Level 6 achieve 'Best Checker' status on a Zoo Check course
  • Level 7 work full-time as an employed Zoo Checker either with Zoo Check itself or another animals welfare or governmental organisation.

To get started, contact the Born Free Foundation. They provide each Zoo Checker with a free Zoo Check Action pack which tells you how to collect the information. Zoo Check members undertake voluntary visits to animal attractions in their local area or while on holiday and provide the Born Free Foundation with photographs and/or a video report of their visit.

For more information send an email to: zoocheck@bornfree.org.uk or go to their website at www.bornfree.org.uk.

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