Once upon a time, rare and exotic animals were the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy. Royal menageries served as displays of wealth and sophistication. In the 19th century, however, public zoos emerged as great democratising institutions, giving ordinary Europeans the chance to see these animals up close. Their mission was to entertain and educate the masses, opening up opportunities to everyone that previously were only available to the very rich.

Today, however, technology has made it possible for ordinary people to observe animals in their natural environment. Wildlife documentaries shot in ultra-high definition with innovations such as underwater cameras, drones, and night-vision offer a view of animals that zoos might struggle to match. Given that alternatives now exist, is it unethical to keep and display animals in captivity? What should be the place of zoos in the 21st century?

Today is World Animal Day. Marked internationally on 4 October (the feast day of the patron saint of animals, Francis of Assisi), World Animal Day is a chance to reflect on our relationship with the animal world. In defence of zoos, seeing wildlife up-close and in-person can have a huge impact on young people and children, potentially fostering a life-long love of animals and the environment. In addition, zoos across the world are keeping many endangered animal species safe from extinction, and they can collaborate with research institutions in the name of science and understanding. On the other hand, we hear stories of inbreeding, routine killing of surplus animals and abuse of animals in European zoos, which begs the question: are zoos really the best way to protect animals?

What do our readers think? We had a comment from António suggesting that visiting animals in a zoo can encourage a love of the environment and a desire to protect it. Is he right?

To get a reaction, we spoke to Doug Cress, Chief Executive Officer at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). How would he respond to António’s comment?

Yes, seeing animals in the right zoo or captive setting can have a profound effect and can lead to a love of the environment, and zoos and aquariums continue to have that impact on visitors every day. But zoos and aquariums must give the public the full story, and explain not only the threats to the environment and the animals’ natural habitat – illegal hunting, deforestation, human encroachment, disease – but also the ways in which the public can help ensure the long-term survival of wildlife and wild spaces. It is not enough to hope that visiting a zoo and gazing at animals is enough. But we need to be clear – in today’s world, a visit to the zoo is the only connection with nature than many people will have, and animals in zoo and aquariums are the only wildlife they will ever encounter.

To get another perspective, we also spoke to Pierre Sultana, Director of the EU Policy Office of Vier Pfoten (Four Paws), an international animal charity. How would he respond to António?

It depends on the zoos. If the animals are kept behind bars in a small enclosures, sometimes with concrete floors and without any enrichment possibility as unfortunately is still the case in some sub-standard zoos all over the world, the connection to the environment is not existent and the educational side of the zoo can really be questioned. This kind of zoos could even contribute to develop bad behaviours towards the animals and the environment. On the contrary, if zoos provide species-appropriate enclosures and offer the animals the possibility to be seen in all their majesty in [an appropriate] surrounding environment; zoos can certainly contribute to educating [younger] generations and developing a desire to protect the environment and the animals living in there.

We also contacted the Party for the Animals, a political party in the Netherlands which, though small, has seats in the Dutch House of Representatives and the Senate. They weren’t able to put anybody forward for interview in time for publication, but did release the following statement setting out their position on the future of zoos:

The Party for the Animals believes that zoos in their current form are no longer necessary in this day and age. We want to convert them into temporary shelter for animals who cannot live in their original habitat or cannot be put back into the wild. We warmly welcome the fact that people want to learn more about (wild) animals. In addition, we are in flavor of introducing children from an early age to the beauty and value of nature and the animals that live there. But with literature, documentaries and beautiful 3D films, a child would get a better picture of how the animals live in the wild instead of in captivity.

For the conservation of species, the fight against the disappearance of animal habitats is the most important thing – a struggle that the Party for the Animals does like no other. Breeding programs for zoos are unfortunately unsuccessful when it comes to the recovery of populations. However, there are surpluses of animals as a result of the breeding programs. As a result, thousands of healthy animals are killed every year in European zoos – also in the Netherlands.

More and more experts point to the impairment of the welfare of animals kept in the zoo. A documentary by the BBC showed that 80% of the carnivores in captivity are disturbed (stereotypical) behaviour. At all times, tighter housing requirements must apply that approach the natural living conditions as much as possible. These changes do not necessarily mean that visitors are no longer welcome, but that the function of the zoo changes as far as we are concerned and that the interests of the animals are paramount.

We also had a comment from Shauna, who thinks that confining animals in small spaces is wrong, and that animals should have the most natural life possible. Are zoos in Europe able to provide this? How would Doug Cress from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums respond?

Yes, accredited zoos and aquariums in Europe do provide the most natural life possible for the animals in their care – often because there is no other option. The loss of natural spaces and habitat for animals has led to massive declines in species numbers, and often their only hope is for conservation interventions and captive breeding programmes to stabilise species until suitable habitats can be found and protected. Again, zoos and aquariums need to take responsibility for telling these stories properly to the general public, but the alternative is not as simple as turning formerly captive animals loose into the wild, where they could encounter hunters, a lack of food, diseases, and a host of other deadly threats.

What would Pierre Sultana from the animal charity Four Paws say to the same comment?

Animals should always be offered species-specific living conditions. They should be able to express their natural behaviour and have happy lives and this is not only true for zoo animals but for all kept animals. Luckily, an increasing number of zoos in Europe have improved their standards over the last years and animals kept in these zoos can be offered conditions which allows them to live most natural lives. Unfortunately, this goes with a financial cost as improving living conditions can mean lower density, maybe less animals of less species if the zoo cannot expand geographically and can also involve investments in new building. That’s why some substandard zoos which cannot pay for the investments needed to improve the living conditions of the animals can be in a difficult situation as they will be less attractive to the visitors and therefore fall into a vicious circle and are more inclined to look for alternative sources of financing (which are not always legal or ethical).

Finally, what about the challenge of technology? Do zoos need to innovate to stay relevant, especially now we have documentaries shot by drones and high-definition cameras? We had a sceptical comment from Ágnes, who thinks that direct personal experiences cannot be replaced by technology. Is she right? How would Doug Cress react?

The answer is not binary – it is not yes or no. Rapid advances in technology such as drones are powerful conservation tools, allowing us to count orangutans in high nests in the forest canopy, identify illegal logging, or record whales and dolphins at play in the sea. But those images cannot replace a personal experience with an animal – nor should they. Taken together, these resources form a collective experience that can inspire humans to dedicate their lives to the study or protection of wildlife.

How would Pierre Sultana respond to Ágnes?

Innovation can have different meanings. Of course zoos need to innovate to attract visitors as most businesses. Over the last years, many zoos have been increasingly innovative in the way they show the animals. Often these innovations have been improving the quality of life of the animals. Innovation has to serve not only the visitors and the employees of the zoos, but also the animals. Investments into innovation have to be in accordance with the general situation of the zoo: where a wealthy zoo could probably invest into drones and other ICT, a substandard zoo should in priority invest into improving the quality of life of the animals, rebuilding and maybe expending the enclosures, or in training their staff.

Are zoos unethical? Or do they encourage a love of the environment and a desire to protect it? And how can zoos stay relevant in the 21st century? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: (c) BigStock – ELINA; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Doug Cress (c) WAZA, Pierre Sultana (c) Vivian Hertz 2016

29 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar

    Most zoos in the west are heavily involved in education, research and species preservation so some zoos are needed, those that only exist for profit are defiantly unethical and should be terminated.

    • avatar
      Bob Ostle

      This comment is valid and represents my experience. I would encourage WAZA and other similar organizations to install theatres at their facility to increase the education and research of the facility and enhance their social media presence.

    • avatar

      < Yes. Zoos do provide a research function—but I see no reason why their animals need to be kept in such small enclosures—and I am dead set against actual cages. The Safari Park model is far more conducive to the purpose; but my suspicion is that because they require so much more land (and staff), it all comes down to money.

    • avatar

      Dan We have safari parks in Portugal but the animals are only herbivores :)

  2. avatar

    Yes. Keeping animals in restricted cages for the amusement of others is horrible. Wildlife sanctuaries are a much better way of preserving nature than actual zoos, since these animals should have more interaction with other wild life forms through hunting and sharing a mutual habitat. I don’t believe there are happy caged animals.

    • avatar

      Most zoos no longer exhibit “caged” animals. Advances in the zoo field in the last couple decades have been incredible, and now the vast majority of zoos exhibit animals in naturalistic, species appropriate environments with ample enrichment provided. Zoos are designed to provide educational opportunities, teaching many more people than sanctuaries. Also, zoos often have better funding than sanctuaries, allowing them to better provide for the animals. The word ‘sanctuary’ sounds more idealistic, but many zoos serve the same function and offer the exact same or even better care.

    • avatar

      However look at national parks for elephants in Sri Lanka where herds of elephants have been herded into national parks and fenced in and now there isn’t enough food, it has to be multiprong, and calling it a zoo or a sanctuary doesn’t really make a difference to the animals within.

  3. avatar

    There are some species that would be extinct without zoos.

    Decent zoos are no more unethical than keeping pets indoors.

    • avatar

      Bódis, that is the ultimate goal for them: no animals kept at all.

    • avatar

      Then, there will be a lot fewer animals.

  4. avatar

    Some may not realise that zoo’s can protect animals from poachers and extinction, sad but true in western Europe.

  5. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    How to make a short- not so political story- longer:

    “EU rules” concerning “Animal welfare” are set out in TFEU Article 13 of Title II. (Trust the EU regulators!)

    They are designed to uphold minimum standards for “farm animals” used in agric food production & scientific experiments.



    “EU Animals” are unequal to others- given 5 freedoms! How blessed to be born an EU animal!

    2 of the “freedoms” imply that captured, exotic wild animals belong into the wild- not in any zoo, a circus or ones suburban backyard.

    * Freedom to express normal behavior
    * Freedom from fear and distress

    Suggestion: why not take the (rich) EU folks to visit the (poor) wild African animals (& its peoples) in their natural habitat? Not bring the (poor) wild African animals to the (rich) EU people in EU’s superficial habitat? Plan a nice wild holiday!

    VR= “Virtual Reality” compensates the advanced EU folks (who cannot afford to visit the wild) to enjoy every exotic adventure at home! Great! Fear & distress solved for both!

    Let’s face it; a “zoo” is an ancient & outdated concept nowadays. Maybe like the EU concept? It feels we all are kept in the “EU political zoo”? Distressed & captured!? Is that ethical?

  6. avatar

    The reality is that there are a number of species that wouldn’t be alive today without zoo’s and their work,
    Addax, black footed ferrets, golden lion tamarin, spix macaw, California condor, preswalski horse. In Australia we have a bird called the orange bellied parrot, there are estimated 50 in the wild max and without a known cause for their population reduction despite continuing resources the only reason there are still OBP’s around is the cooperative work of Australian zoo’s, now maintaining a population of over 400. It would be a wonderful world if zoo’s didn’t have to intervene but the reality is they still play a crucial role in the conservation of species on our planet

  7. avatar

    Yes. It is time for 7D zoos to replace real animal zoos and protecting animals in their natural habitat.

  8. avatar

    Close them all. Free thise poor creatures.😢

  9. avatar

    I am generally against zoos. Animals are restricted to areas that, in the wild, fall short of those that are needed for their natural wanderings and are exposed to gawping humans when they would naturally hide in foliage/ shrubs etc. Those that are raised in captivity are rarely released to their natural habitat as they would struggle to survive. And the clanking of metal cages is unbearable to hear.

  10. avatar

    Depends on the zoo’s, some really help in keeping species going. Those that the animals aren’t looked after need to go. Unfortunately sometimes they are safer in zoos than in their natural habitat. So sad but sometimes necessary.

  11. avatar

    Good zoos are leaders and supporters of worldwide conservation efforts, they have saved many species from extinction, and they have excellent animal welfare. People want to paint them as prisons but they are more like resorts. Animals have nutritionists, 24/7 medical care, highly educated animal care staff, enrichment, naturalistic habitats, etc.

    Zoos Saving Species is an excellent page to check out to learn more about all the good that good zoos are capable of. They also are constantly evaluating themselves and improving. (Www.facebook.com/zoossavingspecies)

  12. avatar
    catherine benning

    Are zoos unethical?

    Zoos in and of themselves are not unethical if they offer the animals the care they need for their comfort health and safety. If they breed to save them from extinction. Give them the kind of enclosure they would have in the wild and treat them with perfection.

    However, what is unethical is the abuse we find so often in these circumstances where the people who run these places are inept, cruel or downright animals themselves, as they cause horrendous pain to feeling creatures who have no escape from capture.


    Here is a video example of circus life. How this is allowed to continue in the enlightened age we are in is an enigma. Why? We all know animals are far more aware than we give credit for. Vivisection is another dilemma. As is their treatment in abottoir’s. The infinitely perverse killing of a creature by slitting its throat while it is conscious is primitive in the extreme. It is vicious beyond belief. And the hormones released in the animal at their time of terror cannot be good for human consumption.


  13. avatar
    susanna minacheili

    Zoos are not needed with the development of technology we dont need to keep animals captive we can watch an animal’s hologram and have the whole experience…rescued animals who cannot return to the wild they can be sent to big sanctuaries and protected areas …zoos can educate people without keeping captive animals ….animal abuse is not ethic nobody likes prison

  14. avatar

    Whether zoos are ethical or not cannot harm the species of animal. Why no one is paying attention on larger scale ethical issue on animal hunting? Why no one is looking at the whale hunting which Japan has been killing whales in large scale for unnecessary or unknown purpose?

  15. avatar

    No. Zoos are important to keep endangered species safe. Do you know for example that there are more tigers in zoos than in the wild nature. Zoos are important for medical research too. What we need to do is to secure enough space and humane conditions for the animals.

  16. avatar

    Yes, they are. Zoos should focus first on the animals, and that’s where a natural park stands head and shoulders over any zoo. I can’t generalize, though, there are some zoos that do their job brilliantly. What zoos lack in general are big enough enclosures. Many of them have a tiny fraction of that animal’s natural habitat, and even fewer faithfully reproduce their environment. It would be cool for every zoo to look like it was made in Planet Zoo with unlimited funds mode, but for many endangered animals, a proper zoo would be their last hope.

  17. avatar

    Zoo should play more important role in saving endangered speicies but must be funded propertly to do research & educate, rescue and preserve, and keep animals in best possible conditions. Today, typical Zoo is underfunded, having too less space for animals who live in many cases in horrible conditions. I think Zoo should have a special status aside NGO, get proper fundings from state, wolrdwide orgs etc. and must SERVE DIFFERENT PURPOSE (demonstrating animals shall not be the main purpose and source of funding)

  18. avatar

    Zoos are essential in education and endangered species conservation. Some are more ethical than others, but that’s another issue.

  19. avatar

    Zoos shall be only for putting in animals who have misbehaved. ;)

  20. avatar

    Yes, zoos are unethical. And they don’t provide any education instead they perpetuate the idea that animals are like toys existing solely for our pleasure.
    There’s no need to torture animals for lifetime in small spaces surrounded by noisy, unrespectful and scary people.
    Nowadays we have access at the distance of a click to all sorts of photos, videos and explanations about these animals physiology and behaviour, we don’t need to torture them in zoos.
    To save endangered species – what an alibi! – zoos aren’t adequate for obvious reasons, as endangered species conservation are best served by animals’ refugees with conditions similar to their natural habitats.

  21. avatar

    No, zoos are not unethical. Not more than having your pet dog, cat or whatever beast

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