Animals should not spend their entire lives in captivity simply to fulfil our desire to see them. Here are our top ten facts about zoos that you need to know... 

1. Zoos are miserable places for animals

This dead wallaby was left to rot by staff at Tweddle Farm Zoo for two weeks and
the zoo refused to carry out a post-mortem to establish why the animal died

In 2010, a Freedom for Animals undercover investigator filmed sick animals left untreated and dead animals to rot on floors at Tweddle Farm Zoo. Freedom for Animals had to take rabbits to a vet to have infections treated and after our expose local police confiscated a monkey who had been kept alone and given cake and other junk food to eat.

Think safari parks are better than ‘traditional’ zoos? Woburn Safari Park was keeping its lions locked into small enclosures for  18 hours a day. A government zoo inspection report in 2010 said: “The animals were very crowded and there was no provision for individual feeding or sleeping areas. There was no visible environmental enrichment. Some of the lions exhibited skin wounds and multiple scars of various age, some fresh, some healed.”

In late 2012, another safari park was shamed as West Midland Safari Park was exposed for providing white lion cubs to a notorious circus animal trainer, who sent them to a traveling circus in Japan. The Lions remain in the circus today.

A government-funded study of elephants in UK zoos found “there was a welfare concern for every elephant in the UK.” 75% of elephants were overweight and only 16% could walk normally, the remainder having various degrees of lameness. Less than 20% were totally free of foot problems[1].

2. Zoos can’t provide sufficient space

Zoos cannot provide the amount of space animals have in the wild. This is particularly the case for those species who roam larger distances in their natural habitat. Tigers and lions have around 18,000 times less space in zoos than they would in the wild. Polar bears have one million times less space[2].

3. Animals suffer in zoos

A government-funded study of elephants in UK zoos found that 54% of the elephants showed stereotypies (behavioural  problems) during the daytime. One elephant observed during day and night stereotyped for 61% of a 24-hour period[3].

Lions in zoos spend 48% of their time pacing, a recognised sign of behavioural problems[4].

4. Animals die prematurely in zoos

African elephants in the wild live more than three times as long as those kept in zoos. Even Asian elephants working in timber camps live longer than those born in zoos[5].

40% of lion cubs die before one month of age. In the wild, only 30% of cubs are thought to die before they are six months old and at least a third of those deaths are due to factors which are absent in zoos, like predation[6].

5. Surplus animals are killed

A Freedom for Animals study found that at least 7,500 animals – and possibly as many as 200,000 – in European zoos are ‘surplus’ at any one time.

Animals are regularly ‘culled’ in UK zoos. In 2006 the whole pack of wolves at Highland Wildlife Park were killed after the social structure of the pack had broken down. In 2005 two wolf cubs and an adult female were shot dead at Dartmoor Wildlife Park. The vet reported: “Selective cull due to overcrowding and fighting in the pack” and “Further cull of cubs needed”. In 2001 a DEFRA zoo inspection of Dartmoor Wildlife Park in October 2001 found that “several significant dead animals” were stored in a food freezer “for taxidermy in the future”.

The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) said in 2007 that member zoos were being actively encouraged to kill unwanted animals, including tigers, if other zoos did not want them and if they were hybrids. It said that such animals take up space and keeper time[7].

In 2010, zoo trade bodies rallied to the defence of a German zoo which was prosecuted for breaching animal welfare laws after it killed three tiger cubs because they were not pure-blooded (hybrid)[8].

In 2011, an exposé of Knowsley Safari Park led by Freedom for Animals following information provided by a whistleblower showed the safari park to be in contravention of legislation on disposal of carcasses as well as raising queries over handling of firearms. A former employee of the safari park alleged: “culling was being used as a means of training instead of being carried out in the kindest and most humane way.”

In early 2014, there was global outrage when Copenhagen Zoo killed a healthy young giraffe called Marius. The event triggered a worldwide debate on culling in zoos and it was admitted by zoo spokespeople that thousands of healthy animals are deliberately killed in European zoos alone each year.

6. UK zoos are connected to animal circuses

These lions were sent as cubs from West Midland Safari Park to a circus trainer

Freedom for Animals exposed a UK zoo in 2009 that was a member of the trade body BIAZA (which supposedly upholds the highest standards) as having a breeding connection with a controversial animal circus. Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm had been breeding camels from the Great British Circus for several years and in 2009 obtained three tigers from the circus.

A female tiger at the zoo had three stillborn cubs and another who died at three weeks old. The mother also died.

The same zoo was found to doing business with another circus animal trainer in 2013. This was the same trainer who had been sold lion cubs by West Midland Safari Park and sent them to a traveling circus in Japan.

7. Animals are trained to perform tricks

Many zoos train animals to perform tricks as if they were in a circus. Performing sea lions, birds and elephants can be seen at many UK zoos.

Some training of elephants has been done using electric goads. Freedom for Animals infiltrated a training session held at Blackpool Zoo in 1998 and filmed elephants being trained to lift their feet and head, hold sticks in their mouths and jabbed with elephant hooks in the shoulder and head.

In 2010 it was revealed that an elephant at Woburn Safari Park had previously been trained using an electric goad [9].

Blackpool Zoo proudly publicised its training of a baby sea lion for shows in mid 2013 [10]. This is in spite of the fact that the UK Government has agreed to ban similar shows in circuses on the basis that: “we should feel duty-bound to recognise that wild animals have intrinsic value, and respect their inherent wildness and its implications for their treatment”.

8. Animals are still taken from the wild

In 2003 the UK government gave permission for the capture of 146 penguins from a British territory in the South Atlantic (Tristan da Cunha). Those who survived the seven-day boat journey from Tristan to a wildlife dealer in South Africa were sold to zoos in Asia [11].

In 2010, Zimbabwe planned to capture two of every mammal species found in Hwange National Park and send them to North Korean zoos. This included rhinos, lions, cheetahs, zebras and giraffes as well as two 18-month-old elephants. The plan was only stopped after international pressure by a coalition of organisations including Freedom for Animals.

70% of elephants in European zoos were taken from the wild [12].

A Freedom for Animals study found that 79% of all animals in UK aquariums were caught in the wild. Sea Life aquariums admitted to taking animals from the wild as recently as 2013, but refused to provide information on how many of the animals held by them were wild-caught.

9. Zoos don’t serve conservation

Zoos claim to breed animals for eventual release to the wild but breeding programmes are primarily to ensure a captive population, not for reintroduction.

Lions are popular in zoos, but the vast majority “are ‘generic’ animals of hybrid or unknown subspecific status, and therefore of little or no value in conservation terms [13].

Keeping an intelligent, complex and social animal like a chimp in a UK zoo
does nothing to protect his relatives threatened in the wild

Zoo director David Hancocks said: “There is a commonly held misconception that zoos are not only saving wild animals from extinction but also reintroducing them to their wild habitats. The confusion stems from many sources, all of them zoo-based… In reality, most zoos have had no contact of any kind with any reintroduction program.”[14]

Captive breeding is considered by some conservation scientists to be a diversion from the reasons for a species’ decline, giving “a false impression that a species is safe so that destruction of habitat and wild populations can proceed”[15].

Zoos spend millions on keeping animals confined, while natural habitats are destroyed and animals killed as there is insufficient funding for protection. When London Zoo spent £5.3 million on a new gorilla enclosure, the chief consultant to the UN Great Ape Survival Project said he was uneasy at the mismatch between lavish spending at zoos and the scarcity of resources available for conserving threatened species in the wild.

“Five million pounds for three gorillas when national parks are seeing that number killed every day for want of some Land Rovers and trained men and anti-poaching patrols. It must be very frustrating for the warden of a national park to see”.

Measures to protect giant pandas’ habitat also supports hundreds of species of mammals, at least 200 birds, dozens of reptiles and over half of the plants known to exist in China [16].

In 2013, Freedom for Animals revealed that the UK’s largest aquarium operator, Sea Life, could trace less than 3 pence per visitor to in situ conservation projects.

10. Zoos fail education

A Freedom for Animals study of UK aquariums found that 41% of the animals on display had no signs identifying their species – the most basic of information.

A US study found no compelling evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, or interest in conservation in visitors. The study authors urged zoos to stop citing a zoo-funded study which claimed an educational benefit from visits “as this conclusion is unwarranted and potentially misleading to consumers.”[17]

In 2010, a Government-commissioned study found that “Concerns remain, however, with regard to the lack of available evidence about the effectiveness” of conservation and education projects in zoos.

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[1] M Harris et al. The welfare, housing and husbandry of elephants in UK zoos. University of Bristol, 2008

[2] Wide roaming animals fare worst in zoo enclosures. Guardian, 2.10.03

[3] M Harris et al. The welfare, housing and husbandry of elephants in UK zoos. University of Bristol, 2008

[4] G Mason & R Clubb. Guest Editorial, International Zoo News, Vol 51, No 1 (2004))

[5] R Clubb et al. Compromised survivorship in zoo elephants. Science, Vol 322, 12.12.08

[6] G Mason & R Clubb. Guest Editorial. International Zoo News, Vol 51, No 1 (2004))

[7] Zoos kill healthy tigers for the skin trade. Sunday Times, 22.7.07l

[8] Code of Ethics & Animal Welfare. World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, June 2010

[9] Woburn admits it gave bull elephant electric shocks. Sunday Times, 27.6.10


[11] Taken by force. BBC Wildlife, February 2004

[12] R Clubb and G Mason. ‘A Review of the Welfare of Zoo Elephants in Europe’, RSPCA, 2002

[13] Nicholas Gould, Editorial, International Zoo News, Vol 49, No 5 (2002)).

[14] Quoted in ‘Who Cares for Planet Earth?’ B Jordan, 2001

[15] Snyder et al. Limitations of Captive Breeding in Endangered Species Recovery. Conservation Biology, Pages 338-348. Volume 10, No. 2, April 1996

[16] Panda mating frenzy hits zoo. BBC News, 4 May 2007 )

[17] L Morino et al. Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study. Society and Animals 18 (2010) 126-138