15th May 2024

"The family is one of nature's masterpieces" - George Santayana

In deep blue Antarctic waters an orca calf nurses on their mother’s milk, surrounded by a tight-knit family group of four generations in constant contact. Across the miles, thousands of penguins colonise a coastline – dads taking 4-second micro naps whilst babysitting the chicks, and mums foraging for food. In balmy Africa, adorable lion cubs frolic as their parents look on with other family members in the pride pitching in to help care for and protect them.

Wild animals the world over rely on their social interactions and families for survival, just as we do. That’s why today, as The United Nations marks its International Day of Families, we’re turning the spotlight on animal families held in captivity. This year’s theme is also climate change, a threat for every species on the planet. 

Despite this, we’re a long way from equality for all. While society accepts that the tearing apart of human families is awful, it’s an accepted part of the way we treat other animals that can result in emotional trauma, aggression, stress, and even death.

Family is Everything 

In Asia and Africa, elephants form deep family bonds, with a matriarch always leading a herd of related females and their calves. Finding food and a bull elephant to mate with dictates the structure of their social groups, and the absence of these drivers in zoos can cause psychological and behavioural problems. 

The lives of bull elephants are particularly complicated. After being moved to Noah’s Ark Zoo in 2021, twelve-year old bull elephant M'Changa was killed after being attacked by resident bull elephants Jaku and Shaka whilst he was sleeping in his enclosure. It was a fight that likely occurred due to a lack of space and inappropriate social grouping. 

The zoo is still recklessly forcing the introduction of a new bull elephant into Jaku and Shaka’s enclosure. 

FFA has long fought to protect and liberate elephants held in captivity and had great success in helping to bring about the Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019. Now we want to see elephants freed from zoos as well. Show your support by contacting DEFRA with our online form today.

Unethical Breeding

A popular narrative pumped out of zoos and aquariums is the one that defends their breeding programmes as conservation. When you think about it logically, breeding animals in captivity does nothing to save them, or their homes in the wild. 

When a zoo or aquarium breeds a new baby animal they hit the headlines, claiming they’re born into safe, secure family units. They’re far less likely to report the whole story… perhaps a child removed from their mother to send one of them to another zoo, or the separation of a bonded pair so that one can be assigned elsewhere for breeding, or killing healthy 'surplus' animals to make space for new cute babies to attract more visitors. 

Separation Trauma

It goes without saying that gorillas are highly intelligent, sentient beings given their similarity to our own genetic makeup. Their very close family dynamics are formed of incredibly deep bonds between the single, ruling silverback and their troop. Including mothers, daughters, sons, cousins, sisters, and brothers. 

The reality of how captive breeding can affect them was graphically relayed to FFA in a guest blog by a zookeeper. The keeper took part in the unbelievably cruel transfer of an adult female  to another zoo, ripping a family apart and leaving them utterly distraught. The family, separated for profit, were left distressed and screaming for each other. If just witnessing this distress left the zookeeper permanently traumatised, imagine the effect on the apes. Tearing family members away is like a bereavement.

“To think that one day you could be sitting with your family, and the next you’re in the back of a van going to a new and unknown home, all without any knowledge of why or any comprehension if you’d see your family again… it’s heartbreaking,” relays the former zookeeper in their FFA blog that certainly reduced me to tears.

The Con in Conservation

Aquariums are equally problematic. Often held captive in groups of less than twenty, penguins sometimes mate for life, frequently have best friends, and enjoy the protection of living in huge colonies of thousands in the wild. While they’re held captive we’re learning nothing about their natural lives at the expense of their freedom, so please support FFA’s campaign to free penguins from SEA LIFE Centres now. 

SEA LIFE’s global breeding programme has already transported six gentoos 1,000 miles in a refrigerated lorry from London to LEGOLAND® Billund in Denmark. All that travel, trauma, and loss of family forever, to give new aquariums more babies. When the truth is that gentoo penguins are not even endangered and the 'conservation programme' is a farce.

Captivity IS the Problem

At South Lakes Safari Zoo, keepers failed to keep kangaroos safe resulting in a mother losing her precious joey. The baby drowned in a pool with no safety fence around it and one far from remorseful keeper later remarked that: “the baby would be written off in the next stock list.” 

It's painfully obvious that other animals value family and social ties just as much as humans, yet those that would hold them captive are happy to push morals aside for profit. Campaigners including FFA have been calling for South Lakes’ closure for years with undercover filming, a petition, and appeals to Westmorland and Furness Council. Join our fight to get the zoo’s licence revoked here.

Sadly, the issues highlighted here are systemic across the zoo and aquarium industries’ breeding programmes. But depressing as it is to learn about other species being so ruthlessly manipulated and abused, exposing the truth and taking action has never been easier. 

FFA is constantly engaged in campaigning for animals held captive for entertainment, with significant successes against aquariums, circuses, and mobile zoos to name a few of those you can support on our website now. Every individual action counts, as does every single family – human or not.

Join us today and help us work for a world without cages.