2nd September 2023

Anybody who has looked at a zoo’s promotional materials in the last thirty years will have noticed that conservation is an oft-used buzzword, probably because exploitation doesn’t sell as many tickets. Conservation is a practice of great value when approached from a perspective that puts the interests of animals before profit. This approach involves protecting wild habitats, preventing poaching and allowing animal populations to recover in the wild, rather than co-opting the word while keeping a few members of a species breathing in a cage regardless of what happens in the wild, like a grotesque, living fossil record.

Why is conservation necessary in the first place? In many cases, it is because the human species has exploited this planet’s resources, destroying numerous natural habitats in the process and making it increasingly difficult for a large number of species to survive. Hundreds have been wiped out entirely. Naturally, then, some of us feel the need to redress this injustice by sticking a plaster on a gaping wound, still holding the smoking gun that created it in the first place. Some opportunists make a paradoxical claim of conservation when hunting animals or selling them to be held captive as ‘exotic pets’ - neither of these things are necessary or ethical.

Other than soothing our species’ guilt, the greatest value of conservation is to preserve biodiversity - the consequences for nature as a whole should be our primary concern. This makes the vast majority of zoo-based conservation essentially pointless, as the London Zoo admits that “reintroduction from zoos is still not a commonly used tool for species conservation”. This was echoed by the zoo architect David Hancocks in his statement that:

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.

London Zoo boasts that they hold species in captivity that are extinct in the wild, but if they are extinct in the wild and won’t be reintroduced to the wild, surely it must be said that their conservation efforts have failed?

Anyone still under the impression that zoo-based conservation is an act of compassion towards captive animals should consider what it would be like if we were subject to the same alleged compassion. Imagine a future where Earth has been invaded by aliens. They came here to exploit our resources, and in doing so, they have inadvertently wiped out the vast majority of our species, something which they feel somewhat bad about. Faced with the potential extinction of the human race, they have three options:

  1. They leave humanity to die out, doing their best to keep the last humans comfortable. We live decent lives - not without suffering - with the ability to make our own choices. Eventually, we pass away, but we are blissfully unaware that the extinction of humanity is forthcoming.
  2. Recognising that they are responsible for the collapse of species, they do their very best to rebuild our environment and repair their damage, vowing not to cause any further damage. They do this whilst allowing us to get on with our lives with minimal interference.
  3. To ensure that our species continues, we are taken to small enclosures, where we are forced to breed with each other. Our children will be raised in similar enclosures, living terrible lives of tedium and stress, until they, too, are forced to breed, creating an endless cycle of needless suffering, in a pale imitation of real life.

We must only look at how animals behave in zoos to understand that their lives are not fulfilling. They routinely exhibit stereotypical and compulsive behaviours, such as endlessly repeated movements, coprophagia in species who don’t normally eat their own faeces, and self-mutilations. Of course, not all zoos are the same, and those with larger enclosures and better care will see these behaviours reduced. But you will not find a zoo anywhere in the UK, or indeed in the world, where these behaviours are not at all present. The truth is that these animals are being imprisoned for humanity’s enjoyment, in the vast majority of cases with no benefit to themselves whatsoever.

It is hard to imagine zoos practising truly ethical and effective conservation. “Compassionate conservation”, a term coined by the Born Free Foundation in 2010, is centred around four principles: “Do No Harm”, “Individuals Matter”, “Inclusivity” and “Peaceful Coexistence”. Zoos, in their current form, do not abide by these principles. Critics of compassionate conservation argue that sometimes effective conservation necessitates limiting animal welfare and freedom, but if conservation is not for the benefit of non-human animals, it is a selfish, money-grabbing exercise.

That, in essence, is the crux of the problem. The primary aim of any zoo is not conservation, but profit. A vague appearance of benevolence might have a positive impact on profits, but genuinely protecting and conserving animals largely does not. This is why 74% of animals in Welsh zoos are not threatened in the wild, and other studies have found similar results across Europe.

It is right that we aim to prevent the extinction of species, but it is naive to expect zoos to play any serious part in this. Conservation through exploitation is not acceptable, and conservation only in captivity without reintroduction is essentially nonsense. Ultimately, it boils down to this: I would rather be extinct than subjugated. Wouldn’t you?

It’s not up to us, anyway. It is right that we should work to improve the lives of our species and others, but not by violating animals’ right to self-determination. Unfortunately, zoos are built around the violation of that right. It is their business model. As we pay more attention to the rights and welfare of our fellow species, let us hope that this business model will soon no longer be profitable.

Freedom for Animals investigates, exposes, and campaigns to end animal exploitation in the UK and beyond. You can support our work and help us fight for a world without cages by making a donation today.

References and Further Reading: