January 2022, Dr Andrew Kelly

Ozzie, the world’s oldest captive male gorilla died at Atlanta Zoo recently at the age of 61.

Ozzie, a western lowland gorilla, spent 61 years in captivity, never experiencing freedom in the wild in central Africa where western lowland gorillas can be found in forests and swampland. Whilst in captivity, Ozzie fathered 12 offspring all of which have also spent their entire lives in captivity in zoos around the world. Very few, if any, captive bred western lowland gorillas have ever been released from captivity into the wild where they are critically endangered. 

Zoo breeding programmes

Breeding programmes in zoos have led to an overpopulation of these incredible animals in captivity, leading EAZA (the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums) to call for a cull of captive gorillas because there are too many! EAZA is responsible for 463 western lowland gorillas (212 females, 250 males and a single individual of unknown sex) across 69 locations. 

Following an outcry from animal protection groups, EAZA is now considering rewilding (releasing to the wild) these animals rather than killing them, which is good news - but this brings into question why zoos are allowed to breed animals until there are so many that they then consider culling. 

This is the reality of zoos - breeding animals to perpetuate zoo collections to the detriment of individual animals. It’s time to bring an end to breeding and keeping of animals in zoos for human entertainment. 

Real conservation is needed

We at Freedom for Animals believe that zoos should be phased out and conservation should focus on protecting animals and their habitats in situ. But are any zoos showing signs of becoming sanctuaries, stopping breeding, rewilding if possible and eventually closing the doors? The answer is, perhaps not surprisingly, no. In fact some zoos are actually seeking to expand and develop, spending millions of pounds to build new facilities and new exhibits, money which would be better spent on conservation programmes in the wild, protecting endangered species and the habitats in which they live. 

Zoo expansions 

Two zoos in England, West Midlands Safari Park and Bristol Zoo have recently announced plans to grow and introduce new facilities to attract more visitors.

West Midlands Safari Park has announced plans to open a new attraction in April that will bring visitors even closer to the animals and will build a number of lodges for visitors to stay on site. These lodges will be in the middle of the giraffe and rhino enclosures, with existing lodges in the elephant and cheetah enclosures, forcing animals to be close to humans with very few options for them to avoid humans.

Meanwhile, Bristol Zoo has announced plans to move from its current location in Clifton to its ‘Wild Places’ site near East Compton where it claims it will be able to build ‘bigger and better’ facilities for the animals. However, the animals would still be in small enclosures which cannot mimic the animals’ natural habitats or allow them to express all of their natural behaviours. A zoo is a zoo. The move is likely to cost several millions of pounds, funded by the sale of the original site for development for housing and would appear to be a commercial decision rather than a decision which puts animals first.

Why Freedom for Animals is opposed to zoos 

Animals are kept in artificial environments and cannot provide the amount of space that wild animals such as elephants, tigers and lions have in the wild. Over the years, our investigation work has exposed poor conditions and animal suffering in zoos including stereotypic behaviour and unexplained deaths. As mentioned above zoos kill healthy animals when they are ‘surplus to requirements’ and mutilate birds (cut off part of their wings) to stop them escaping. Many zoos train animals such as sea lions to perform tricks to entertain the crowds - banned in circuses but allowed in zoos. It is increasingly evident that zoos primary function is entertainment, not conservation, not education. Many zoos claim to support in situ conservation projects around the world but in reality zoos spend around 1% of their income on conservation projects. Zoos are failing animals - all zoos in the UK must be licensed but research has shown that 75% of inspection reports list at least one welfare problem.

It’s time for a change - it’s time to phase out zoos and for governments to properly fund conservation projects in the wild. We are facing a biodiversity crisis - a crisis that will not be solved by zoos but by active conservation in the field. 

Find out more about Freedom for Animals campaigns on zoos here.