24th April 2024

Scrambling over sunbathing sea lions to get to the sea, a gentoo penguin torpedoes into the waves, diving below to search for snacks like fish, shrimp or squid. Meanwhile, buried in a stark underground box at Sea Life London Aquarium, a penguin stands and stares at the streams of humans passing by. Then they dive into a pool but draw back after a few feet so as not to smack their head on the bottom. 

A lifetime of captivity has taught this penguin that diving six-seven feet is as deep as they can go, despite depths of up 600 feet being quite normal in the wild.

This is the stark difference between freedom and captivity that penguins are facing all over the world. The ethical concerns are many – from how it affects their wellbeing and natural behaviours, to whether zoos and aquariums are ever effective conservation strategies.

The 15 gentoo penguins held captive at Sea Life London Aquarium are being deprived of their basic right to daylight and fresh air. A campaign to highlight their plight was launched by Freedom for Animals in February and is being supported with organised demonstrations, press coverage in national newspapers, plus a petition with more than 1,300 signatures.

“Everyone from expert biologists to the general public can see how unethical the attraction is and it’s time Merlin Entertainments and Sea Life did too,” states FFA Campaigns Officer Isobel McNally.

But while Sea Life is a huge problem, it's not the only one. 

Zoos and aquariums all over the world are claiming that penguins being born in captivity is some kind of success even when dealing with species that are doing well in the wild, such as the gentoo. Even if they were endangered, expert biologists agree that releasing captive-bred penguins to mix with wild colonies would pose a huge infection risk to both groups of animals. Zoos and aquariums know this, so in reality they have no intention of releasing their penguins into the wild, and their breeding programmes are designed to keep a consistent population in captive "collections".

The truth is that zoos often justify their existence by claiming to contribute to conservation efforts. But the only truly effective conservation programmes we see happen in the wild.

Some businesses don’t even bother to claim to be taking part in conservation, and boldly use captive penguins solely to entertain, and to profit from. Companies such as Amazing Animals hire out all sorts of animals, including two humboldt penguins. The pair, Widget and Pringle, are transported carted between care homes, hospices and hospitals for publicity stunts. These are wild, aquatic animals who feel the primal urges to swim, dive, and hunt as they were born to, but are instead forced to sit on people’s laps in totally alien indoor environments. This is not only a demeaning experience for the penguins, but poses health risks to vulnerable patients from zoonotic diseases.

Across the entertainment industry, penguins are treated as gimmicks and props. At Edinburgh Zoo, a king penguin has been knighted and dressed with a medal after being named after a Norwegian military leader! Major General Sir Nils Olav of the Norwegian King’s Guard adopted a penguin as a military mascot in the 1970s and the dubious ‘honour’ has been passed down to three birds so far. Meanwhile, humboldt penguins residing at London Zoo’s Penguin Beach are forced to endure the fear and anxiety of humans partying in their home all night when it’s hired out for evening receptions with up to 300 guests, as well as the zoo’s ‘Zoo Nights’ alcohol-fuelled promotions. 

More recently ITV entertainment show Love Island appears to have inspired multiple zoos and aquariums to promote their breeding programmes. The National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham nicknamed some of its penguins after the show's contestants, making up tales about the seabirds’ love lives. Meanwhile the London Sea Life Aquarium took the extra step of littering their penguins’ sad blue bunker with fake plastic trees. It may sound like essentially harmless fun, but it’s trivialising irresponsible breeding and dumbing down people’s perception of penguins at the same time. 

Whilst zoos, aquariums, and other exploitative animal enterprises continue to treat penguins as PR opportunities and ‘content’, their customers learn nothing of the animals’ natural lives, including the threats that different penguin species face in the wild, such as pollution, commercial fishing, and climate change. Successful conservation efforts focus on protecting and restoring natural habitats, addressing threats to penguin populations in situ, and promoting sustainable management practices to ensure the long-term survival of wild populations. 

With advancements in technology, we can now observe penguins in their natural habitats through documentaries, live streams, and virtual reality experiences without imprisoning wild animals. These alternatives to zoos and aquariums provide educational value without subjecting animals to captivity.

“How must it feel to be in an environment that feels wholly unnatural when you know deep down in your gut that you should be somewhere else, with thousands of individuals like you?” muses Freedom for Animals’ Isobel.

Our campaign to free the Sea Life Penguins is the tip of a much bigger iceberg, and our ultimate goal is to end the breeding of penguins in captivity and end the exploitation of all animals for exhibition and entertainment.

For wild penguins it’s time to turn up the dial on protecting their habitats. While for the Sea Life London 15, Widget and Pringle, Major Nils and every penguin that’s locked up the fight is on to give them the chance to feel like free penguins, not imprisoned props. We want freedom for them all – the chance to live in a colony of thousands, feel the fresh coastal winds whistling past as they waddle to the water, and the exhilaration of a deep-sea dive. 

How you can help:

Share this blog to raise awareness

Sign our petition to free the Sea Life Penguins

Boycott ALL zoos and Aquariums

Adopt a penguin to support our work