Freedom for Animals has been campaigning for over 65 years for an end to keeping animals in zoos. Animals do not belong in captivity and there is sufficient evidence that many species e.g. elephants do not cope well with life in captivity. Captive elephants live shorter lives on average than wild living elephants, have poor reproductive success, high rate of stillbirth and infant mortality and significant foot, joint and muscular problems.

Organisations like BIAZA and WAZA would have us believe that zoos are essential for conservation and education, yet over 60% of animals in zoos are not endangered in the wild and few, if any zoo-bred animals are ever released back to the wild.

Zoos claim that they exist to educate people about the plight of wild animals around the world, yet even though zoos have existed for well over 100 years we are currently in a biodiversity crisis which would suggest that their education is not working. The overbreeding of animals in zoos results in many healthy animals being killed for having the wrong genes and therefore are surplus to zoos’ breeding programmes. Zoos contribute very little to in situ conservation and even the biggest zoos commit less than 5% of their profits to real conservation. Not only do zoos fail wild animals generally by keeping them in captivity, but they also fail individual animals on a regular basis.

Every day seems to bring new reports of zoos failing animals. In the last week, three notable news articles from the UK popped up on social media news feeds:

Safari Park horror as Lioness killed almost instantly after being mauled by Lion

Edinburgh Zoo pandas to be replaced and sent back to China

The exciting changes being made at Chester Zoo in 2023

And just before Christmas, another three notable news articles popped up:

London Zoo welcomes new gorilla Kiburi just in time for Christmas

Longleat safari park red panda cubs die in cold snap

Rare tiger killed at Knowsley Safari during breeding attempt

There have been many more news articles throughout 2022 about animals dying, escaping, or behaving abnormally in zoos across the UK and indeed globally. Individually these stories of animal suffering are dismissed by the zoo community as being unusual, rare occurrences and are not representative of zoos in general, but collectively these articles demonstrate a pattern of failure by zoos to adequately protect the animals in their care.

Longleat Safari Park

On New Year's Day an unnamed lioness was killed at Longleat Safari Park after being attacked by a male lion. This was witnessed by a visitor who alerted zoo staff who got to the enclosure as soon as they could, but the lioness was already dead. A zoo spokesperson said that such events are rare but ‘naturally occur’ – there is nothing natural about keeping animals in captivity in unnatural groups which individual lions did not choose to be in. This completely avoidable death came just a few weeks after two red pandas called Tala and Sumi froze to death at Longleat during a cold snap and less than two months after a female Amur tiger called Sinda was killed by a male tiger at Knowsley Safari Park after the two had been forced together to try to get them to mate. The female suffered a fatal bite during the mating attempt. Again, a spokesperson for the zoo said that this was rare but ‘natural’. However, this was also predictable and avoidable given that the male tiger had killed another female tiger in Copenhagen Zoo in 2018.

Edinburgh Zoo

It emerged earlier this week that two 19-year-old pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guan, will be returned to China by Edinburgh Zoo after 12 years after the two failed to mate (at least seven failed attempts at artificial insemination) and provide the zoo with a baby panda to entice more paying visitors to visit. Prior to arriving at Edinburgh Zoo, the two had previously produced twins in China. Perhaps the stress of moving from China to Scotland impacted on their normal reproduction. It has also emerged that Edinburgh Zoo essentially rented the pandas for 10 years, extending to 12 years in 2021 for a fee of around £1,000,000 and may have spent as much as £20 million over 12 years. Treating wild animals such as these beautiful pandas as commodities to be hired to produce babies is simply unacceptable and not in the best interests of the animals. It is obvious that the zoo was not able to create an environment in which Tian Tian and Yang Guan could express their normal behaviours. The zoo even reduced the issue to a joke about whether the pandas would have swiped right on a well-known dating app. Not content with this failure, Edinburgh Zoo has announced that while it is sorry to be losing the pandas, they will be introducing a new ‘exciting species’ which will be announced in due course, thus condemning more wild animals to a life in captivity. In the meantime, to make as much money as possible from the pandas before they go back to China, Edinburgh Zoo is offering a Giant Panda Magic Moments Experience, where visitors can ‘get closer than you ever imagined’ helping the keepers feed the animals and a ‘bespoke’ VIP package – for just £5,000 (yes £5,000!), guaranteeing access to meet and feed the pandas (and four other species), along with a champagne breakfast. Does this sound like conservation or exploitation?

London Zoo

Just before Christmas a male western lowland gorilla called Kiburi was transported to London Zoo from Zoo Loro Parque in Tenerife (where they keep captive cetaceans who are forced to perform tricks for human entertainment), to replace a gorilla called Kumbuka who died in 2018. The story compared the Kiburi’s journey to that of a Christmas present arriving in time for Christmas and zookeepers stated that they were hoping that Kiburi might get female gorillas Effie or Mjukuu under the mistletoe over the festive season. Treating such stories in such a light-hearted way is disrespectful to these sentient animals. The zoo stated that Kiburi would be part of an international breeding programme to protect populations of western lowland gorillas – however, there are currently estimated to be about 100,000 in the wild in western Africa and it is highly unlikely that any captive-bred gorillas will ever be returned to the wild. Instead, they will stay in captivity for their entire lives (up to 50 years in captivity). Ironically, just over a year ago, in November 2021, a leaked document revealed how a major zoo industry body had proposed the killing of gorillas in its member zoos. The proposal formed part of plans by the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) on how to deal with the ‘overpopulation’ of male western lowland gorillas, bred into captivity by zoos. EAZA has member zoos across Europe and West Asia who hold over 463 individual western lowland gorillas captive. 212 of these are male. Although EAZA said in 2021 that they had no immediate plans to kill any captive gorillas, it also confirmed that culling (i.e., killing) remains an option as part of the breeding programme. It does, however, raise the question of why zoos are continuing to breed western lowland gorillas if they already have too many and are considering killing unwanted, surplus gorillas.

Chester Zoo

Zoos – are they for conservation and education or simply tourist attractions aiming to maximise profits? Earlier this week the Manchester Evening News reported that Chester Zoo was planning some ‘exciting’ changes in 2023. The article said that the ‘popular tourist attraction’ (NB, not ‘the popular conservation and education centre’) would be introducing overnight accommodation, a new habitat and to provide opportunities for wedding ceremonies, over the next few years. Unlikely to be exciting for the animals. How much will this cost, and wouldn’t that money be better directed at in situ conservation protecting wild animals and their habitats? Chester Zoo spends less than 5% on in situ conservation. Most zoos don’t spend as much as that. In 2019, Blackpool Zoo spent £5 million building a new elephant enclosure measuring just 0.01km 2 (2.4 acres), while in 2021 in the USA, Fort Worth Zoo in Texas spent $32 million (£23.6 million) on a new enclosure just 0.024km2 (6 acres). Incredibly, Cincinnati Zoo has announced plans to spend $50 million (£36.9 million). Just think what these staggering sums of money could achieve for conservation of elephants in the wild.

The Future

It’s time to rethink wildlife conservation and bring an end to keeping wild animals in zoos. Zoos in the UK and around the world are failing animals – failing to provide appropriate environments which allow wild animals to express all their natural behaviours, failing to protect them from injury, failing to prevent them from escaping risking their own well-being and that of the public, failing to prevent escapes often with fatal consequences for the animals but above all failing to deliver any conservation or education value. Zoos continue to over-breed animals even though some species are over-populated in zoos leading to thousands of healthy animals being killed every year. Zoos continue to mutilate birds (pinioning) to prevent them from flying away. Too many failures and too many animals suffering as a result. Don’t visit the zoo.

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- 9th January 2023