Behind the Cage

Let’s talk about zoos for a moment.

This post is for anyone, regardless of whether you agree with disagree with zoos. My view point will become obvious very quickly, but please hang with me even if your view is conflicting. This is a post based on fact and may provide a new way of thinking that people haven’t considered. If I mention anything that isn’t true, please feel free to comment to let me know, but if you can also provide evidence against what I’ve said (for the purposes of learning, not because I think my word is law), that would be great!

Whether or not zoos are good or bad depends on who you ask. There are many conflicting views out there, particularly among people who think they’re campaigning for animal welfare. I will explain why I’ve used the phrase ‘…who think…’ later on in this article.

I can completely understand being against zoos. These are ‘wild’ animals being kept in cages or behind perspex glass, the space they have is very limited, they’re being kept in countries with climate that does not match what they’re adapted to and, in some cases, it appears that the purpose of zoos is just to allow the public to get a good look at animals they wouldn’t see in the wild.

Zoos in some countries are diabolical. With tiny, dirty enclosures, incorrect diets leading to malnutrition and health needs not met, I do not agree with those zoos. They are awful and it upsets me greatly to see animals kept in such a way. For some, the intention is good, they genuinely feel as though they want to help the animals, but the lack of education surrounding the needs of the animals lets them down. For others, it’s probably to do with power and money. They want to profit off the animals backs, and ignore the needs of the animals. This type of zoo tends to be in poorer countries – I’m from the UK and it’s unlikely you’d see such an image that I’ve described over here.

That does not mean all zoos in the UK or Europe or other richer parts of the world are ‘good’ though. I’ve visited a few zoos in the UK, Salzburg zoo in Austria and Berlin Zoo in Germany. Two of the worst zoos I’ve personally seen are here in the UK. One of the best is also here in the UK, and another is Salzburg zoo.

So so conservationists tend to support and work with zoos?

For a start, zoos have come a very long way, particularly in some richer countries. Once barren enclosures that were designed to be convenient to clean are now full of enrichment designed for the animal it houses. Expansion is constantly taking place in some zoos, and the research surrounding the animals in their care is vital to endangered species. It gives scientists and behaviorists a chance to examine to physiological and psychological aspects of animals that they simply wouldn’t be able to do in the wild. Research that can be done in the wild is often compared to the same research done in zoos in order to measure the captive animals welfare, but also to allow successful breeding programs in captivity. Once successful breeding in captivity is achieved, they can move on to successful breeding on reserves and such, which will ultimately contribute to the wild population (hopefully).

In the UK, it’s a legal requirement that zoos make some effort to contribute to conservation, whether that be by donations or physically owning a reserve. Colchester Zoo is the biggest zoo near where I live. I have been there many times and although some areas could do with much improvement, some are huge and filled with natural enrichment. Colchester Zoo ‘owns’ (I’m not sure if it’s complete ownership or a partnership or another arrangement, but the reserve gets a LOT of support from the zoo) a reserve in South Africa, called the Umphafa Reserve.

DSC_2024 copyWM.jpgMale Lion at Colchester Zoo. The lion enclosure is one that I feel needs improving. They have enrichment, but more space would be much better.

Many people think that the animals in zoos should simply be released, but this is unrealistic and dangerous. I would love to support this idea, but here are some of the factors rendering it impossible.
1. Most of the animals in captivity today were bred in captivity, particularly in richer countries. Although some smaller, more exotic zoos may still illegally take from the wild, and all animals will be descendants from some that were caught from the wild, this is likely to be a good few generations ago. This means that most of the predators would struggle to hunt and most prey animals would struggle to recognise true danger. I’m not saying this is true for all animals, but to ‘re-wild’ most of the animals would be incredibly costly and time consuming, and detrimental to the animals involved.
2. Most animals in captivity will survive longer than they would in the wild. Animals that have the proper care, nutrition and environment will lead a long and relatively relaxed life. A rhino in the wild has a much higher chance of getting poached, being preyed upon or fighting with other wild rhino/animals. I’m not saying zoo animals have a higher life expectancy, but say 1 in every 4 rhino was poached in the wild. The remaining rhino could have a lifespan beyond that of 4 captive rhino, but there’s a much higher chance of all 4 captive rhino surviving to a decent age than the wild ones. This is a key point to zoos – protection. It angers me that animals are safer in this environment over their natural environment, but it’s undeniable.
3. Lack of habitat. One of the main forces behind the decline of many species is a dwindling habitat and human encroachment. We are constantly building over animal habitat for houses and farmland and power-plants etc, and we’ve reached a point where habitats aren’t sustaining the animals. There is just not enough left. Often, what is left is in ‘pockets,’ and whereas animals like tigers used to roam a huge range, providing regular mating’s with tigers they haven’t encountered before, they are now restricted to their ‘pocket,’ which is causing a loss of genetic diversity due to only a very small population of mating tigers being available to them. This is causing inbreeding, and this doesn’t just affect the tiger. Without the habitat to sustain current wild populations, releasing all the tigers from all the zoos would quickly cause a huge decline in overall numbers. Assuming that the tigers can survive and they can hunt etc, this would mean food resources will dwindle even quicker than before, and the tigers that are surviving will quickly die off.

DSC_8280 copy wm
Baby White Rhino at Salzburg Zoo. This zoo was overall very good, with large and natural enclosures for most of the animals.

In nature, it’s completely normal for an abundance of prey to cause an abundance of predator, which leads to less prey and therefore less predators, until the prey populations recover again, and the predators follow suit. This is a natural cycle in sustained populations, but many populations have suffered so ferociously at human intervention that this cycle simply stops. We take both predators and prey, we cull antelope and take up land for livestock, and then we kill the predator for taking the livestock, even though the chances are that the land that holds the livestock used to hold natural prey.

We are stripping nature and destroying animals at a rate that is only comparable to previous mass extinctions. As it explains here (, extinction is a natural process, just as climate change is, but the rate that it is currently happening is not natural. I can’t say if this next sentence is 100% fact because I can’t find the source for it, but I have read that our current rate of extinction is fast than even that of the dinosaurs. Mass extinctions are usually long, drawn out processes. What is currently happening is happening incredibly quickly in comparison.

Anyway, that is why, currently, we need zoos. Not all zoos, but good zoos. Zoos that support conservation as well as the animals they are housing, zoos that provide research and protection, and zoos that encourage the public to care about wildlife.

DSC_6562 copy WM.jpgRed Panda taken at Banham Zoo. This is not a great zoo in my opinion, enclosures are small and although they clearly try to include enrichment, I strongly believe all of the animals could do with more space, particular their large cats, which include cheetahs and snow leopards. One thing that upset me greatly at this zoo was seeing vultures display abnormal behaviour.

*Featured Image taken at Colchester Zoo. The tiger enclosure is a reasonable enclosure, they have a lot of space and a lot of foliage.


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