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What are zoos doing with our money?

Updated: Jan 20

Zoos and aquariums around the UK are getting a nice, big £100 million bailout from public money to help them cope with the impact of COVID-19. Surely, as Freedom for Animals has pointed out, the public deserves to know what their money is funding. (In fact, our very own Belfast Zoo is being kept afloat by public funds and has been for years.) You can sign the organisation's open letter here.

elephant with head against post-photo Blue Ox Studio
Wild elephants live about 56 years; zoo elephants, about 17.

We should be long past the era of entertaining the industry lie that zoos and aquariums exist for education or conservation: the reality is that they do very little of either. (Releasing a half dozen red squirrels over the years while keeping over a thousand animals imprisoned does not a conservation success story make. Again, looking at you, Belfast Zoo.) In fact, 70 to 75% of the 850 mammal species and subspecies held captive in European zoos are not threatened in the wild and have been assessed as being of 'Least Concern' on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Only 45 of 850 species--or 5%--are critically endangered. (Leading conservationist Damian Aspinall actually argues that perhaps only three of these 45 species are actually viable because of issues with hybridisation, a lack of genetic diversity and a propensity for disease.)


Let's examine the claims of the zoo industry further by looking at their much-lauded breeding programmes. To hear it from them, you'd expect that zoos are at the forefront of the movement to return species to the wild. In reality, however, of the 5,700 species of all animals held by members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) only about 200 are in managed breeding programmes. And according to Benjamin Beck, former associate director of biological programs at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C, '...only 16 of 145 reintroduction programs worldwide ever actually restored any animal populations to the wild. Of those most were carried out by government agencies, not zoos.'


'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.'--David Hancocks, former zoo director with 30 years' experience

four VKind activists at zoo protest
VKind activists spreading the word in September 2019

People around the world were horrified in 2014 when the Copenhagen Zoo killed a young giraffe, Marius, whose genes were 'unsuitable' for breeding purposes, and then dissected his body in front of the public before feeding it to lions. The fact, however, is that this death was different only because of the publicity surrounding it: the killing of animals considered 'surplus to requirements' is an entirely routine part of the zoo industry. In fact, the EAZA defended it as such, though they were careful to add that animals are normally only culled because of ill health. This isn't the case, however; it happens all the time. (In fact, just a few weeks later, the Copenhagen Zoo killed two lion cubs and two adults.) EAZA spokesman David Williams Mitchell later admitted that the average zoo in their 347 member organisation kills about five 'large mammals' for similar reasons annually, meaning 1,735 every year...and that's just large mammals. What's more, there are estimated to be 2,000 zoos in Europe, and the EAZA statistics don't include their cull numbers. If the numbers for unofficial, unaccredited zoos match those of EAZA ones, that adds up to more than 10,000 animals a year. As we mentioned before, this is par for the course: hybridisation and genetic diversity are indeed an issue for zoos, as is limited space.


If that's the case, then, why do zoos keep breeding animals who are either not endangered or whose genetics are useless for conservation purposes? Don't let zoos fools you--they aren't sanctuaries or wildlife reserves--they're businesses, and nothing brings in customers and their money like baby animals.


Zoos spend millions of pounds keeping animals captive, but experts agree that our focus should be on in situ conservation--that is, conservation of wild animals and their habitats, which are being destroyed and poached en masse for lack of funds to support them. When the London Zoo spent £5.3 million on a new enclosure for three gorillas, the chief consultant of the UN's Great Ape Survival Project spoke out:

'Five million pounds for three gorillas when national parks are seeing that number killed every day for want of some Land Rovers and trained men and anti-poaching patrols. It must be very frustrating for the warden of a national park to see'.

Fortunately for us, it's 2020. There are plenty of alternatives to zoos: when the weather is fine, consult Freedom for Animals' excellent list of ideas here. And when it's cold and rainy, check out some of the many brilliant (and vastly more educational) wildlife documentaries in existence. David Attenborough, anybody?


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