On a Summer visit to a well known zoo within England, I watched as my young nephews excitedly hurried and pranced around the park to take a glimpse at all the wild and exotic animals from around the world. As we arrived to the arctic section, we stood on the bridge watching the seals circle their wet enclosure and the penguins bask in the sunlight which was beaming down before us. Checking out my surroundings, I noticed people’s houses backing on to the enclosure and it hit me that we were in fact in the middle of the city. These were the sights these animals had to encounter everyday, and they were like a needle in a huge haystack and very far from home.

On average, 25 million people visit zoos every year in the UK, which is a hefty 40% of the entire population. The most popular zoos which I’m sure many of you have heard of and visited are Bristol Zoo, London Zoo, Chester and Paignton.

After studying a few poll debates among the internet and asking some of my peers whether they thought animals should be kept within zoos, the majority voted that zoos should be kept open and they see no issue with them. However, this could be due to the fact they are uneducated on the treatment and practices within zoos.

This article will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of zoos and in particular UK zoos, regarding the animals themselves and the people visiting them.

In 2003 the UK government gave permission for the capture of 146 penguins from a British territory in the South Atlantic (Tristan da Cunha). Those who survived the seven-day boat journey from Tristan to a wildlife dealer in South Africa were sold to zoos in Asia.

Animal Behaviors in the Zoo

Personally, I have seen animals displaying signs of madness and emotional distress within zoos and i think it is fair to say it is rare to see any animal looking happy or full of energy within their enclosure. We are often disappointed walking around zoos. Most the time they are sleeping, or just standing there staring aimlessly into the distance. A government funded study in the UK, found that 54% of elephants in zoos showed signs of behavioral problems. It was also discovered that 48% of all lions found in zoos were discovered to be pacing, a common behavioral sign of insanity.

The climate, diet and size of the enclosure the animal is faced with is not something the animal has been evolved to deal with. Take us humans, we eat what we like, when we feel hungry, and we can walk around when we need to, in an environment which is not confined to four walls. If all this freedom was just suddenly taken away from us, our brains would not be able to cope with the environmental change either. Animals showing signs of repetitive behavior such as swaying, head-bobbing, circling and bar-biting is a common practice within zoos. I can’t even begin to imagine the boredom they must face and the stress of constantly seeing human faces splatted on the windows of their enclosures.

Below is footage of a big cat in Edinburgh zoo showing signs of distress by pacing.

Another negative animals within zoos may be faced with is having to be put down or ‘euthanized’ due to their being a ‘surplus’ of animals. TIME reports that many European zoos cull their animals and the European Association of Zoos and Aquariam  (EAZA) keep records of this, but won’t release them.

Communications and membership manager for EAZA, David Williams-Mitchell says:

“we realize that there’s a crisis in the natural world, and that we have an obligation to protect species in the wild from human actions.” “One of the ways we do that is through breeding programs. But we have limited space within EAZA to carry out that, and we need to prioritize animals that can contribute to future of the species.”David Williams Mitchell


Some may argue that animals themselves don’t really have any rights at all. They argue that animals do not think or act like humans do therefore it is okay for us to place them into a zoo for our satisfaction, amusement and educational benefit. Zoos do try to replicate the animals natural environment with foliage and lighting as much as possible, to make the animals feel at ease with their environment. But is it enough?

It can also be argued that having an animal within a zoo, is better than having it killed in the wild. Particularly with the rise in poaching for ivory, fur and medicinal use. Some also say endangered animals cannot survive on their own in the wild  therefore captive breeding can rise the numbers.

Guest hand reaches out to tiger in a cage. Attribution to: Melisa Weise - flicr.

Guest hand reaches out to tiger in a cage. Attribution to: Melisa Weise – flicr.

 Educational benefits

Zoos are trying to make people more aware of the environmental problems the world is facing today and do put an emphasis on interactive learning, especially for children. Undoubtedly, zoo’s around the UK are informing visitors with educational facts and figures about the animals and often present the information through interesting style and formats. Bristol zoo recently introduced their animatronic ‘big bugs’ which can be found all over their park and show every characteristic of each bug up close. London zoo also engages its audiences by holding workshops and activities for primary and secondary schools. Throughout the day free talks and demonstrations also take place such as ‘Penguin Beach Live’ which preoccupies visitors with interesting and interactive information on the animals themselves.

Although quite often, visitors sometimes aren’t really interested in the educational benefits that zoo’s possess. Not every child, teenager or adult receives or attends these more intimate educational sessions. It has been observed that visitors often tend to ignore informational signs and can in some cases, abuse animals for example by throwing rubbish on them.

Quite a shocking read, was hearing about London Zoo’s ‘late night’ events where the zoo was open for longer hours during Friday Summer evenings. London Zoo was reported to be handing out glasses of wine and visitors were walking around the park drunk. There was a report of a man pouring beer over a tiger and people even trying to get into enclosures with the animals. Perhaps not the best of moves from London Zoo, but profits generated were estimated at £800,000.

Alternatives to zoo’s

  • Wildlife Sanctuaries – Like zoos, endangered wild animals are sent to sanctuaries to be bred and be kept safe from harm. The difference is the space that is provided to the animals is a lot greater and is set aside from the government. The endangered species are very closely monitored, and if their populations grow further animals are captured to further increase numbers.
  • Safari Parks – a great example of a safari park in the UK is Longleat. Animals are allowed to roam about freely among the grounds whilst you watch from the comfort of your car. However, these environments still do not reach to the freedoms the animals are used to. Longleat has also been put under scrutiny after putting down two lions and four lion cubs after bosses claimed they were being violent and dangerous.
  • One of the best ways to see animals is in their natural environment, of course! Okay, so in the Uk you won’t be finding exotic animals roaming the countryside or an elephant in your back garden, but Great Britain is home to a vast amount of mammals, birds and insects. Travel abroad and you can see exotic animals in their natural habitats too.




Elephant in its natural habitat. Photo Credit to: Caitlin licensed under Creative Commons Attribute.