Skip to main content

What Makes a Good Zoo - A Personal Journey


Everyone's perception of what makes a Good Zoo is going to be different. It will depend on where they work and where they have worked or whether they work in a zoo at all. Nobody likes the idea that they may be working in a Bad Dysfunctional Zoo. Their views will have been formed by their education and life experiences, by biased newspaper reports and rumours. Facebook gossip and social media plays a big part today. There are some who may argue that they don't work in a zoo at all. The differences between what makes a bad or good zoo are not black and white. There are probably more than fifty shades of grey. Anybody who has never worked in a zoo, or just very short time (less than three years) is going to have a very slanted view.

To me, a zoo is any collection of wild animals held in captivity regardless of whether they are open to the public or not.

There are any number of zoo websites out there which start out by saying "We are not a zoo….we are a (whatever they like to call it)". I really don't know who they are trying to convince, themselves or their readers. Some of these places previously had zoo in the name but have since changed it. Nothing else has changed at all, they are exactly the same. The Good Zoos amongst these name changers will still admit they are zoos….the others will deny it till the tigers come home. Curiously these others are mostly Bad Zoos.


I am not condemning nor condoning those staff working in Bad or Dysfunctional Zoos because the vast majority of these will be truly dedicated caring individuals who love their animals and who enjoy their work. They are there because they care, because they need the money and possibly because they perceive things would be far worse without them. Sadly many people have misconceived ideas about zoos, sadder still is that this includes some people working in zoos.

One of my main criticisms of the anti-zoo fraternity is that they are 'blinkered'. They see no further than the end of their nose. They refuse to try and find out more other than what they are spoon fed by the people/groups they follow. This is a huge pity. What is worse perhaps is that there is a part of the pro-zoo community who are exactly the same. They have been indoctrinated by the bad zoos in which they work.

I have been called to task on several occasions by stating that the majority of zoos are bad zoos. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps not. It is definitely a statement which deserves your further scrutiny. However if I look at just two countries. Thailand is reputed to have in the region of 200 zoos…only seven of these are any good. In the Philippines the PHILZOOS association states there are between 2,750 and 3,000 zoos (though I doubt there is a quarter that number). Perhaps a dozen of these may meet Good zoo standards. Give me a list of the Good roadside zoos in the US….are there any?

No Barrier - No Supervision


A story:

Many years ago I moved from being Curator of Stanley Zoo to being Curator of Cleethorpes Zoo and Marineland and then on to being Curator of Cricket St Thomas Wildlife Park. Whilst I was working there I was offered the opportunity to take over from Matt Kelly when he retired from Belle Vue Zoo. I had other irons in the fire at the time so turned down this interesting offer. Some years later Terry Nutkins offered me the role of Operations Manager of Windsor Safari Park. Tempting as the offer was I turned that down as well for reasons I will not disclose. So what is the point of this story? Quite simply that none of these collections still exist. And why? Because all of them were commercial operations. In it for the money. The animals, the zoo side of things came second.

Not Commercial

So in my books the first requirement of a Good Zoo is that it should be a National Collection, a State Zoo or owned and run by a Charitable Trust or Zoological Society.

That's not to say that some such places may not be badly managed, because they are. At the same time there are private commercial collections, some of the very biggest, that are both beautiful, well managed and run and popular. Here though the situation could, can and does change overnight. Their very existence depends on the shareholders. "Let's sell off the animals and display coloured plastic bricks instead" (You know who I am talking about?). Any other private collection, individual or family owned, or with shareholders, is equally at risk. A sudden death in the family and there is not the same interest or dedication. The animals are dispersed and sold on such as happened with Gordon Mills collection of Gorillas held in Weybridge in Surrey. More recently we have seen the closure of the Rare Breeds Conservation Centre, closed for other reasons. In September 2015 we saw the Blackpool Zoo, Bournemouth Aquarium and the Aquarium of the Lakes all put up for sale by Arle Capital Partners as part of their Parques Reunidos package. Then towards the end of 2015 the closure and disposal of the animals of the South Lakes Safari Zoo (South Lakes Safari Zoo) was threatened because they did not like been told what to do by zoo inspectors.

Think on the above. These are just a few examples. There are many others. The reasons are different but the possibility of disappearance is the same.

Scroll to Continue

Popularity does not equal Good Zoo. One of the most popular zoos in Thailand is Bangkok Safari World. One of the most popular in Chiang Mai is the Tiger Kingdom. Both are Bad Dysfunctional Zoos. Then we see The Zoological Foundation getting fourth place in TripAdvisor's Top 25 zoos in the USA. To me this collection ticks all the boxes as a Dysfunctional Zoo. It may be beautiful, it may be popular but if it closed down tomorrow I would be a happier man. I could reel off a list of commercial UK and US Zoos at risk but I won't. Just think about it for a while.

There are good commercial zoos with their own associated Trusts, Foundations and Charities. These though are NOT the zoos and if the zoo were to disappear then so too would the associated body. Using slick accountants there are zoos who use charitable 'conservation' donations to shore up zoo operating costs. In my eyes that is called cheating.

If a zoo, any zoo, is not prepared to publicly publish its full accounts then it needs to be viewed with suspicion. What are their real motives?

Hiding conservation 'donations' in new exhibits is not acceptable to me.


How any commercial zoo dares to ask for 'donations' must be the absolute height of cheek.

Association Membership

Before I go into the issue of membership more deeply it has to be stated that these zoological associations exist primarily for their members. These are trade organisations! Their is strength in numbers and more members means greater credibility. Their governing bodies are made up of members, their accrediting teams are made up of members, they exist to help each other. I am not suggesting that they should take any anti-zoo people on board but just that they need to look longer, deeper and harder at the ethics of what they are doing. If all they are doing is making money out of animals then they should go take a running jump. Zoo Associations should be there first and foremost to assure the very best care and welfare for their animals.

Every Zoo, any Zoo should not just aspire towards but should be fulfilling The Five Freedoms. They should go further and become members of the local or International Zoo Body. In the UK this would be BIAZA (British & Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums) in the first place and EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquariums) in the second. Membership of WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) would be a worthy inclusion too.

There are some who would argue that the membership fee is not worth it. Others (and I have heard them) say that membership is elitist, an 'old boys club'… but really, honestly (although in cases there is more than a hint of truth), this is just sour grapes and a refusal to commit to some of the high standards set by these organisations. They simply do not like being told what to do…..they know better. The 'old boys elitist' argument is frequently used in the US in connection with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and in the UK with BIAZA.

Another story:

Back in the early 1970's I was curator of a zoo which as 50% Council and 50% commercially owned and run. Within the UK at the time this commercial zoo was possibly unique in that it was also a member of the Zoo Federation (the forerunner of BIAZA). The commercial side were concerned primarily about the money but proud of their Federation membership which they proclaimed at every opportunity. However, penny pinching and exotic animal husbandry are not good bedfellows and when it came round to the next Federation inspection we failed, and quite rightly so in my opinion.

The commercial side which ran several other zoos were extremely pissed off. Rather than spend money on righting the wrongs they set about joining forces with the various badly operated (at the time) UK Safari Parks (none of which were Federation members) and other small zoos and forming their own rival organisation, The National Zoological Association. They had their own inspection team which tended to overlook things that the Zoo Federation would jump on. Most of The National Zoological Association members were only concerned about profit and very quickly their membership was double that of the Zoo Federation. It really wasn't a good time for Animal Welfare…..and it still isn't. At roughly the same time the first attempt at putting UK zoos to right was the 'Control of Zoological Gardens Bill' of 1971. In spite of rigorous debate in parliament it unfortunately never happened. Both the Federation and the National Zoological Association had their own pet MP's and the commercial zoos had the stronger hand in spite of being shown to be lacking in caring.

If you can't meet the high standards required wherever you are in the world …it is no good inventing lower ones. Rival bodies need to shake hands and think primarily about the animals. The animals come first….especially if you learn your living from them. I strongly believe that if you take then you must give back.

In the UK things all changed with the introduction of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 and the implementation of the Zoo Inspection. Similar standards and requirements for passing the inspection should be international. If no regular inspection by zoo professionals takes place then any claim to high standards is worthless. I am also very much in favour of sudden unannounced inspections too. The Zoo Licensing Act may not be without its faults but is the best in the world because it applies to ALL zoos in the UK. There is nothing similar elsewhere. Mainland Europe comes a close second and they are getting there. The rest of the world? Sorry but no….they are years behind. BUT, I may add some of the best run and most beautiful zoos ARE outside of Europe. In the US this is because the AZA zoo legislation is stricter than government regulation.

Very sadly around the world there still remains a bit of "you scratch my back and I will scratch yours". There is corruption. We cannot turn a blind eye to it. There are no legal 'International Zoo Standards'. There should be! Yet you will see these 'International Zoo Standards' referred to time and again by zoos setting up in the Middle East, Asia and South East Asia.

Around the world there are many noble caring (and other) zoo associations. SEAZA (South East Asian Zoo Association), CAZA (Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums), JAZA (Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums) ZAA* (Zoo and Aquarium Association of Australasia), They are too numerous to include here.

*Note the Zoo and Aquarium Association of Australasia and the Zoological Association of America share the same acronym.

Sadly, not all Associations are created equal. Some are prepared to overlook conditions to increase membership. This cannot be and is not a good thing. To my mind things go very wrong is when they give the position of president to someone whose own zoos display chained up tigers for the public to pose with and does 'fun filled' shows of Orangutans and dogs.

The latest Association to emerge is the AAZA (Arabian Association of Zoos and Aquariums). This is long needed and has just recently published its excellent objectives and code of ethics. They have a difficult task ahead of them. Initial meetings invited all collections holding wild animals. Sadly many of these places have little or no understanding of 'The Five Freedoms' let alone Conservation, Research or Education. Will these places be prepared to change? It remains to be seen. Sadly within the Gulf region there is tremendous ignorance surrounding wild animals. The black market supplies a thriving demand for Cheetah, Big Cats and baby Orangutans. The freaks are there too, the White Tigers, White Lions, Tigons and similar. There is little doubt in my mind that many of these creatures are much loved but in many instances the people holding them just don't know that what they are doing is wrong or illegal. They hold such power that nobody will tell them. And what will happen to them when they become too large, unhandleable or boring? They will be 'donated' to a zoo. A zoo which doesn't want them but is not in a position to refuse or perhaps too ignorant or lacking in caring to do so. Hence the large number of Tiger/Lion hybrids that have recently arrived in the Philippines. They have literally been dumped upon them.

Of course there may be very valid reason why a collection may not become a member of its National Association. In the case of the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) they have recently implemented policy against 'free contact' with elephants. There is then no choice except in that a collection that was previously in the AZA can now choose to leave the AZA or radically change its husbandry methods over to protected contact. As far as I am aware the AZA are the only zoo body in the world who have adopted and insist on this change. Whereas I don't personally agree with it I do respect their stance.

Many will foresee the need to join another Association. There are many reasons why they may want or need to, but what if the other association's members look at things in a different way? Can you really hold hands with zoos which promote hybrids and colour morphs, posing and cub petting?

Return for a moment to what I was saying about the Zoo Federation and The National Zoological Association. The same situation exists today in the US as did back in the UK in the early 1970's. I don't suppose many in the US have really thought too deeply about it but I have. Zoos have a choice. The AZA (American Association of Zoos and Aquariums founded 1924) or the ZAA (Zoological Association of America founded 2005). Why two? Well formerly there was just the AZA. The requirements for membership for the AZA are quite strict. They are sticklers for the Five Freedoms, Education and Conservation Breeding Programmes. Those zoos which applied and failed 'lost face' and were asked to rectify their mistakes before applying again. In some cases it meant spending money to correct the errors and some collections didn't like that (sound familiar?). Others hated the idea of having their breeding controlled by someone else. The list goes on. The real reasons for the formation of the ZAA are not those which are stated on their website.

Now I am not suggesting that all members of the ZAA are bad. There are some truly wonderful member collections, in fact some are members of the AZA as well. Sadly though there are some very disreputable collections, Bad Zoos amongst the ZAA membership. It is a pity that the ZAA do not recognise that. Zoos really do need to call each other to task.

Look at the requirements for AZA membership and then think on this. Any current member of the AZA would sail through an inspection by the ZAA. Very few ZAA members would pass an inspection by the AZA.

Think also on the fact that the AZA are members of WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) but the ZAA (Zoological Association of America) are not. Why not?

Within the current world zoo associations there needs to be a huge shake up of membership. Some of these bodies are staring to resemble FIFA more closely than is comfortable.

A Word on Zoo Inspections:

Zoo Inspections are not the be all and end all. Previously I was on the list of UK Zoo Inspectors. Sadly I had to surrender my position due to long time absence from the UK.

Zoo Inspections are as honest and strict as the people who carry them out. In my case they were exactly that 'strict, fair and honest'. It isn't enough though. Any collection can tart themselves up for Inspection Day. I recall of one collection of which I gave a satisfied glowing report. In retrospect I learned that I was wrong… wrong that if the matter was in my hands I would take away its zoo license today. I am not easily fooled and I never would be again. I can read zoos. This error has taught me to read between the lines.

Did I report my later findings to the authorities? Yes I did. Was any action taken? Not that I am aware of. The pity is that other collections have been severely reprimanded and had disciplinary action taken against them for far less serious failures in husbandry and management.

Breeding Programmes

All Good Zoos will have all of their animals for which a Breeding Programme exists in that official Breeding Programme. The distinction has to be clearly understood between Breeding Programme and 'Breeding'. Not breeding is as important as breeding. A Breeding Programme has a plan and it includes all reputable holders of a species. At its simplest it is to maintain a genetically viable population for release into the wild in perhaps one hundred years' time. Take a look at the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. Animals within a Breeding Programme are not sold. They are loaned for the long term. They belong to the world, not commerce.

Yet there are zoos which fail to grasp this. They want to go it alone. They think about money. They make efforts to acquire animals from outside of the breeding programme or they continue to breed when they are told not to. They are like spoilt children "It's my ball and you can't play with it!" or "Ya Ya Ya…look what we've got that you haven't" There really isn't a place for such egotism in zoos.

If a zoo claims to have a Breeding Programme and they are the only collection in it then it is not a programme at all…it is purely breeding, assuming they are producing young. This is creation of surplus for which suitable new homes may not be available.

"It is more expensive to run a good zoo than a bad zoo."

Earl of Cranbrook


Disposal of surplus stock needs/must be done with the consent and approval of the Studbook Holder and Species Coordinator. Within a properly managed Breeding Programme the destination of any young will have already been decided…probably before it was born. In most cases these animals will move at the age when they would naturally leave their mothers.

There is room to consider euthanasia. In the best planned breeding programme unintended births do take place. What should never happen is having surplus animals passed on, donated or sold to a Bad Dysfunctional Zoo. Good zoos do not do that.

The same would apply to finding new homes for animals which are not part of a Breeding Programme. The welfare of those animals is paramount. They should never, ever, pass from Good Zoo to Bad Dysfunctional Zoo or disreputable dealer. 'Out of sight, out of mind' should not be an option. Zoo animals can end up in Circuses in strange faraway lands or Canned Hunting Preserves. Euthanasia again is a far kinder option. It is quick, painless and caring!

Equally animals should never, ever be released to the wild because they are surplus to requirements or because a zoo reckons it can get press kudos. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) guidelines on reintroduction must be followed to the letter.


No Good Zoo should keep or breed freaks* and hybrids. Some do and they should be ashamed of themselves. Worse still is where they perpetuate a lie by claiming what they are doing is something clever or special because it isn't. This is anti-education and so often made worse by the media who love it and suck it up.

There are those who argue that they bring in White Tigers, White Lions, White Alligators, Two headed snakes, two headed terrapins (this isn't P.T.Barnum, for heaven's sake) because they attract more visitors. More visitors means more people to educate (what… teach that the animals they have purchased or bred are from a conservation point of view….worthless?) and so raise more money for conservation. Do they really raise more money? Who does the maths here? Is it 1%, 5% 0r 10% of its annual take? Does one cent of that 'more money' actually go to conservation? Do some investigation here and you will be shocked….of course if they are a commercial or private organisation you will be hard pressed to find any amount at all. Their attendance may rise but do their donations increase after they start exhibiting freaks? I very much doubt it. Think back to what I said earlier about slick accountants.

A donation towards conservation projects should not be a bribe. This is clearly the case in some instances when the organisation to which funds are donated ignores how the money was raised.

There is a shortage of space within the Official Breeding Programmes. This must not be taken up by hybrids or blue kangaroos.

*'In current usage, the word "freak" is commonly used to refer to a person with something strikingly unusual about their appearance or behaviour.'

'"Freak" continues to be used to describe genetic mutations in plants and animals, i.e. "freaks of nature"

Beautiful perhaps....but a freak



""Your use of 'zoos' are NOT all the same term sadly. There is a great divide between the ethically correct and the 'mutation for money' slaves that capitalise on greed instead of ethical conservation values within the 'zoo' operators across the globe.""

Bradly Yule


There is and always has been a role for ambassador animals. These form an important part of many zoo education programmes. Some species lend themselves to it. Others do not. What is truly reprehensible is when animals are deliberately pulled from their mothers so this activity can take place. Imagine a litter of young wolves being removed from their dam and sent to another zoo so they can be hand tamed for an education programme. The commercial Bad Dysfunctional Zoos do it all the time with Big Cats. Some even claim that they can make a better job of rearing the young than the mother. It isn't clever or difficult, it is purely wrong. It is doubly wrong when these animals are freaks.


Any zoo…that is ANY zoo which offers posing or playing with big cats, regardless of their size, is a Bad Dysfunctional Zoo.



Good Zoos should criticise the bad. They need to call to task the wrongs carried out by Dysfunctional Zoos. It should/must not be left to the Anti-Zoo bodies like PeTA, CAPS, ZooCheck or the Born Free Foundation to do zoos dirty work for them. Ignoring those who carry out malpractice will not make it go away. Good Zoos need to police their own and come down hard on the bad collections. Some zoo organisations have a policy of not criticising fellow members. This is ridiculous. If a collection is wrong and cannot be called to task by its peers it will never learn. It also puts all other members in a bad light. We are all tarred with the same dirty brush. Staff move from zoo to zoo over the years and quite strong friendships build up. These friendships are strengthened by meeting up for a beer at the various conferences and symposiums. Sorry but friendship should never take priority over the way our animals are cared for.

I don't believe that the comments and statements put out by Animal Rights should be dismissed as rubbish. This should be time for Good Zoos to think and critically review what is being said. We ignore what they say at our peril.

Incidentally I believe that some members of the Anti-Zoo lobby are better at recognising the difference and importance between a good and bad zoo than many zoo people. Their problem is that they have painted themselves into a corner by calling for the closure of all zoos.

There are too many nasty cruel Roadside Zoos in the US and dotted throughout Asia whose main objective is lining the pockets of their owners or shareholders. These places should not exist.

Some of the favourite criticisms made of good zoos made by the anti-zoo fraternity and the ill-informed is that:

  • They do not return animals to the wild.
  • They won't be able to return animals to the wild because they lose their 'survival skills'
  • It's been proven that animals released back into the wild after living in captivity for whatever reason will NOT survive.
  • There are excellent wildlife documentaries on the TV so we don't need zoos.
  • Zoos concentrate on charismatic animals.

Sadly, in most cases it is pointless returning most species to the wild at the present time. There are big big problems in some wild environments. It can be done though. Where it has been done it has been relatively easy to re-wild a species, even if it has been captive born over several generations. Much has been learnt on how to do this in the past twenty years. Wild animals do not become tame or domesticated even after several generations in captivity. They may lose some skills…but these can be taught. Re-wilding is possible. There may be some failures but equally many wild animals born in the wild die before their first birthday. So many wild animals in the wild today are actually less 'wild' than their cousins in zoos, visited as they are daily by land rovers full of 'eco-tourists'.

Common sense should tell anyone that releasing captive bred animals back into a thriving wild population is close to pointless and will cause harm. Releasing captive bred animals back which had a valuable gene addition could however be a good idea. Equally taking wild genes to supplement of animals held in captivity is good management.

Simply releasing captive bred animals to relieve 'zoo surplus' or to supply canned hunts is a mark of the bad zoo. Releasing animals back into the wild to massage the ego should be a crime.

'The Wild' is not a nice place. It is blood and guts and stress and starvation. But it's natural, right? I believe it is where wild animals belong but I also believe that if animals knew what awaited them in the wild and they could make a choice they would choose to stay in a Good Zoo.

As to the wildlife documentaries on the TV. They have their place but I have no desire to see a zebra being disembowelled by a hyena or a seal pup being tossed up in the air by an orca. It does nothing for me. I know these things happen and that’s enough. I don't need to see it and all its glorification of gore. I am not a softy. I am not about to list the animals I have killed in my career but they probably number a million or more. The difference is that I have cared for every last one of them and sent them on their way as quickly and as painlessly as possible. That goes from pinkie mouse and upwards. So keep your documentaries. A good zoo will do it for me every time.

Another anti-zoo criticism is that zoos concentrate on the 'Charismatic animals'. Why not? These species tend to be at the top of the food chain and have large territories. They share their wild environment with thousands of 'lesser' creatures. By protecting the big guys and their environment ensures the little ones get a much better chance. Tigers eat people… and that is a good thing.

Breeding hybrids is bad though. The generic 'Heinz 57' tiger is worthless. Look at the recent situation with the tigers in the Tiger Temple in Thailand. Something in the region of 154 tigers were 'rescued' by the authorities. What to do? They cannot be released into the wild. Tiger suitable territory already has enough tigers and it doesn't need the gene pool polluting with inbred hybrids. So the tigers remain where they are. There is nowhere for them to go. They are worthless. They only have value dead and on the black market. Sadly too without professional care they will continue to breed and increase the problem.

The same applies in the US. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of worthless tigers being exhibited to a gullible public by Bad Dysfunctional Zoos.

So why don't more zoo staff in these places speak out? The answer is quite simple. Half remain in blissful brain washed ignorance and the other half don't want to lose their jobs.


Conservation! This is the word that all zoos throw at you, both the Good and the Bad. The word means different things to different people and very different things to different zoos. Just that interpretation, or should that be manipulation of the word, means that many a large popular collection is actually doing far less for conservation than a smaller zoo.

Conservation is a multifaceted requirement for the Good Zoo which is actually covered in part by other requirements. Conservation's main aim is the long term preservation of species and protection of the environment in which they live.

Zoos should:

  • Be an active participant in existing official breeding programmes.
  • Breeding or not breeding as required by the Species co-ordinator.
  • Contributing to or financially aiding species research either in-situ or ex-situ or both.
  • Education both 'at home' and in the species home country.
  • Exchange of information and knowledge.
  • Protection of wild species and their habitats.

Bat boxes and Bumble Bee Hotels are token conservation. They are important and any zoo with the space should dot a few of these about but is not enough. Nor is setting aside a few acres as wild meadow or digging a pond.

A couple of hundred dollars to the WWF once a year is not enough.

Token Conservation is worse than no conservation at all. Zoos which do this are lying to themselves.

Donating (or selling?) a bunch of hybrid coloured tigers to a Dysfunctional Zoo in Thailand is not Conservation. It is Criminal!

It is however untenable and retrograde to follow the route of claiming that all activities carried out by the zoo or the existence of the zoo itself are conservation.

From 'Balancing in situ and ex situ conservation: blurring the boundaries between zoos and the wild' in 'Catalysts for Conservation' by Lesley Dickie



There are some collections out there who never bothered to include education in their facilities until required to do so by law or regulation. Some today still do only the basic minimum. As little as they can get away with it. They reckon sticking up a few signs is enough.

Early in 2015 I made my second visit to the US. The first time was in 1975 when I visited the 'Seminole Indian Village and Zoo'. It was horrific. The second trip I took in Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Wild Animal Park and San Diego Zoo. These three were excellent and much enjoyed. I also visited Sea World San Diego. Now with Sea World I don't doubt for a millisecond that the staff here are caring experienced professionals who love their work and the animals they work with. The cetaceans and sea lions all appeared in robust good health and the pools were sparkling clean. I watched whale, dolphin and sea lion shows and came away knowing no more about these animals than when I went in. All I remember is cetaceans splashing the public and fairies zipping around on overhead wires. It was ridiculous. This is not zoo education. Someone appears to have lost their sense of direction somewhere. It may be what the public like. If that is the case then change it, change what they like into an educational experience. There was a brief mention of the rescue work that Sea World do and I thank them for it but it is not enough. My gut feel is that most, if not all the trainers feel the same as I do even though they dare not say it publicly. The decision on how a display/show should go has been decided by somebody in an ivory tower too far removed from reality. I'm reminded of the statement "The most dangerous phrase of all - We've always done it that way, why change?"

Last year I made a special visit to a relatively new Penguin exhibit in a Safari Park in the UK because it had been recommended to me. It was a tremendous disappointment. I had to look long and hard for any sort of educational signage. It was there though, one tiny basic sign that was overlooked by 100% of visitors in the half hour I monitored it. It really isn't good enough. A similar situation was experienced at their other exhibits.

Education at its simplest and often its best is good signage. Any sign with over ten lines on it will get overlooked. People, for the most part, don't like to read. They have a 'Twitter' like mentality. The best type of signage is made up of short colourful interesting facts that grab attention. What I like to call 'mind bites'. There are zoos which do this but most, very sadly miss the point completely. Amongst the best signage I have seen anywhere is Singapore Zoo. They use mind bites and also attention grabbers.

This is NOT education


Zoo Keepers (and Docents) are at the forefront of Zoo Education…or they should be. They need to be given time to talk to visitors. They need to be able to approach them and interact with visitors. Keepers know all the funny little stories that people can relate to. If they are caring and professional they will be able to give current conservation news and status in the wild. Zoo Keepers should be given the opportunity, time and financial support to attend conferences and meet and liaise with their peers. There are collections out there, even quite large and renowned facilities that do not allow such activities. Why? Not because they can't afford it but because they are afraid of their staff being poached by other zoos. This is a little understandable (I have lost good staff this way) but the opportunity to gain knowledge is also lost. It would/should be quite acceptable that if a zoo sends and pays for staff to attend a Conference that the employee signs an undertaking to pay back all costs should they resign within, say six months…or a year if it was an expensive trip.

The best educators in any zoo are those who know and understand the work. They have done the job, they have lived it. Zoo management needs to encourage and inspire. They should pay their staffs membership to the likes of ABWAK and AAZK. Informed keepers are better keepers and even better educators.

Then there are the shows/educational displays/presentations or whatever you like to call them. Here the opportunity arises to educate through entertainment….edutainment! This should not be a resurrection or replacement of the circus. It is the chance to show off trained natural behaviours or behaviours which can help with routine or medical husbandry. There should never be a criticism of cruelty because cruelty should never be a part of the show or the training. It saddens me to see circus type rings appearing in some zoo collections.

If ever you see any sort of a show where an animal is on a lead or a chain or that it is dressed up in human clothes be 100% sure that you are in a Bad Dysfunctional Zoo. If you see staff (or public) inside an enclosure with large carnivores the same applies.

Parading Lion or Tiger cubs around for visitors to pet is wrong, as is any sort of primate. Often the zoo will claim that it had to be hand reared. More often than not this is a lie. Many 'necessary' hand rearing is orchestrated by staff or management with an alternative agenda.

Ferrets are acceptable


Many zoos have Education Departments. As far as is possible they should be open during the zoos working hours. Regular talks and lectures can be given. Here though there is always the opportunity to go and learn more. The staff here can tell visitors what they can do to help, to become more involved. The education department is the first port of call for school parties. They need to be imaginative and clever to make sure children learn something. It will depend on the teacher in the first place so some prior contact with the zoo education department will be important. It is doubtful that more than 5% of children in a school party actually go to a zoo to learn anything…they go for a day out (sadly that applies to a lot of teachers too). So catching the children's attention whilst they are in the zoo is so very very important. If all that is accomplished is to correct the lies spread by Animal Rights groups then it is a job well done.



Entertainment? Well yes, there has always been an entertainment aspect to zoos. Very few people ever go to a zoo to be educated. They go for a fun and relaxing day out. All are curious though and this is where the Good Modern Zoo has a role to play. Entertainment needs to be turned into Edutainment. Educating their visitors in an entertaining way. The entertainment aspect is very important in that it may be the one thing that drew people into the zoo in the first place.

Where things start to go wrong is when the entertaining starts to overshadow the edutaining. Commercial zoos are very bad at this. So much so that sometimes it is difficult to know whether you are in a fairground or a zoo. Let's be honest here. Animals have no place in a fairground.


All research is worthless unless the species benefits and the holders of the species can access and gain from the knowledge.



When I started in zoos there was no such thing as enrichment. True enough there were keepers who did 'things' to keep their animals 'happy' and probably always had been. But enrichment per se did not exist. Though Hediger made mention in a roundabout way it received not a single line of text in the classic 1973 Calgary Zoo In-Service Training Program or the 1980 National Extension Colleges Zoo Animal Management Course nor for that matter in the excellent 1987 updated version of the Metro Toronto Zoos Manual of Zoo Keeping. It was not until the early 1980's that Hal Markowitz of the Oregon Zoo gave it credence that other zoos started to give serious attention to this previously neglected part of the art and science of zookeeping.

I have no recollection of Zoo Check (Born Free Foundation) making mention of Enrichment when it was formed in 1984. They have learned something and so have we.

Today all good zoos recognise the important of environmental enrichment and have staff or dedicated teams of staff for whom this aspect of animal husbandry is their prime concern. Such is its importance that it now forms part of some zoo inspections (and so it should/must).

Enrichment is undeniably important but needs to be fully and properly understood. Static cage/enclosure furniture is not enrichment and nor is any activity carried out as a matter of routine. Routine can be enriching but it does miss the point. The point is so often missed by bad zoos. In fact there are zoos out there where by doing something different once a month think they are doing something clever.

All keepers need TIME to work on enrichment projects. They should not have to squeeze in time for enrichment around their normal duties.


A Special Mention of Aquariums

Aquariums are Zoos. Sadly many of them are Bad Zoos. Though the architecture may often be stunning, many aquariums are still back at the stage their terrestrial counterparts were 40-50 years ago. Something in the region of 90% of all of the creatures exhibited in aquariums were collected from the wild. Of the 10% that were aquarium bred I don't believe I would be far wrong in guessing that 4% of those were accidental, unexpected or virgin births. There is very little sustained breeding in the worlds aquariums.

Most aquariums are still exploiters. An animal dies so it is a quick fishing trip and off to catch another. Very sadly people, and virtually all of the press, judge aquariums by size. Try a google search for the 'best' and you will end up getting the biggest. Biggest does not mean best in aquariums, terrestrial zoos, tanks or enclosures.

Fish are difficult. Providing the correct conditions for breeding for so many are still not known or poorly understood and mainly impossible in large mixed tanks. Then rearing presents another huge set of challenges.

I like aquariums. I visit a lot of them. The displays are important. A well decorated tank with crystal clear water is a pleasure to view. There are today however too many commercial cloned and boring aquariums, it is a bit like you have seen one so you have seen them all. What is bad in one is bad in the next.

Some aquariums are stunning works of art. Truly beautiful. Sadly though many of these would be better placed in an art gallery rather than exhibited as homes for aquatic life.

Aquariums really need to concentrate hard on Good Zoo requirements. Proper effective education, genuine research, breeding and giving back. Aquariums need to give back more because they are taking more than the rest. I will not be here to see the Aquarium which display 100% captive bred animals but I dream of the day. There are facilities which are now breeding into the second and more generations but they are very few and far between and include only a few species.

Although it is a nice gesture the release of a few fish into the sea on World Oceans Day is pretty near pointless in most cases.


Over the past thirty years there has been a proliferation of so called 'Sanctuaries'. It's just a name. Sanctuaries hold wild animals in captivity…they are zoos. The Sanctuary side of things is very mixed up and complicated. There are those 'Sanctuaries' who 'rescue' animals and hold them in a non-breeding situation for the remainder of their natural lives. There are other 'Sanctuaries' who 'rescue' and breed and hand rear at every possible opportunity. Sanctuaries that actually genuinely rescue, care for and do not charge public admittance are as rare as hens teeth. When it gets right down to it Sanctuaries ARE zoos and the majority are Bad Dysfunctional Zoos. In the UK they would all be inspected under the Zoo Licencing Act and require a Zoo Licence…..and most would fail.

Between the 10th and the 29th May 2015 120,000+ Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica) dropped dead. This was estimated to be half the world's population. The Saiga Antelope has had enough problems already "In the early 1990s, groups such as WWF actively encouraged the saiga hunt, promoting its horn as an alternative to the horn of the endangered rhino." Though the WWF have since divorced themselves from this plan the demand has not gone away. Animals dying like this are not common but they do happen. This could just as easily have been King Penguins, Killer Whales, African or Asian Elephants or one of the subspecies of Tigers. Zoos…Good Zoos would be in a position over a period of time to return these to the wild. The 'SanctuZoos' would not. Why? Because half of these self-righteous establishments do not breed and the other half maintain big cat and other species of unknown or hybrid parentage. Like the Good Zoos there are exceptions but the rest are worthless…they are just another set of commercial organisations earning their private owners a living "We now have saved 250 lions…send us money!". "Come and visit and we will let you play with the Tigon Cubs for $250". And the cubs? Well if you are in Africa and you are helping to feed or care for Lion Cubs….these are going to be shot in Canned Hunts when they reach maturity and their bones bagged up and exported to the Asian traditional medicine market. Lion bones are cheaper and more easily available than Tiger. Elsewhere these cubs will be moved on (sold) to yet another disreputable Dysfunctional Zoo.

Okay I understand how people are taken in by the 'Cutey Cutey look how clever we are' crap. But it isn't clever and it isn't cute. These people really need to break out of their cocoons, look at the world as it really is and actually do something constructive towards conservation. They are in a position to do so. Official managed breeding programmes need space to hold bachelor herds and genetically important specimens for which there is no current display space elsewhere.

As I said earlier, there are exceptions. I would ask you to look at the 'Sanctuaries' managed by Animals Asia. Bears rescued from Bile Farms after experiencing a true life of hell. What is more the facilities they offer these animals are amongst the best in the world.

I never visited Tbilisi Zoo so I cannot say whether it was good or bad but in the aftermath of the flood disaster there was a group from 'Vegan Georgia' shouting the zoo to be closed. Their answer was for the remaining animals to be moved to "an animal reserve outside of Tbilisi, where they will have proper conditions." A reserve? That too is just another name for a zoo. Would it be any better? Who knows?



I'm all for training Zoo Animals. It is mentally enriching for the animal and can be a tremendous aid to husbandry procedures such as foot trimming, dental examination and more. Training can be behind scenes or front of house. Front of house it needs to be worthwhile, interesting and educational. There is no room for circus in the zoo. We don't need circus rings or tigers jumping through hoops of fire (there are such places!). We don't need people playing Tarzan with big cats. Any element of teasing animals is not education, it is teasing. There are many collections which really need to think about teasing. The meaning of the word appears to have passed them by.

Teasing: "make fun of or attempt to provoke (a person or animal) in a playful way"


Entertainment? Well yes, there has always been an entertainment aspect to zoos. Very few people ever go to a zoo to be educated. They go for a fun and relaxing day out. All are curious though and this is where the Good Modern Zoo has a role to play. Entertainment needs to be turned into Edutainment. Educating their visitors in an entertaining way.

So…In a nutshell a Good Zoo

  • Subscribes and adheres to the 'The Five Freedoms'
  • Is non commercial
  • Is a member of its National Association
  • It does not keep or deliberately breed freaks of nature
  • It is in all the managed breeding programmes
  • Education
  • Research
  • Sharing Knowledge
  • Enrichment
  • Entertaining
  • Lastly it is not being "Holier than thou"…. because the only way we are going to save species long term for future generations is by working together

How Does Your Zoo Measure Up?

"With many wildlife populations declining worldwide, it is more critical than ever for zoos and aquariums worldwide to work together toward conservation solutions, share knowledge about best animal care practices, and cooperate on scientifically managed animal populations. Lincoln Park Zoo is a proud member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), an organization who actively works to bring the global zoo community together so that we can ensure the best future for wildlife."

Kevin Bell, Director, Lincoln Park Zoo, USA

End Note

I don't expect everybody to agree with what I believe makes a good zoo. In fact most probably won't. What I do hope is that those who start reading follow it through to the end and along the way have given the points a bit of thought. I pride myself in being able to see through the bullshit put out by zoos both good and bad (I have worked in both). Never forget that the web pages you view for zoos are created by the zoos themselves… they not your best source of information. They are biased at best, lies at worst. The worst zoo in the world could have the best website. I have no faith whatsoever in most 'Major Awards' or what Trip Advisor or various newspaper polls have to say about any zoo anywhere.

About me:

In 1967 started working in Private, Commercial and National zoos (and Bad and Dysfunctional zoos) in the capacity of Keeper, Head keeper and Curator, and sometime Zoo Inspector, Peter Dickinson started to travel. He sold his house and all his possessions and hit the road. He has travelled extensively in Turkey, Southern India and much of South East Asia before settling in Thailand (though currently living and working in Dubai). In his travels he has visited over 200 zoos (and before the travelling...many more) and writes about these in his Blog or on Hubpages.

Still living out of his backpack Peter earns his living as an international independent zoo consultant, critic and writer. He describes himself as an itinerant zoo keeper, a dreamer, a traveller, a people watcher, a lover, a thinker, a cosmopolitan, a writer, a hedonist, an explorer, an introvert, a pantheist, a gastronome, sometime fool, a good friend to some and a pain in the butt to others.

Good zoos will not gain any credibility from their critics until they step forward and condemn the Bad zoos wherever they are.


Andrew Gray on August 08, 2020:

A very good piece.Thank you Peter. A good question from Stephen Mckeown below regarding a craze and quality of university students studying The chimpanzees at Chester. A good example of a zoo going over the top to align itself with research and university credit to validate its existence - perhaps they should be studying the effects on the same chimps being kept in the same goldfish bowl of an exhibit at Chester for the past 50 years! I believe new funding was going to support the new Hotel instead of finally renovating that exhibit, or perhaps it was destined for more giant plastic dinosaurs! 30k specimens really necessary? when the interpretation on those few that are critically endangered is almost non-existent? Conservation/Education V entertainment - I completely agree with you.

Stephen McKeown on June 13, 2020:

Very interesting. Re research, I completely agree. There was, maybe still is, a craze while I was at Chester Zoo, for university students studying 'handedness' in chimpanzees i.e. whether they were left or right handed. Why? I also remember someone submitting a project on Cotton-top Tamarins with an incorrect spelling of the scientific name on the cover.

Private Nemesis on May 24, 2016:

A great article Peter!

I think though that any Zoo should go well beyond the Five Freedoms (which only 'accommodate' poor and neutral welfare states) - have you looked at the Five Domains work of Professor David J Mellor? It forms the basis of animal welfare accreditation for Zoo and Aquarium Association in Australasia I believe.

Lucy on May 11, 2016:

Hi Peter, many thanks for your interesting and detailed article which gives good evaluation and distinctions between good and bad zoos.

I am currently studying for a degree in Zoology in the U.K. Although I'm not set on a particular career, I have interest in curating. I wondered if you could post a blog sometime about your experience as a curator and about what the job involves.

Related Articles