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Zoo Misconceptions

Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.

Sloth Mother and Baby at Dudley Zoo


Zoos are bad

This is an all too common but rather a stupid statement. It is exactly the same as saying all hotels are bad, all peanuts are bad or all apples are bad. There are bad hotels, bad peanuts and bad apples but they are not all bad. Not all zoos are bad.

I would be the first to admit that there are bad zoos. In my travels I have seen several. Bad zoos though tend to fall into two camps. Those which are bad through commercial 'penny pinching' and those which are bad through ignorance. Happily the picture is changing and fewer and fewer of these zoos now exist. Education is the key. Understanding existing problems and putting them right. Zoo closure is not usually the answer.

Ask any good professional zoo keeper if they would prefer it if there were no zoos and they would say "yes, in a perfect world there would be no zoos." Unfortunately it is not perfect. There is greed and habitat destruction, poaching and unregulated hunting AND not everyone can afford to go on an expensive holiday to see animals in the wild.

A Zoo Note

No one would deny that in the beginning that zoos were primarily a place of entertainment. Entertainment is still important today but in the guise of EDUtainment...that is educating visitors in an entertaining way. It is doubtful that anyone ever visits a zoo to learn...though many teachers leading school parties may lean towards this ideal. If zoos can teach people then they can make a difference.

Then there is Conservation and Research but it goes beyond this. In many parts of the world the zoo is a safe venue. Zoos are non-political, non-religious, non pornographic. Zoos can be meeting places.

What Makes a Good Zoo - A Personal Journey

Zoos are not safe

Zoos are as safe as you make them. Accidents do occur as in every industry but they are very rare. Zoos place a very high priority on safety of staff and especially of visitors.

Accidents usually only occur when visitors or staff do something really stupid like climbing into an animal enclosure or over a safety barrier. This is not that different to stepping in front of a car or train. Don't do it and you will be fine.

In the very very very rare incidence of an animal escaping it is not out to bite or eat anyone. It is disoriented and frightened and within seconds misses the security and familiarity of its enclosure. Walk away calmly and you will be fine. Leave the security drill to the staff.

There are exceptions...yes of course there are. This would be when someone spent time taunting and teasing an animal. What would you do if you were a taunted animal and suddenly found yourself on the other side of the fence?

Zoos are cruel

Just where did this stupid notion come from? Define cruelty. How are they cruel? The good modern zoo is an excellent place for animals. Great care is taken to ensure the animals are as 'happy' and as comfortable as possible. Generally speaking the zoo keeping staff that look after the animals are not that well paid. They do the work because they care about animals. Really care! They certainly care more about the animals than those on the outside who jump up and down condemning zoos and in reality know nothing about them, or for that matter, the animals either. Why should being a faded movie star or pop icon make them an expert on zoos, animals...or anything else except perhaps acting or pop? Why should a university degree or doctorate gained by a few years behind a desk give any zoo expertise? If you are one of those people who believe that riding horses is cruel and cats and dogs should not be kept as pets then I have no argument. If you have vegetarian 'principles'...well I reckon 30 % of zookeepers are vegetarian. I have worked in zoos for 49 years. I am not a cruel person. I abhor cruelty as do the many people I have worked with over the years.

Rhino at the Cleveland Zoo

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Zoos force the animals to do tricks

No they don't. It is not in a zoos interest to force an animal to do anything. Circuses teach animals to do tricks. Zoos teach animals to exercise their bodies. Sometimes this is simply for the benefit of animals but also at times to show a visiting public something of the animals ability and intelligence. In this case it would be for entertainment or rather 'EDUtainment'. No-one visits the zoo to be educated, they go to be entertained. Good zoos know this and use subtle tricks to educate visitors while they are there.

Bad zoos do nothing at all. Really bad zoos simply entertain.

Zoos Take Animals From The Wild

Actually they don't, or rather very rarely. Most animals captive in zoos today were born there or in another zoo, they don't know the wild. Zoo's would only take animals from the wild today to improve the genetic pool for breeding programmes for animals already held captive. This could be important or we may lose species altogether.

They will sometimes take in wild rescued animals which are young, sick or injured and care for these before returning them back to the wild. Even quite small zoos like the Welsh Mountain Zoo do fantastic work with the rehabilitation of seal pups.

Bad zoos still take animals from the wild....know the difference!

Conservation Centres, Sanctuaries, Rescue Centres and Wildlife Parks are better

It is actually all in a name. They are all exactly the same thing. Animals kept in captivity...for whatever purpose. You can read more on this by clicking on 'Is it A Zoo?'

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It is actually an ignorant statement to declare that one prefers a Wildlife Conservation Trust to a Zoo if only years before it was...the only thing which changed was the name. It is not only outsiders who make this mistake. I once met two staff from a Wild Animal Park in the South of England who thought they did not work in a zoo. Wild Animal Parks are zoos.

One of the most stupid statements I have read was in a report where it said the animal had been removed from a zoo and "released into a sanctuary". It was simply one enclosure to another.

There are a huge number of absolutely pointless rescue centres. These will hold animals like White Tigers or other creatures of questionable parentage. The worst crime here is they often breed from such animals. Animals held in captivity need to be properly managed for the species as a whole. They need to be part of an official Breeding Programme. If they are not then it is NOT a good zoo. It is a BAD zoo.

So called Rescue Centres which maintain animals which are of questionable genetics which should never be bred from are a complete and utter waste of time. They pander only to the vanity of the the humans who run the place. For such places to condemn zoos is laughable.

The anti-zoo groups use a play on the word 'Sanctuary'. There are of course 'Wildlife Sanctuaries' which cover hundreds or thousands of square miles of genuine 'wild' environment. These are NOT where 'rescued' animals go. They go to a 'Sanctuary' which is just a zoo by another name.

I reckon Deea Deb sums up what a real sanctuary is perfectly "A sanctuary is a home to the animals where they roam free and feed on their prey. There are no cages or boundaries of any sort (other than the outer boundaries to protect the habitat and inhabitants outside the sanctuary)."

There is also an obvious lack of fairness by those on the anti-zoo side. This is borne out by the fate of the 'Taiping 4' Gorillas. True enough they were illegally sent to a zoo in Malaysia. How much anyone knew and who exactly were the guilty parties is irrelevant at this point. Rightly and justly the animals were returned to Africa and settled into a zoo in South Africa. They obviously could not be returned to the wild. Well you would have thought the South African Zoo was to blame and zoos in general by the huge flurry of correspondence that was generated. Ultimately the four animals were sent to Limbe Wildlife Centre. Not a 'zoo' you note (but of course it is)...all in the name. As of January 2009 only two of these Gorillas remained alive....and today? Stress caused by moving them has been suggested as one possible cause of death. Yet there has been no voice from the anti-zoo's who I personally blame. (It is interesting to note that none of the 'Taiping 4' Gorillas appears on their website).

Warthog at Kansas City Zoo

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What about Safari Parks?

Again they are the same thing. People wrongly assume that they are better than a traditional zoo. This is not the case. In the eye of the beholder the animals appear to have so much space whereas in reality they don't.

Visitors would quickly complain if they could not see what they had paid to see and only saw a dot in the distance so animals are 'trained' to stick to an area where they can be easily seen. Usually right next to the road.

Zoos smell

What if they do? It does not mean they are dirty. Smell or scent plays a major part in the lives of most animals. If zoos were to remove that odour simply to make YOU feel that WOULD be cruel.

Zoo animals need more space

This ain't necessarily so. Read more about zoo territory. Take look also at The Perfect Zoo Enclosure. I once worked in a zoo which provided several hectares for their large pride of lions. The lions had the option to go anywhere within this space. They didn't. They remained in one small corner. I flew over the enclosure several times during the years I was there and I never saw a footprint outside of the 'hang out' corner. On rare occasions when a female was going to give birth did she seek out a more secluded spot.

Why do zoos keep animals that are not endangered?

Why not? One of the roles of zoos is education and so it gives visitors the opportunity to see common species as well. It also allows staff the opportunity to learn how to successfully maintain such animals. They may be common in the wild today but the situation could change tomorrow. It is important though that non-endangered animals should be viable. It is important not to fill up valuable space with cast off's and misfits.

Space utilised by these animals may later be used to house endangered species as and when needed.

Zoos are not preparing animals for return to the wild

This statement is true and appears time and time again in articles and newspaper handouts from the Animal Rights Mafia and yet they are fully aware of why it isn't done.

To do so at the present time would be a pointless waste of time. Zoo animals are enriched to keep body and mind active but right now lions do not need to be given live food to 'learn'. The wild is in a mess. It is shrinking. There is not enough room to return most species.

Some zoos do return species into protected areas. Even to areas where the species has previously disappeared. Whatever returns are made we are still keeping a captive 'back up' population.

More than 60% of Zoo Animals have head damage due to banging into bars.

What total utter rubbish. A lie propogated by the anti -zoo fraternity.

Red Panda at Dublin Zoo


Breeding in Captivity should be banned

If this is your school of thought then you must really hate our planet. There are people out there just like you who would prefer to see entire species die out rather than breed animals in zoos. I believe it is a very mean, one sided and selfish attitude to take. 


What happens to animals rescued from zoos.

I can only talk a little personal experience on this one but be sure they are NOT returned to the wild.

I well remember a zoo in the North of England being closed down due to pressure from an anti-zoo group. I am not denying that a lot could have been done to improve the situation...a bit of a cash injection.

The cash was available because the anti-zoo group built new enclosures at a different location. Quite good enclosures too. The animals were located here...but it wasn't called a zoo. It was now called a Garden. The staff, though well meaning lacked the expertise and knowledge to provide proper care for the species they had inherited.

After a year or so the animals were moved from the 'Gardens' to a Rescue Centre. Again the people were very good hearted but the enclosures the animals were given were worse in many ways to some of the slum zoos I have seen in S.E. Asia.

And where were the anti-zoo group? They did not give a damn after they had closed the zoo.

Then there are the tigers 'rescued' from zoos by the anti-zoo groups and 'returned' to India? Returned? They have never been there. They are hybrid tigers which, if they were to escape into the wild, would do positive harm to tigers naturally occurring in the area. What are these groups thinking about? Do they have some airy fairy idea that the tiger was pleased to be back home? Ha! It does give one a bit of an idea of how removed such groups are from reality.

These are the same people who complain about zoos spending money on building new enclosures instead of spending it on protecting animals in the wild. Talk about 'pot calling the kettle black.'

Columbus Zoo

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Zoos Routinely Remove Animals for Hand Rearing so they can be Used for Publicity

To a degree this is true. BAD zoos do it all the time so they can have cute photos of baby Tigers, Orangutan's and others. It is very rarely necessary and is not good practice and inevitably leads to a lot of trauma for the animals in later life. Being 'humanised' they have difficulty integrating with their own kind. Some can never go back and lead sad and cruel lives alone.

GOOD zoos will sometimes remove animals which have been abandoned and all efforts made to try to ensure the animal knows exactly what it is so they may be returned later. It is no fun and having gone through the school of 'hard knocks' with hand rearing I believe it is often better to euthanase. If an animal is being hand reared then I believe it is fair enough to use it for a little limited publicity to encourage visitor numbers.

Where things go really wrong are with animals like 'Knut' the Polar Bear who was overexposed to the degree that it is extremely unlikely he will ever be able to mix again with other Polar Bears.

At the other end of the scale and at high levels of ultra stupidity we have zoos in Asia having piglets being nursed by tigers. Each of the piglets dressed in a tiny tiger costume. I have seen this as well as Tiger, Pig and Domestic dog all living together in the same enclosure. I won't say happily because I strongly doubt that. Pointless rearing...or rather there is a point because uninformed visitors, Westerners and others think it is wonderful.

Some smaller animals may be reared and used as animal ambassadors in educational displays. I believe this is fair enough.

Zoos kill their surplus animals

This is an emotive subject. I agree that it sometimes happens and indeed should and must happen as part of a properly managed breeding programme. The breeding programme is for the management of the species as a whole and not for the benefit of one particular animal.

I would prefer to use the word euthanase to kill though I agree they are the same. Killing an animal is quick and it is painless. There is no terror or torture. The people who carry out such procedures genuinely care about the animals they are putting to sleep.


Newspapers have the nasty habit of using headings like "zoo animals put to death" or "executed" or "Shot" because they know they will sell more papers that way.

Consider too the countless millions of dogs and cats that are quietly 'put to sleep' each year. All surplus to requirements.

Euthasia is a management tool used alongside birth control and sex segregation it is not the only method used.

Remember that animals die in the wild all the time. It is kill or be killed for many species. Within a protected zoo environment man has to take a kindly hand.

Why would zoos want to euthanase animals?

The Wild is a cruel place and nature has some harsh realities to even out the numbers. Usually more or less equal numbers of males and females are born. One male is more than enough to mate several females. Males fight and one is injured or forced out to live alone and become a target for the first predator to come along. Zoos act as that benevolent and kind predator.

Some animals are born defective. To breed from them would be harmful to the breeding programme. To keep them would take up a space in the programme that could be taken by a better suited animal.

Zoos will Kill Animals which Injure or Kill Zoo Staff

No they don't. Regardless of the circumstances...keeper error or equipment malfunction zoo staff will make all efforts to ensure the animal is recovered safely.

Capybara at Shepreth Wildlife Park


Are animals which die fed to other animals?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends on the circumstances and the animal concerned. An autopsy is usually necessary and sometimes the body is required for research or as a museum specimen. If the animal was chemically euthanased then it could not be used for feeding to anything. At one zoo rescue centre I visited in China a bear unexpectedly died. After post mortem it was buried with dignity. All the staff attended the 'funeral', some weeping. A poem was read out and this, along with small gifts from the staff were buried along with the bear.

All staff in zoos care about animals which die, whether they are deliberately killed or die of natural or unnatural causes. People deal with death (which is as natural as birth) in different ways. 

A Final Word

I am pro zoo. I am anti anti-zoo. I am always willing to listen to the other side of the story. I am prepared to change my mind on any issue be it politics, religion, little green men or zoos. I look at everything from both sides.

In 49 years of zoo work I have yet to change my mind on zoos. We NEED zoos....but GOOD zoos.

San Diego Zoo

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Read More About Zoos

  • What Makes a Good Zoo - A Personal Journey
    The difference between a good and a bad zoo is not black and white. The article describes a personal zoo journey and raises issues for people to think about.
  • The Zoo Hubs
    This Hub has been created to make it a touch easier for myself and others to find my Zoo Related Hubs. Zoos are my main interest and the subject I have written most about. I observe, am critical and voice...
  • White Tiger Breeding is Not Conservation
    The Tiger is under severe threat through loss of habitat and poaching to supply an illicit trade in animal parts. We are lucky in that there are six Tiger sub-species still surviving. These are the Bengal...
  • The Perfect Zoo Enclosure
    The Perfect Zoo Enclosure would surely have to be an exact replica of the territory the animal lived in in the wild. Visitors to the zoo could wait for the animal to appear...and wait...and wait...and wait....
  • The Five Freedoms
    To you and I it is probably obvious. We have a cat or dog or some more exotic 'pet' at home. We care for it. It is our responsibility. The caring means that we want that animal to be both happy and healthy....


Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on December 29, 2018:

Thanks Alex Coburn. You are must be poorly written as you appear to have missed the point of the article altogether.

Alex Coburn on December 28, 2018:

While well intended, this article is poorly written. It misses the most fundamental point, which is that the great lie every zoo tells itself is that zoo collections exist to get people excited about animals.

Across the board zoos desperately need to step into the twenty-first century.

The article does point out that zoos exist because we can’t trust people to go to wild places take only photos, and leave only footprints. Until this changes, the only way to ensure some species will survive is to keep sections their populations in captivity.

In my opinion the best example of what zoos need to become, is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Far and away this facility puts demonstrating practical real conservation for guests as the primary agenda item every single day, and actually housing animals second. They have made conservation and education entertaining, fun, and memorable. Some of their exhibits don’t even have animals in them, and guests still enjoy them!

Secondly, MBA focuses on providing really high quality professional health care and professional zoo keeping for their animals they do choose to keep in their collection. MBA isn’t afraid to close down an entire exhibit because they can’t (or shouldn’t) house that particular species. Most inspiring is that they aren’t afraid to engage guests in talks about all wildlife, even if its an animal not physically living at their facility. Somehow, guests dig it!

I hope zoos grab ahold of the MBA model. Many haven’t, and rely on a format that is quite simply just outdated. People who “don’t like zoos” are probably unknowingly more often upset by what they perceive as animals forced into captive entertainment rather than the idea of what zoos can be.

It’s our job as zoo staff to turn this thinking around by being the living model of conservation for guests, and to be the constant voice that champions the planet and encourages guests to go forth and journey to wild places to craft their own animal adventures.

If zoos really focus on celebrating every day conservation and encouraging guests to always care for the planet by “doing what they can, with what they have, where they are” we will, collectively, go far to do good for the planet as a society.

Kai Creamer on December 28, 2018:

Also, with regards to Zoos "forcing animals to do tricks". Training is becoming more and more important in accredited Zoos world wide, more and more of keeper's time is dedicated to training sessions with their animals. But this new world of training has nothing to do with 'tricks' or entertainment (thought entertainment is definitely a happy by-product).

Husbandry training is a way of teaching animals to willingly and voluntarily engage in their own care. Positive reinforcement (no-force) training through operant conditioning (psychology of learning) is used to teach animals not only a system of communication for their daily care: i.e. "come here", "show me your teeth", "roll on your back", "go to front of enclosure", "pass through gate", "sit on the scale", "enter evacuation carrier", which make the daily lives of keepers and animals alike much less stressful, but even how to voluntarily engage in medical procedures.

I know tigers, dolphins, elephants, bears and gorilla that give voluntary blood samples (present vein to trainer, sit still for area shaving, sit still while alcohol wipe area, sit still for needle inserted, sit for 2 mins while blood collected, let vet remove needle and wipe area, receive reward) with 0 force or constraint, and they will do it 100 times in a row, no complaint, just a juicy fish or a big banana at the end please!

300 kg animals with razor sharp teeth and crushing bites, will willingly: give blood, fecal samples, pee in a cup, gastric samples, receive eyedrops, receive oral meds, position themselves for an x-ray or ultrasound... All of this without any form of sedation or confinement. All of this without the use of chains, shock collars, whips, punishment. All of this without ever using the words "NO", "BAD", "STOP THAT". All of this without damaging the animal trainer bond, and in fact strengthening it, through the build up of trust and a positive reinforcement history!

Yet we're the bad ones? Most anti-zoo people I know can't get their dog to walk well on a leash without some for of punishment, correction, reprimand or misused "training tool" (shock collars, choke chains, spray bottles), let alone have them sit for a blood draw, or present their nails for trimming.

Even if you would never 'hit' your dog, how many times a day do you say 'NO' or 'BAD BOY'?

The things anti-caps could learn from keepers and trainers (particularly marine mammal trainers) would blow them away and improve their interactions with every animal (even people) they meet in the future. I hope these lines of communication open up, so the incredible things our animal ambassadors have taught us in accredited Zoos and Aquaria worldwide can begin to improve the lives of domestic animals around the world!