Posts Tagged Zoo


Unfortunately zoos all over the world generate surplus animals. What they don’t do is kill healthy 18 month old giraffes, like Marius at the Copenhagen zoo (

Organisations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in North America and the Zoo and Aquarium Association in Australasia develop studbooks for their species to regulate breeding to maximise genetic diversity. If an animal’s genes become over represented in the zoo population that animal can be contracepted. There is nothing unique about giraffes. They can be castrated like any other animal or animals can be separated to avoid inappropriate pairings. The issue with Marius really started over two years ago. If his genes were over represented why were his parents allowed to breed, and why wait until the giraffe is 18 months old before euthanasing him?

Zoos are too small to be treated individually. Instead they form part of a global collective that constantly moves animals around to maximise breeding effectiveness. Zoos regularly release lists of animals that they want and that they have on surplus. The zoos I have worked for frequently move their surplus animals to other zoos that want them. I do not understand why this could not have been done with Marius as a British zoo made a place available to him.

Many animals become surplus because of their advancing years. The other members of the group kick them out or they are no longer reproductively viable and so are removed to live out the rest of their years in isolation off display. In the wild they would be killed by predators. The zoos I have worked for no longer have a policy of management euthanasia, unless animal welfare is at stake. This does, however, raise a difficult point when it comes to herd animals. Is it better to keep them in social isolation for the rest of their lives, or is it better to euthanase them?

This was hardly the case with Marius and a more enlightened solution to the “problem” caused by a young healthy giraffe could surely have been found.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Given that we are in the season for wishful thinking it seems appropriate that I should come up with a wish of my own. After all the time I have spent banging on about how zoos are doing it all wrong it is about time I made a few suggestions outlining how zoos could be doing it right. So, my wish is for my ideal zoo.

As I have said before, I am not against zoos per se, just the concept of zoos as entertainment rather than conservation centres. In order to avoid my future wrath I have devised a series of criteria that zoos must satisfy to be considered “ideal”. These are the Bunny Criteria. After all, what’s the point of devising standards if you can’t name them after yourself in order to achieve some level of immortality (although, as Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my films. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”)?

  1. The zoo must be a non-profit organisation. As long as zoos are forced to pander to the public and the almighty dollar they will always risk putting money before animal welfare and conservation. This can be achieved through wealthy patrons/owners or government sponsorship e.g. White Oak Plantation/White Oak Conservation Center (, and the Lubee Bat Conservancy (, both in Florida and both closed to the general public.


  2. With so many endangered species in the world and so few zoo places the zoo must focus on maintaining these species with no, or an absolute minimum, of non-endangered species e.g. the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust ( on Jersey Island.


  3. Zoos must have excellent education programs ranging from intelligently designed play areas for children e.g. Copenhagen zoo ( to structured classroom activities for school children to guided presentations within the zoo (presentations that do not include anyone patting tigers or other inmates) e.g. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (


  4. Zoos must be connected to in situ conservation programs by releasing captive bred species to the wild, assisting with habitat management and encouraging visitors to adopt conservation related activities.


  5. Zoo enclosures must meet certain minimum standards, which are already in place in many countries and administered through organisations such as ZAA, AZA, etc. However, the old adage of the bigger the better certainly applies when it comes to zoo enclosures. Every effort must be made to hold animals in a natural environment, in natural groups and fed a natural diet. If this cannot be done satisfactorily then the animal has no place in the zoo e.g. elephants in small urban zoos, polar bears in Australia, gorillas in Canada, etc.


  6. Zoos should focus primarily, if not exclusively, on local fauna and maintain as much of the local natural environment as possible in order to encourage visitors to enjoy and conserve that environment and the species contained therein e.g. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in Canberra ( Too many problems occur in zoos because of an inability to adequately duplicate an animal’s natural environment. The further from home that animal is the greater these problems will be.

There they are, The Bunny Criteria. No doubt there is plenty of room for improvement as it is hard to be dogmatic about these sorts of things. If a species is not local but endangered with an in situ conservation program e.g. the Mauritius kestrel, should it be maintained in a zoo? Yes. If a species is local and not yet endangered but can be used in the zoo to highlight environmental issues e.g. koala and habitat fragmentation, should it be kept in a zoo? Probably. If a species is not local and not endangered but has a high profile thatis used to bring visitors through the gate e.g. elephant, should it be in the zoo? No.

I am happy for animals to live in zoos as long as their welfare remains paramount and their presence realistically facilitates their conservation, rather than visitor entertainment. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that breeding one elephant every couple of years even comes close to satisfying this criterion.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Then Again….

Zoos are not really all that bad and the main reason I criticise them is that I care and want them to harness their powers for good, rather than evil. Unfortunately they fall victim to the same issues that plague all of us, the need to make money to survive.

However imperfect they may be, zoos still occupy an important position in the world. While I have spent most of my career in zoos I have never actually seen myself as a “zoo vet” but rather a “wildlife vet” who worked in a zoo. Working in zoos has given me the opportunity to treat and rehabilitate injured wildlife, investigate disease outbreaks in wildlife, and embark on research projects to improve the health and welfare of the creatures we share the planet with. As wild animals do not have owners they do not have anyone to pay for these services, which are subsidised by zoos.

For better or worse, zoos are at least making an effort to understand and breed endangered wildlife with a view to hopefully returning it to its ecosystem. Consequently they are an enormous repository of knowledge and expertise when it comes to the biology, husbandry and health of the world’s fauna.

They are also making an effort to address the myriad issues that have contributed to species becoming endangered in the first place, such as promoting sustainable palm oil production and labelling (, encouraging the use of toilet paper made from recycled paper (, funding the training of Wildlife Protection Units to prevent illegal wildlife related activities in Sumatra (, and providing indigenous communities in Kenya with alternative forms of income to alleviate some of the pressures on local wildlife ( 

All reputable zoos have education programs because everyone understands the important role the next generation must play in moving the planet into a sustainable future.

It would be nice to think that a trip to the zoo encourages people to embark on some form of previously unthought-of conservation activity but, as we have seen, this can be notoriously difficult to prove. Still, all the ancillary activities which a visit to the zoo subsidises should be justification enough for the zoo’s existence. Unfortunately zoos often fund their projects by entertaining visitors in ways which potentially undermine those conservation messages. As long as that continues it is necessary to provide constructive criticism in order to bring them back onto the right path.

Dr. F. Bunny

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This Here’s A Zoo, And The Keeper Ain’t You


Lou Reed (Sick Of You, from the album “New York”)

Enough of this self-indulgent nonsense. I am a wildlife vet, so it’s time I started banging on about zoos again.

In my opinion there are three ways to experience wild animals: in the wild, in a zoo, on TV. It seems obvious to me that the best way is the wild way. How could anything beat the experience of seeing a lion wandering about the savannah doing its thing? Even local fauna like kangaroos and wombats are so much more exciting when seen in the wild. I think part of it is the unpredictability, never knowing what you are going to see or what it is going to do. I remember taking my aunt and uncle to Healesville Sanctuary to give them a dose of Australian wildlife. We spent the day looking at kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils. On our drive home they spotted a mob of wild kangaroos and made me stop the car so they could take pictures of them. They got much closer and took much better photos of the Sanctuary kangaroos but were a lot more excited about the wild ones. Of course we can’t all visit polar bears on their ice floes, jaguars in the Amazon or Przewalski horses in the Gobi desert.

This is where David Attenborough and his cohorts step in to dazzle us with astonishing images of wildlife doing its thing in the wild, without the need for passports, visas, water purification tablets or huge wads of cash. Through the magic of television we can gain a much more detailed, intimate and lasting view of the world around us, one that we can rewind and re-watch at our convenience.

Which brings us to option three. Does the experience of seeing something up close and personal, despite the fact that it is bored, pacing or overweight, leave a lasting positive impression that justifies placing it into that environment in the first place? Are we better off seeing a polar bear on TV or not at all? Although I speak from a privileged position, having worked with wild animals all my life, I believe so.

Zoos quite emphatically state that they change people’s attitudes to conservation and wildlife, citing the only study to date to attempt to quantify this, a 2007 non-independent survey (strongly refuted by Marino et al (2010)) by Falk et al. Unfortunately many of the questions in this study were extremely nebulous and subjective asking visitors if they felt a stronger connection to nature as a result of their visit (57% said yes), if zoos had a role to play in conservation, education and animal care (42% said yes), and if the visitor had an elevated level of awareness of their own role in conservation as a result of their visit (54% said yes). The vast majority of visitors did not, however, increase their knowledge of ecological concepts. This was put down to the fact that zoo visitors have a higher than average ecological knowledge in the first place, which reinforces my belief that people who visit zoos are already conservation minded and the zoo is really only preaching to the converted.

The researchers did do some follow up work to determine if there were any long term effects associated with the zoo visit. Unfortunately they were only able to obtain responses from 14% of the visitors originally interviewed. Rather than asking them what they had actually done because of their visit to the zoo the researchers again asked nebulous and irrelevant questions. 42% of the respondents mentioned a particularly memorable animal they saw on their visit, 21% enjoyed the zoo grounds, 61% did confess to have learnt something after all, 76% said zoos were invested in conservation, and 66% said zoos played an important role in species preservation. But there is no mention of what any of these visitors actually did as a result of their visit. Surely that is the crux of the issue? Do zoos stimulate people to act for conservation in positive ways that justify displacing animals and housing them in conditions that cannot hope to replicate their wild environment, social structure or nutritional needs? Am I more likely to want to conserve the bored, depressed looking zoo polar bear or the TV polar bear leaping from ice floe to ice floe, hunting seals and rearing cubs?

Removing zoos and putting the money saved into in situ conservation programs does not mean we can no longer experience wildlife first hand. Recently I visited the Western Treatment Plant ( This is the fancy name for Melbourne’s sewage farm. I spent six hours there bird watching and, ironically, saw many more bird species than I would in any zoo. This experience left me with a far more positive feeling about bird conservation than seeing the wing clipped, feather plucking versions in a zoo. True, it required a bit more effort and the species weren’t as spectacular as Andean condors or birds of paradise, but they were local species and, at the end of the day, aren’t we more likely to act and more likely to be effective in our actions when we attempt to conserve what is in our own backyard? Surely we will have a much greater impact on their future than we will ever have on the future of the orang-utan or gorilla, no matter how many palm oil friendly products we buy or mobile phones we recycle?

Dr. F. Bunny


Falk, J.H., Reinhard, E.M., Vernon, C.L., Bronnenkant, K., Deans, N.L., Heimlich, J.E. (2007) Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.

Marino, L., Lilienfeld, S.O., Malamud, R., Nobis, N., Broglio, R. (2010) Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study. Society and Animals 18:126-138.




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The Two Faces Of Zoos

As I mentioned in a previous blog (Zoo Based Conservation – What have the Romans, er Zoos, done for Us, I mean Conservation? 9/2/12) zoos have a somewhat dubious record when it comes to conservation and endangered species programs. This is at least partly because traditional zoos contain two powerful opposing forces, which are constantly at war with each other. On the one hand we have the keepers who interact directly with both the public and the animals. They are there because of a passion for conservation and a love for the animals they work with on a daily basis. On the other hand we have the managers. Many of these people have no animal related backgrounds. The zoo is just another place to work and it exists primarily to entertain and make money.

Because this dichotomy exists zoos are constantly at war with themselves. Keepers complain because insufficient funds are allocated to conservation programs and animals are expected to perform excessively. Managers complain because keepers are being too precious about their animals and fail to understand that without the money brought in by visitors there can be no funding for “nice to do” activities, like conservation programs.

Many of the gains made by zoos are being eroded in the interests of entertainment. While the chimpanzee tea parties will hopefully remain a thing of the past, zoos have reinstalled amusement park rides and are more and more willing to have hand raised, humanised animals engage in hands on contact and photo opportunities with visitors. As mentioned previously, this does no one any favours.

The solution? Make zoos charitable institutions that can be accessible to the public for the purpose of education, but do not rely on gate takings from visitors for their existence. Ensure that all staff share the same vision by emphasizing experience in conservation and animal management at all levels of the organisation above other attributes. None of the really good managers ever work in zoos anyway because the pay is so poor compared with real companies. If you’re going to have barely competent people at least have ones with some passion for conservation.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Zoo Based Conservation – What have the Romans, er Zoos, done for Us, I mean Conservation?

Zoos have existed in one form or another for many years. Originally they were nothing more than menageries, keeping animals in captivity for the amusement and amazement of the public. Over the years that public has become increasingly more discerning and is gradually deciding that caging animals for amusement is no longer acceptable. This has spelt trouble for the zoos of the world that have seen a steady drop in attendances.

Conservation has become quite the buzz word and zoos have leapt on this bandwagon as an opportunity to restore their credentials and bolster flagging attendances. In reality, do zoos have much to offer conservation or is it all just lip service to get the punters through the gates and fill the coffers?

Captive breeding for release to the wild is often touted by zoos as one of their main reasons for existence. However, literature from Animal Aid in the UK ( appears to paint a different picture. They claim that only 5% of species in UK zoos are endangered, less than 1% of the endangered species held in UK zoos have been reintroduced to the wild and only 2% of the world’s 6000-plus threatened or endangered species are registered in zoo breeding programmes.

Captive breeding for return to the wild is an incredibly time consuming, protracted and expensive process but it has yielded positive results for some species such as the golden lion tamarin, red wolf, Andean condor, Przewalski horse, whooping crane and perhaps the most well publicised of all, the black-footed ferret. The total ferret population dwindled to 18 individuals before six zoos were able to successfully breed them in captivity. Since 1986 over 7100 kits have been born. Reintroduction began in 1991 and there are now estimated to be approximately 1000 ferrets living in the wild (See for more information). Unfortunately this is another example of the high attrition rate associated with translocation programs, as mentioned in the previous post. Ferrets, at least, are relatively prolific breeders.

As mentioned above many species have no captive breeding program and for many of those that do the programs have been of minimal or no benefit. There are no more wild helmeted honeyeaters now than there were when their captive breeding program started, some 20 years ago, and there are fewer wild orange-bellied parrots than when their program began over 15 years ago. And these, like the ferrets, are small animals with short generation times. If they have been unable to achieve success it is delusional to suggest that zoos can play any meaningful role in the conservation of “charismatic megavertebrates” such as elephants and rhinos. With their incredibly long generation times, slow breeding and huge demands for space zoos will never be able to “save” these species and they only burble on about their conservation to justify their continued existence in captivity. It is obvious that zoos feel their presence is really required to drag the public through the gates. Any hope for long term survival for these and all species must come from in situ conservation programs, of which the African elephant is a successful example. A possible population of three to five million had been reduced by as much as 80% by the 1980s mostly due to poaching and the ivory trade. A ban on ivory coupled with innovative solutions employed by local people to try and live sustainably with these massive creatures has seen the elephant populations of eastern and southern Africa increase by a rate of 4.5% per annum since the mid-1990s (Blanc et al 2005). More details can be found in Tammy Matson’s excellent book, “Elephant Dance” and on her website Zoos do not feature but they will not give up their elephant populations for fear of falling attendances.

Apart from the fact that zoos exist to make money and entertain, despite what their glossy literature and websites might pronounce, they are hamstrung by the fact that they are captive institutions selecting animals that do well in captivity. The wildly unpredictable individual that mopes around its cage, plucks its own feathers or smashes itself against the glass on a daily basis is not a good display animal but possibly well suited to life in the wild. Unfortunately this is not the individual that will yield generations of progeny. It is the docile animal that adjusts well to captive conditions that will produce most of the next generation. However, these individuals are not nearly as well suited to life in the wild, which may go some way to explaining why release programs experience such high mortality rates. Studies of silver foxes have shown that in just a few generations of selecting for docility, very tame foxes are produced. This is much more effective than hand rearing animals, which tend to be mentally maladjusted and, rather than being tame, often end up as aggressive and dangerous to their human caregivers.

How irresponsible then is it for zoos to deliberately hand rear animals in order to pander to a public that wants nothing more than to pat and cuddle a presumed wild animal? As well as producing a completely maladjusted individual the public become conditioned to believing that this is how wild animals behave. Who hasn’t heard horror stories of a misguided parent smearing honey on their kids’ face so they can take cute photos of a wild bear licking it off? This usually results in the bear licking the kids’ face off instead. Or the people who are mauled each year because they decide to commune with the lions or reach through the bars to pat the wolves? These are wild animals that will only survive in the long term if we accept their true value as vital members of the ecosystem, not as cute cuddly playthings put on this planet for our amusement.

Despite zoos’ best intentions animal welfare will always be less than optimal. Because the visiting public want to see animals, and lots of them, exhibits are often small and designed to show off their inmates, restricting an animal’s ability to hide, migrate, forage or form effective social groups leading to well publicised stereotypic behaviours. Nutrition suffers also with zoos unable to replicate natural diets, leading to a range of deficiencies and a high rate of obesity. Apparently the feeding of carcases to carnivores is also too much for a public accustomed to meat arriving in sealed plastic containers, leading to problems with dental hygiene. Some zoos are attempting to address this by educating the public about the importance of feeding whole animals to carnivores.

Despite the negatives zoos can make positive contributions to conservation. Many zoos have excellent education and outreach programs, which focus on conservation of habitat and the threats that many wild species face each day along with measures that can be taken to mitigate them. They are also centres of excellence containing many people with skills in natural history, husbandry and medicine who can be utilised to provide support for in situ conservation programs. If zoos are really serious about captive breeding they need to focus on those species with the greatest likelihood of success. These will likely be smaller species that can be maintained in large enough numbers to minimise inbreeding depression. Each species should also be tied to an in situ conservation program to ensure that the original threatening processes are minimised or eliminated and the animals they choose for release are as wild as possible. An animal preserved in a zoo is of no use to anyone. Its purpose can only be realised when it fills its niche within its ecosystem. Unfortunately while money and attendances are the main drivers there will always be conflict between the conservation and entertainment roles that zoos have. Perhaps the conservation component should be farmed out to dedicated breeding facilities, which are either government or privately funded, to avoid this dichotomy? These places already exist: the Lubee Bat Foundation ( and White Oak Plantation ( are both located in Florida. Neither is open to the public, so the animals can be contained within enclosures that have their best interests in mind. The Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey is an example of a zoo that combines the best of both worlds, being accessible to the public while maintaining a much higher proportion of endangered species than most zoos ( Of course private facilities are also subject to the whims of their owners, an example being Howletts Wild Animal Park in the UK where the owner saw a need to jump into the gorilla enclosure on a regular basis (

Zoos are not going to go away but if they are to become true conservation organisations they need to develop many more endangered species breeding programs that are directly linked to in situ conservation activities. Where funds are limited in situ programs need to be given priority. If non endangered species are maintained they must be used to educate people about the threats they face and what can be done to assist their plight. And the wildness of the animals needs to be maintained and emphasised at all times. Walking animals on leads, hand raising, fondling or anything else that fosters an image of wildlife as cute, cuddly and domestic needs to be avoided at all costs. We are all equal partners in our ecosystem and only by taking a holistic approach will we be able to mitigate extinctions and move sustainably into the future.

Dr. F. Bunny


Blanc, J.J., R.F.W. Barnes, G.C. Craig, I. Douglas-Hamilton, H.T. Dublin, J.A. Hart, and C.R. Thouless. 2005. Changes in elephant numbers in major savannah populations in eastern and southern Africa. Pachyderm 38:19-28.


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