Posts Tagged Zoos


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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Do I Hear Banjos?

Zoos spend a lot of time trying to find the right match between males and females, not to pair those individuals that like each other, but to maximise genetic diversity in what is often a very small population. This is important to minimise the effects of any deleterious genes on the population as a whole. Many physical characteristics, behavioural traits and diseases are genetically determined. There is a condition in humans called sickle cell anaemia. Affected people have abnormal red blood cells. To develop the disease the person needs to have received a sickle cell gene from both their father and their mother. If the father carries the gene and has children with one of his relatives, chances are that relative will also carry the gene and so any children will be much more likely to receive both genes and develop the disease. If he had children with someone else those children may carry one of the genes but probably not both and will live and be well. Interestingly people with one sickle cell gene have increased resistance to malaria compared with people that have no sickle cell genes, which is probably why the gene has not disappeared from the human population.

Similar problems can occur in zoo animals once the genetic pool is too small. This can happen naturally in the wild if species pass through severe population bottlenecks, as occurred with cheetahs, or live on islands where there is minimal influx of new genes, such as the Chatham Island robin.  This reduced genetic diversity is why the Tasmanian devil is in so much trouble with its facial tumour. Because they are all so genetically similar if one devil is susceptible to the tumour then they all are. If individuals were more genetically diverse there would be more chance of encountering resistant individuals.

How perverse then is our desire for purebred dogs, cats, cattle, horses, etc. These animals have been created by doing exactly those things that zoos desperately try to avoid: brother/sister matings, father/daughter matings, etc. because misguided breeders are trying desperately to select for certain specific traits they deem important. The trouble is when one trait is selected other traits tend to fall by the wayside. Dairy cattle are selectively bred to produce huge volumes of milk to maximise profits. What they are not selected for is an ability to deliver calves naturally resulting in more and more veterinary interventions. Belgian Blue cattle are selected for an ability to lay down mountains of muscle, so much so that they cannot give birth naturally any more. Every birth needs a caesarean.

This lunacy has reached its pinnacle when it comes to dog breeds. Every breed of dog has its own specific inherited genetic abnormalities caused by this inbreeding. Bulldogs can’t breathe because they have been selected for pushed in faces. Shar Peis develop horrible skin diseases because they have been bred to have insanely wrinkly skin. A large number of Dalmatians are deaf and develop kidney stones. Many Dobermans suffer from a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand’s disease. Up to 25% of Bedlington terriers develop chronic hepatitis because they cannot metabolise copper. The list goes on to the point where it is almost impossible to buy a dog that does not have some form of genetic defect (For a complete list of inherited dog diseases check out Your best chance of getting something reasonably healthy is to stick as closely as possible to the original wolf model. After all this was developed over centuries of natural selection for hardiness, ease of breeding and no genetic problems. If you are a wolf that can’t breathe, gets a skin condition or bleeds to death if someone bites you then you are not going to last long enough to pass that trait on to your offspring.

Unfortunately all these ridiculous dog shows, like Crufts, just perpetuate this sort of nonsense. It seems ironic that, this time, zoos are actually trying to do the right thing by encouraging outbreeding and maximising genetic diversity. It’s a pity that our domestic animal breeders refuse to do the same thing.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Mix And Match

Zoos exist to save people money spent travelling to exotic places to see animals in the wild. By bringing a large number of species together in a small space people get a snapshot of the world’s different biomes. Pity the archaeologists of the future digging through the remains of Melbourne, Los Angeles and London, wondering how elephants, tigers and monkeys could have been native to all three cities.

While it’s certainly “nice” to see polar bears in Melbourne, they don’t appreciate the summer heat any more than the gorillas in Toronto enjoy the snow. This mixing and matching produces all sorts of husbandry and dietary problems, which are handled with varying degrees of success. It also creates novel disease issues. This was highlighted recently by the deaths of four polar bears in a German zoo (Greenwood et al 2012). They died of a herpesvirus infection contracted from the zoo’s zebras. The herpesvirus was perfectly well adapted to the zebras and caused them no problems but, when it got into a naïve, non-adapted polar bear, fatal illness was the result.

Herpesviruses seem particularly good at this sort of thing. African elephants carry a herpesvirus that is fatal to Asian elephants. Wildebeest carry a herpesvirus that kills other species of hoofstock. Squirrel monkey herpes kills owl monkeys. A herpesvirus carried by South American conures kills African and Australian parrots. SIV, a relative of HIV (and not a herpesvirus) carried by African monkeys, kills Asian macaques. Normally this would not be a problem as these animals, and their bugs, would not come in contact with each other. However, this mixing of animals from different areas, which gives adapted viruses and bacteria access to non-adapted hosts, is occurring more and more.

Not only is this a problem in zoos but it is happening in the big wide world too. As we clear more and more habitat we come into contact with new species and new disease agents. Feral species, which have made their way into new habitats because of our deliberate or accidental influence, bring their bugs with them too. Species that previously had no connection with each other are suddenly brought into close proximity. Hence, the transmission of Hendra virus from bats to horses, Nipah virus from bats to pigs, toxoplasmosis from feral cats to marsupials and otters, monkeypox from Gambian giant rats and prairie dogs to humans, and chytridiomycosis from African clawed frogs to the amphibians of the world.

At least, when animals are concerned, some of these diseases can be confined to farms or contained by quarantine measures. These are, however, not always as effective as we would like as seen by the introduction of foot and mouth disease to Great Britain, equine influenza to Australia, and psittacine pox to New Zealand. These diseases were eradicated at great expense and effort.

Unfortunately people don’t go through quarantine when they travel, allowing for extremely rapid dissemination of diseases. Just look at how quickly SARS spread from South East Asia in November 2002 to Canada by April 2003. It is estimated that a flu outbreak in the northern hemisphere will reach Australia in four to eight weeks. While we impose travel restrictions on animals to safeguard our pets and agriculture we certainly don’t want to inconvenience ourselves by impeding our own travel, even though the consequences are potentially far more catastrophic. While globalization has facilitated trade, democracy, entertainment, and the dissemination of information, it has also greatly enhanced our ability to spread disease. Unfortunately the science of predicting what the next possible pandemic will be and where it will come from is at a similar stage as the science that predicts earthquakes and volcanic eruptions i.e. we have absolutely no idea. For the moment all we can do is react and hope that will be enough.

And don’t forget to keep washing those hands.

Dr. F. Bunny


Greenwood, A.D., K. Tsangaras, S.Y.W. Ho, C.A. Szentiks, V.M. Nikolin, G. Ma, A. Damiani, M.L. East, A. Lawrenz, H. Hofer, and N. Osterrieder. 2012. A potentially fatal mix of herpes in zoos. Current Biology


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