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How to Tell If the Zoo You're Looking to Visit Is Ethical

June 14, 2019
5 min read
How to Tell If the Zoo You're Looking to Visit Is Ethical
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Over the past few years, a question that increasingly divides people’s opinion is that about zoos: “Are they good or bad?”

The reality is that trying to put all zoos and other captive environments into one box isn’t very helpful. Each institution — be it a zoo or sanctuary — needs to be looked at on an individual basis. There are some zoos in the world that are doing absolutely fundamental work in saving species from extinction, and they need as much celebration and support as possible. However, sadly, there are others that are like prisons, exploiting innocent animals, with little or no interest in animal welfare or conservation.

So, when traveling, what are some ways of working out if the zoo you are thinking of visiting is ethical or not?

1. Does It Have Any Form of Accreditation?

Accreditation of zoos generally signifies that the institution maintains the highest standards of care for its animals and provides funding to conservation projects worldwide. For any zoos in Europe, look for accreditation from the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), or the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) if you are visiting the UK.

(Photo courtesy BIAZA)
(Image courtesy BIAZA)

These zoos are involved in captive-breeding programs aimed at maintaining viable populations of animals, and they will have contributed to the release of animals back into the wild. They have research programs looking at all aspects of animal biology to improve our understanding of how they live and interact, thus contributing important knowledge that can be used for the conservation of global biodiversity.

When it comes to the US, the highest standard of accreditation is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This shows that the animal’s welfare is of utmost concern and that these institutions participate in conservation and community engagement. Out of the approximately 2,700 animal exhibitors with any form of license in the US, less than 10% are AZA accredited.

Other accreditation programs exist across the world, but it's important to note that in some countries, the standards necessary for approval are very low. So just because a zoo is accredited, it doesn't mean it's necessarily ethical or that is has the animal’s best interests at heart. Given that, it's important to do further research for each particular zoo.

2. How Are the Animals Acquired?

Legitimate institutions do not remove animals from the wild to keep in captivity. The animal acquisition process requires intricate planning and legislation to be in place, and it's only done with the intention of captive breeding those individuals for re-release back into the wild. Zoos that remove animals from the wild, particularly babies, are most likely doing this illegally and should not be supported.

‘Good’ zoos obtain animals via ex situ breeding programs that follow genetic studbooks, managed by accredited institutions and interchange individual animals between institutions based on which individuals are needed where.

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3. Does It Allow Interactions With Animals, and Is It Animal- or People-Focused?

No reputable zoo will allow hands-on interaction with animals. The only interaction that may be allowed is the feeding of an animal or touching of a domesticated animal, such as a cow or donkey. If it happens, it indicates that the zoo cares more about its visitors than the animals in its care.

Alarm bells should go off in your head as soon as you find out a zoo is involved in interactions such as elephant riding, animal performances where animals perform tricks in shows and posing for photos cuddling an animal. Going to the zoo should be about watching animals in the most natural setting and respecting this from a distance.

(Photo courtesy Shutterstock)

4. Can You Find Photos of the Enclosures?

A very simple way of gauging how the animals are treated is by trying to find photos of their enclosures, either on the zoo’s own website or from people that have previously visited and shared photos online. If you are able to find photos, look at them and see if you genuinely believe that that animal has plenty of space.

Does the enclosure replicate where they would be living out in the wild? It should match their native habitat, not be covered in concrete and steel bars. Also, look at how many animals are in an enclosure and whether that is natural for that species.

5. Where Does Its Money Go?

Be very wary of zoos that use all their finances internally. Many zoological institutions are non-profit organizations that use the vast majority of funding for the conservation of wild animals. With so many demands on our environment, conservation work is of vital importance to save species that have critical roles within ecosystems and play vital roles in supporting human populations around the world.

It’s not just conservation work that good zoos will fund. They will also invest in both education and research.

6. What Is Your Gut Reaction?

For most people, you can instinctively tell if somewhere seems legitimate and that it has the genuine interest of the animals, their welfare and conservation at the forefront of the running of the zoo. Trust that instinct when making a decision about whether to visit a zoo or not. If you do go to a zoo that isn’t meeting the criteria above, act upon it: Report it to an organization and spread the word to warn others. If a zoo does all the things that mark it as a 'good' zoo, then spread that message, too, and support it so that it can continue with its vital work.