This is a question that I have heard been asked many times over my zoo career. To me it is a simple one to answer: yes! Although not everyone will agree with zoos, they have a pivotal role in conserving species and hopefully after reading this it will go some way in convincing those who don’t agree.
Zoos are and always will be a great day out for families. They get to see an array of different exotic species that they would otherwise have to travel to see in their native countries. We, as a species, are ravaging our world and the natural habitats these wild animals live in. So much so that seeing animals in their native habitats will no longer be possible in years to come. We cut down rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations so it can be used in our everyday products such as toothpaste, lipstick and margarine (trust me, it is everywhere!).
We hunt animals for use in medicines and to make us feel “empowered” Apparently rhino horn does this in parts of Asia. Over 1000 rhinos are killed each year and that number is rising, just because some humans think it makes them more virile. Really? We reproduce and consume at a rate to which the world cannot cope, encroaching on animals habitats, forcing them to come into conflict with man and inevitably being killed as a result. We also think of this as a problem that occurs abroad and it doesn’t affect us in the UK. We don’t have any rainforests or exotic species that we are hunting. The reason for this? We cut down all our forests many years ago and wiped out many species along with them: over 90% of the UK used to be covered in forest, less than 2% of our natural ancient woodland now remains.
I could go on and give more and more examples of the problems for animal species in our world, but the question in hand was about zoos. How does a zoo, any zoo, based in the UK, keeping animals in cages, enclosures, habitats, however you want to view their homes, be doing the right thing for the animals and their wild cousins? Well there is no doubt that there are good zoos and bad zoos: good zoos are generally part of member associations such as the British Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA) or European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and follow best practice guidelines they set out. Zoos these days have three main goals: captive breeding, conservation/research and education. A good zoo will carry out all of these well.
But still, how does this make a zoo right? Justify keeping animals in captivity? Well the way I have always explained this is actually very simple: if you as a family did not decide to go a visit the zoo this year, would you donate a proportion of the money you would have spent on your visit to a conservation project instead, or just save the money? Buy visiting zoos public are indirectly contributing millions of pounds to conservation projects around the world. So not only do you get to have a good day out, see animals you will never get to see unless you travel thousands of miles and spend just as much, but you are actually contributing to helping many species survive out in the wild.
Are these conservation projects really doing anything to help though? Yes! And It has been done on many occasions with different exotic species: scimitar horned oryx, Pierre David’s deer, pink pigeons, partula snails, Amur leopards, Round Island boas and the Mauritius kestrel to name a few have all or are all being saved from the brink of extinction because of zoos.
At Paignton Zoo we have a very successful re-introduction programme for our native hazel dormouse and alongside a captive breeders group and the People Trust for Endangered Species we breed and release numerous animals every year. We support and run conservations projects in three continents and provide thousands of pounds to help fund these every year, money that would not be there if you didn’t come and enjoy a good day out watching our animals in the zoo.