Zoos can be surrounded by controversy, with their harshest critics sceptical of management and scathing about certain animal welfare records. But as a company that works very closely with a number of zoos and animal attractions, we contend that poorly-managed facilities are very few in number. Unfortunately, it’s these few that are all too often highlighted by the press, where mismanagement produces scandals resulting in sensationalist headlines that reflect badly on the industry as a whole and most importantly deflect attention from all the good work that the great conversational and educational zoos are doing.
2017 seems to have seen a greater number of high-profile stories around these mismanagement issues. In March, it was reported that 500 animals had died over four years at South Lakes Zoo in Cumbria, resulting in the council refusing to renew the zoo’s licence. Then, a BBC Two Horizon documentary, “Should We Close Our Zoos?” argued against zoos, presenting evidence of animals suffering illness and stress as a result of their captivity. This film even prompted one travel agent to end the promotion of tours to such facilities on the grounds that “keeping animals in zoos is inhumane”. On the back of some of this publicity, the Captive Animals’ Prevention Society, a UK zoos watchdog, announced that it had identified animals were at risk at a further eight zoos.
This bad press about animal welfare has fuelled the debate about whether we should be keeping animals in captivity, but much of the coverage has failed to take account of the positive contributions that zoos can make.
Many zoos undertake captive breeding programmes that have successfully helped to ensure the survival of rare and endangered animals. A number of zoo-led breeding programmes have saved species from near extinction and have led to endangered animals being reintroduced to the wild after being kept or bred in captivity.
Often zoos will share resources, which brings with it some great achievements that otherwise might not have been realised. For example, a male Sumatran tiger was moved from Krefeld Zoo in Germany to breed with a female in Dudley Zoo in the West Midlands. And a herd of female elephants from Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire is to move abroad as part of a European breeding programme to help ensure the long-term survival of this endangered species.
Not all of these moves will result in successful breeding though at The Deep, an aquarium in Hull, a significant achievement has been celebrated. The aquarium used the European breeding programmes to help the vulnerable Zebra Shark, resulting in it safeguarding the population of these rare animals.
Another very worthy attainment saw ZSL Whipsnade Zoo release 14 scimitar-horned oryx back to the wild in Chad. Having been declared extinct in their native habitat some 17 years ago, the group has thrived and conservationists have been able to celebrate the first birth of one of these animals in the wild for more than 20 years.
Aside from these breeding wins, zoos and animal attractions make a very significant educational and scientific contribution. Being able to see wild animals close up has a profound effect on learning, as clearly it is much easier to engage people with the wider issues surrounding wildlife and its conservation if they have had the opportunity to see it up close.
The 1981 Zoo Licensing Act sets out a number of conservation measures that zoos are required to undertake, and in addition to breeding programmes, the law stipulates that they should carry out both research and training. This brings us to the significant point that sufficient revenue streams have to be generated to provide funding for these activities and to carry out their numerous valuable conservation programmes. Many attractions will look to increase dwell times at key locations, resulting in a greater spend per head and from our work with these organisations we have found that adding additional covered dining space is a great way to achieve this.
Streetspace remains thoroughly supportive of all zoos that follow established best practice, prioritising animal welfare and conservation. In our view those, including our own customers that maintain these highest of standards, carrying out essential research, developing ground-breaking veterinary techniques, engaging and inspiring future generations of wildlife conservationists should be roundly applauded for their valuable work.