The good news

All over the world, zoos are taking note of the concerns raised by animal scientists, animal welfare experts and NGOs, and are taking steps to improve the welfare of the animals in their care. They are changing or ending certain practices which are detrimental to welfare. It is extremely encouraging to see real progress being made in the zoo community in terms of animal welfare, and the more progressive zoos can set a good example for others to follow, blazing a trail ahead for improved animal welfare in captivity and the phasing out of certain practises.

Zoos no longer keeping polar bears

In 2009, after 25 years of being kept in a small concrete enclosure at the Edinburgh zoo, Mercedes the polar bear- the last polar bear being kept at a UK zoo- was relocated to the Highland Wildlife Park. Here she will live out the rest of her days busy exploring her new home- four wild acres dotted with rocks, trees, hills and pools- instead of in a cramped city zoo. Mercedes is relishing her new-found space and stimulating environment, and is undoubtedly a much happier polar bear.

More and more zoos are beginning to realise that they just cannot give polar bears the space to roam and the complex environment that they need. In the UK, there are now no polar bears living in traditional zoos.

Zoos retiring elephants to sanctuaries

In 2004, the Detroit Zoo announced that it would be retiring Wanda and Winky the Asian elephants to the ARK2000 wildlife sanctuary in San Andreas, California. Here, they now enjoy large, open spaces, natural surroundings, and the company of plenty of companions- a life far more like that of a wild elephant than the one they had at the Detroit Zoo.

In 2005, the Detroit Zoo closed their elephant exhibit for good. And they are not the only ones. In the USA alone, San Francisco Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, Chehaw Wild Animal Park, Louisiana Purchase Gardens Zoo, Mesker Park Zoo and Frank Buck Zoo have all retired their elephants to sanctuaries, and many more zoos, in both the USA and the UK, have decided to close their elephant exhibits for good.

In 2009, India’s Central Zoo Authority made it mandatory for all 140 of the country’s zoo elephants to be relocated to wildlife parks and sanctuaries where they can roam more freely.

Closer to home

Some of Asia’s zoos have taken important steps towards improving the welfare of the animals they house and are moving towards becoming more progressive zoos:

  • Zoo Negara (Malaysia) has stopped its elephant shows. They have also stopped the use of orang utans in photography sessions.
  • Singapore Zoo publicly announced in 2006 that they will phase out the keeping of Arctic animals over the next few years. They stopped their circus-style animal shows in 2005, ended cheetah petting sessions in 2004, and photography sessions with baby chimpanzees were brought to an end in 2000.

This is very encouraging, and we hope that these, and other zoos in the region, will continue to improve their welfare standards and phase out outdated practices, setting an example for other zoos in the region to follow.

Progressive zoos

Some zoos really are changing the whole philosophy of zoos and can serve as useful models for the future. Such zoos, ideally keeping a small number of endangered animals in natural settings, can play a role in both conservation and education.

Here are two of the most progressive zoos:

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in the USA has been called the world’s best zoo. The zoo only exhibits animals and plants that are native to the Sonoro Desert, where it is located. There are no exotic species at all. The animals, ranging from mountain lions and bobcats to bats and owls, all live in stimulating, natural habitats. The zoos also focuses a great deal on education and has an impressive education programme.

Jersey Zoo, situated on the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands and established in 1959, was a zoo well ahead of its time. Gerald Durrell, the author and naturalist who established the zoo, wasn’t interested in amassing a collection of large, exotic animals. Instead, he wanted to focus on conservation and at his zoo, to this day, you will only find endangered species, often small animals, who are being bred for eventual release back to the wild- all living in complex naturalistic environments. The zoo is now called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.