Kate on Conservation

I suppose it all starts with zoos…

Marius the giraffe, Copenhagen Zoo

Bright green eyes stare out from a neatly tangled criss-cross of metal. Green metal. Green like grass, leaves, trees.

The view is skewed from those eyes. A picnic bench, a wooden sign with a map printed on it, two adults with a child and a push chair.

Once fierce , those eyes are now shrouded in dull frustration — just a flicker of wild in them — a flicker when a lump of meat thuds on the floor at a scheduled hour; or maybe when some small, unfortunate finch squeezes between the criss-cross of green metal.

sad leopard behind fence

I suppose it all starts with zoos.

A zoo where the lions used in the filming of the Born Free film were sent to spend the rest of their days. A zoo where a leopard called Kuma lived in squalid conditions. A zoo where a gentle giant, mentally disturbed from loneliness and isolation (in war zones, we’d call this torture tactic ‘solitary confinement’), reaches out his trunk in affection to touch a face he recognises after 13 years.

To me, visiting zoos with my family as a child are some of my fondest memories.

Zoos taught me about how incredibly diverse the natural kingdom is; that there is a huge world out there filled with magnificent and exotic creatures and, perhaps ironically, that they should be protected and respected.


It was perhaps a hard pill to swallow then when I became a supporter of the Born Free Foundation and discovered that the animals they were rescuing were not just privately owned trophy pets, kept in rooftop cages at some European tourist spot I’d probably never come near to encountering – they were coming from places that I associated with animal conservation, education and the ‘safe havens’ that allowed me the chance to encounter these animals up close, in the living flesh. They were coming from zoos.

It’s hard for me to align myself with the position that every zoo is a torturous hell hole that no good can come from. But I certainly feel that way about a few. A disposition that’s only been strengthened by my time at Shamwari Game Reserve.

I have seen and known zoos to be involved in some fantastic conservation efforts: breeding animals and re-introducing the offspring to the wild. And I’ve watched for year’s the fundraising efforts of one of my local zoos – Africa Alive – in its plight to support the Botswana Cheetah Conservation Project.

If an animal is saved from extinction by the work of zoos, then that is of course a success only to be heralded. But if that species exists only in captivity as a result, then has it been saved at all?

It’s confusing journey to be on; to love animals, to want to be around them to appreciate their beauty and power, to oppose denying them the opportunity to live wild and free. Because being around them often contradicts the scenes of freedom at Shamwari that are etched in my memory.

A scene from Shamwari Game Reserve
Ironcially, David Attenborough, face of nature to many, began his television days capturing animals to be put into captivity.

BBC series, Zoo Quest, aired between 1954 and 1963. The premise of this programme was to ‘collect’ animals from tropical locations to be introduced to London Zoo. An accepted practise at the time, the show now depicts everything that conservationists; including Sir David Attenborough himself, stand against.

It was shortly after this series aired; 1969 that London Zoo would play another significant part in changing the attitudes of conservation…

After making the iconic Born Free film in 1966, husband and wife stars Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers filmed a documentary about an orphaned wild elephant called Pole Pole. Pole Pole was a gift to London Zoo – a ‘transaction’ that Virginia and Bill did their best to prevent.

Fourteen years later, an exhausted, disorientated and chronically lonely Pole Pole collapsed in London Zoo and was destroyed.

But not before a visit from Bill and Virginia made a profound impact.

During her time at the zoo, Pole Pole’s behaviour was unlike that of a wild elephant: in her distressed state she swayed and paced and acted erratically.

Despite being driven mad by her barren concrete enclosure, Pole Pole broke hearts with her affection towards Virginia and Bill when, thirteen years after they filmed her in Kenya, she recognised the pair and in a tragic, tender, desperate moment; gently reached out to touch Bill’s palm with her trunk. Her death one year later devastated the couple.

This profound moment became the start of something that would bring hope to animals living in these such conditions. The Born Free actors, together with their son Will Travers, launched Zoo Check – an initiative that would later be named the Born Free Foundation – in 1984.


Zoo Check would monitor the conditions of animals kept in captivity and intervene when an animal was found neglected and distressed.

Like both Virginia McKenna OBE and Sir David Attenborough, whose early careers and passion for conservation stemmed from zoos in some way; another of my wildlife heroes: Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin also entangled his passion for conservation with his Australia Zoo – a thought I’ve already chewed over on this blog.

With my conservation ‘teachers’, if you will, mixing rehabilitation and breeding programmes of zoos into their plight to conserve wild species, is it possible to advocate the irradiation of zoos? I expect not.

As photos emerged in March of young giraffe Marius being butchered in front of crowds of zoo visitors (including an audience of children) at Copenhagen Zoo, there was national outrage. Marius had been offered a place at a Yorkshire Zoo, but had met his end on a cold pavement slab, his limbs removed in front of a crowd of tourists and the juicy bits fed to the lions.


While the world of social media went up in arms over little Marius (sadly with – seemingly – all the effectiveness of a storm in a tea cup), I couldn’t help but feel even more disheartened that a pride of lions at Longleat Safari Park were destroyed in the same month and hardly anybody seemed to turn a hair in comparison. And what of the escaped wolves of Colchester Zoo that had to be shot outright for fear of them causing harm?


These things are rarely black and white.

They are spotted, patterned, feathered or fury – they are individual animals with individual personalities and individual needs that must be looked at as individual cases.

There are flaws; there are positive and negatives of zoos. There is a need to think and understand and critically evaluate the places that house wild animals; to look at the conditions they are kept in and the work that is going on behind the scenes to educate, to rehabilitate, to give something back to nature and ensure that not a single animal is overlooked in the process.

american eagle

And that’s it – that’s the point of the Born Free Foundation.

I don’t need to declare hate for absolutely everything that zoos stand for, or live hypocritically on this pendulum of allegiance vs angst – we just need to ensure that there will always be a body like the Born Free Foundation’s Zoo Check that will hold anyone keeping animals captive to account, and have the ability to intervene when individual animals so desperately need a voice.

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