British Zoos — their politics and history: guest post by Shubhobroto Ghosh

This latest guest blog post was written by the author of ‘Dreaming In Calcutta and Channel Islands’, which recounts the writer’s voluntary ‘zoo checking’ work for the Born Free Foundation in North East India from 1997 to 1999. Shubhobroto, who now works and resides in New Delhi, is also responsible for the Indian Zoo Inquiry, supported by Zoocheck Canada. Originally from Calcutta (Kolkata) and educated in Kolkata, Guwahati (Assam), Jersey, Bangalore and London — Shubhobroto shares this exact from An Investigation of British Zoos: A Journalistic Perspective.

An Investigation of British Zoos: A Journalistic Perspective

It is conceivable and common that people have gardens and spend time pruning their rose bushes in England. But some go further than that. They keep exotic animals and spend time chasing tigers, lions, gorillas and chimpanzees. This remarkable breed of people constitute the private ownership of zoos in UK.

The conservation role of zoos had not arisen until the 1960s and that too only under pressure due the environmental movement egged by pioneers like Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau.

1984 was the year when the thought of zoos as benign places of entertainment was seriously challenged in the UK. Pole Pole, an African Elephant that had starred in the film ‘An Elephant Called Slowly’ with Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna died in London Zoo and gave rise to the whole debate on the ethics of keeping animals in zoos.

Pole Pole at London Zoo with Virginia and Bill

Pole Pole at London Zoo with Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna

Today even some captive animal institutions like the Cornwall Monkey Sanctuary admit that captivity is harmful for animals. The fact that zoos might actually be awful prisons for animals is revealed by several experts and organisations in UK and around the world that are increasingly questioning the role played by collections of captive animals.

They suggest that zoos in many ways represent a threat to endangered species and are just profit making businesses that have nothing to do with conservation.

Zoos have been around for thousands of years since people started collecting animals as symbols of power or curiosities. Individuals collected animals as status symbols and zoos signified the domination of man over nature. The birth of the ‘modern zoo’ ostensibly changed the ideology behind the concept. Zoos turned into scientific institutions. Or did they?

captive zoo rhino

One of the institutions that exhibited animals during the imperial period was the Tower Menagerie of London. In a 2004 book and TV serial, Daniel Hahn exposes the ghetto conditions in which animals were held at the Tower Menagerie in London from 1235 to 1835.

The imperialistic nature of zoos was also a factor behind the founding of the London Zoo in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles. London Zoo collected animals from all imperial outposts during the heyday of the British empire.

With the passage of time and the gradual extinction of the empire, the nature of zoos changed with trusts and charities running collections of animals for public show. Zoos seemingly changed from places of eccentric curiosity and personal whim to rigidly controlled institutions.

But the most famous zoos in UK, Howletts and Jersey, were both started by private individuals to serve their personal aims and whims. Until 1981, when the Zoo Licensing Act was passed, anyone could start a zoo in UK. And since Jersey and Howletts have both done remarkable work due to the eccentricities of their owners, their institutions testify that zoos in UK are very much dictated by priorities set by the people who run them.

Pole Pole the elephant

Pole Pole prior to his life at London Zoo with Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna

Zoos in UK claim a stake in conservation education and recreation. Animal welfare The death of The elephant Pole Pole made front page headlines in UK and gave rise to Zoo Check, now the Born Free Foundation, which constitutes the biggest challenge to the zoo community in UK.

London Zoo put on a new image after its threatened closure in 1991. ‘Living conservation’ became the theme of London Zoo and as the leader of the British zoo community London Zoo claims that reintroduction of captive zoo animals is one of the main aims of UK zoos. But is reintroduction of zoo animals really successful? Is there a significant commitment on the part of the zoo community to aid reintroduction projects?

With the threatened closure of London Zoo in 1991, these questions mushroomed in Britain. There seemed to be a strong public debate on the ethics of keeping animals in captivity in an urban place like Regent’s Park. In a country like Britain, the anti-zoo movement had already started with the formation of Zoo Check, a campaigning lobby started by actors Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.

london zoo poster at making nature exhibition

In 1991, as London Zoo languished, Zoo Check flourished. London Zoo survived with generous donations from wealthy businessmen but questions were increasingly being raised if these large sums of money were simply wasted to prolong a worldwide anachronism.

London Zoo’s shaky state of existence was undoubtedly one of the motivating factors in the consideration of this subject as a suitable topic of investigation. Another important factor was the involvement of Western NGOs and zoos in spreading the zoo message in developing countries.

London Zoo had donned a new garb of ”Conservation In Action’ and presented itself as the self-proclaimed bandleader of the British zoo community. British zoos started funding zoo activities in many countries in Asia, including India. But one overriding question remained : why keep animals in captivity in Europe and America from Asia and Africa. One of the reasons given by the western zoo community for conducting captive breeding programmes was that Third World countries are unstable, economically and politically to look after their own animals so for the good of the animals they must be captured and taken to zoos in Europe and America.

Chester Zoo A3 Poster - UK's no1 Wildlife Attraction

People have a lot of fun watching animals in zoos, especially children. Lions roar and monkeys swing and bears pace. But is what we see at zoos a distorted picture? Are the animals a travesty of nature? Do they behave abnormally? Does captivity restrict their lives and cause premature death?

There seems to be a growing body of research suggesting that the behaviour of zoo animals is abnormal and many animals go mad due to the effects of captivity. ‘Stereotypic behaviour’ in zoo animals has become a major issue concerning animals in captivity. In recent years, Dr. Georgia Mason and Ros Clubb of Oxford University have published papers suggesting that large animals like elephants and polar bears suffer in captivity. Their findings have been published in the world’s leading scientific journal, ‘NATURE’. The zoo community however is insistent that these researches are flawed and the papers are sexed up for publicity and dramatic effect.

Monkey in zoo

There are more zoos now in UK than ever before and the Federation Of UK Zoos claims that this is a sign of the failure of the anti-zoo lobby in Britain and everything is fine in zoos. The Federation Of UK zoos also claims that the British zoo community is progressive and is pushing for improvement regardless of the anti-zoo lobby. But perhaps the most striking example of the failure of the British zoo community comes from the Cornwall Monkey Sanctuary in Looe, Cornwall. Specialising in primates, particularly Woolly Monkeys, this institution seems to be the only captive facility in UK that accepts that captivity for animals is insidious and destructive.

This place, started by guitarist Leonard Williams, provides the most stringent criticism of animal captivity from within the captive animal community itself. Animals are held in captivity in Cornwall because they cannot be set free and not because they claim a stake in conservation. This unique zoo, is the subject of the article, A Zoo With a Difference : The Monkey Minds Of Cornwall. This centre shows that animal conservation in captivity in zoos can be questionable at best and — at worst — a con in the name of conservation.


Shubhobroto Ghosh

Shubhobroto Ghosh is a former journalist with the Telegraph newspaper whose work has also been published in The Statesman, New York Times, The Hindu , Montreal Serai, BBC, Sanctuary Asia and Nature India online. He is the former coordinator of the Indian Zoo Inquiry project sponsored by Zoocheck Canada and has attended the Principles and Practice Training course at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. He did his Masters thesis on British zoos at the University of Westminster. He has worked at the Wildlife Trust of India, TRAFFIC India and is currently Wildlife Projects Manager in India for World Animal Protection. He has contributed to several books, including ‘The Jane Effect’, a biographical tribute to Jane Goodall by Marc Bekoff and Dale Peterson and ‘Indira Gandhi : A Life In Nature’ by Jairam Ramesh. He is the author of the book, ‘Dreaming In Calcutta and Channel Islands.’

For more information on the Indian Zoo Inquiry:


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9 thoughts on “British Zoos — their politics and history: guest post by Shubhobroto Ghosh

  1. Very interesting article! A friend of mine visited ‘monkey world’ in Dorset recently and was telling me how all the monkeys were rescued from the ex-pet trade and rehabilitated, I find it very difficult to get to the truth behind these claims – is this institution more conservation based or is the ‘rescue’ merely another zoo with a conservation cover story? (the name monkey world immediately rang alarm bells for me). I’d be really interested if you heard anything about this! Harriet

    • I’ve never personally been to Monkey World — so I hate to judge something I don’t know. A quick news search shows The Guardian ran an article on them, saying they are responsible for “the world’s biggest rescue mission of its kind”. Apparently they saved 88 capuchin monkeys from a laboratory in Santiago, Chile, where some of the animals had been kept in solitary cages for up to twenty years. That can only be a good thing! The problem there is not the facility, it’s that the exotic pet trade / lack of globally applicable zoo welfare standards. It sounds like Monkey World is doing a great job, though I agree the name doesn’t have the right connotations, which is a shame. I of course wish it would be possible for all animals to be rescued the way that Born Free does it — for example, King the lion cub, whose been rescued from being kept as a pet in an apartment in Paris and being relocated to a sanctuary in South Africa, to experience the closet thing to his natural environment. But it’s not always possible for many reasons. The exotic pet trade presents a huge problem.

  2. Tough one! Not a black and white situation by any means. I will try to keep my response short and to the point. In a perfect world I would like to see all animals wild and free. Unfortunately if we were to just shut down all the zoos where would the animals go? They can not be returned to the wild and there are not enough Sanctuaries to take them all. I know many zoos are changing the way they do things, trying to become more ecologically and ethically responsible. Many are increasing the size of enclosures & providing more natural stimulation as they learn more and more about the needs of the animals. A step in the right direction. I know some zoos are even beefing up their educational programs to actually teach people about the animals. There are many zoos, like those in Yemen, Venezuela, even the USA that need to be shut down immediately! The animals are starving, have no medical care, exist is tiny concrete enclosures, etc. I am against breeding programs who run under the guise of conservation. The babies being born are never reintroduced into the wild, they are merely a promotional tool to bring visitors to the zoo, particularly elephants and giraffes. But what about endangered animals on the brink of extinction? Lets take the Rhino for example. What do we do in regards to breeding in zoos? Stop! I think that there are many nature reserves and animal refuges where this could take place naturally. Then the babies are born in a protected wild environment and could theoretically be reintroduced into other parts of the wild. I think ideally, phasing out zoos is what needs to take place. Protection and conservation of wild animals needs to increase so that there is not a need to place animals in captivity of any sorts. When we take a look at dollars, zoos ask for much more money in the name of conservation then actual conservation groups. To give you an idea, here is a very interesting article by the KOTA Foundation, although published in 2016, it is worth a read.

    • Thank you for sharing the article — this pretty much sums up exactly what I feel about zoos. Breeding programmes to breed ‘stock’ to sell on to other zoos are often disguised as some sort of conservation. I think the change in opinion and phasing out of live animals at Sea World may be the direction we see zoos go in, in time.

  3. This is another thought provoking post. I really do not like zoos for all the reasons discussed above. It is easy for me to scream “ban all zoos!” but when I was a child I loved visiting the zoo. Our conservation hero, David Attenborough, started his TV career catching animals for zoos. How many wild animals have been saved because great conservationists became inspired at a zoo? As an informed adult I think it is time to get rid of, or at least significantly reduce zoos, and certainly move away from keeping the large animals. Prison cell cages must be a thing of the past. Rescued and rehabilitated animals should be the focus. If we are to wave goodbye to the zoo then we must find a new way for our children to connect to all the glories of the natural world. Inner city children are becoming further removed from wild places all the time. We must find ways to reconnect without the prison cells. On a personal note, I visited the Woolley Monkeys in Looe as a small child and it remains a powerful positive memory for me. Excellent post!

    • Oh yeah, I visited zoos as often as I could as a child and it’s where my love for wild animals grew too. I just hate that I was lied to and utterly believed I was somehow helping animals by visiting the zoo. The conservation PR myth can be very convincing — but I agree that a replacement needs to be found so that children can connect with nature/animals in other ways. We’ve taken our little one to St James’ Park to see the ducks and pelicans, squirrels, etc. and also to London Wetland Centre in Barnes, and a local water garden close to where my parents live — which is just magical. As she grows up we plan to take her to see the seals on the North Norfolk coast as they come ashore to breed — and recently my husband and I went on our first ever badger watch; saw 14 badgers, 2 foxes a muntjac deer, 3 rabbits and a rat. It was brilliant! Learning about our British wildlife and experiencing it in a more natural way was better than any zoo I’ve ever visited!

      • I believe that any engagement that connects people with their local environment is essential. I was inspired by Attenborough but it was the chance to hatch frog spawn and care for injured or exhausted birds that really put the hook into me. Wildlife was much more abundant when I was growing up than it is now. How I would have loved to be on that badger watch now, let alone as a kid! How to bring that kind of experience to everyone rather than hunting or culling our native species is our challenge.

  4. Do zoos actually do anything to help at-risk elephants in the wild? Experts say “no”.

    New Scientific Analysis Debunks Zoos’ Education Claims

    Do Zoos Help Conservation? (Not too often.)

    Problems with Zoos:

    7 Lessons We Really Should Be Learning From Zoos

    Zoo Kills 9 Healthy Lion Cubs Because It Doesn’t Have Space for Them

    The Shocking Truth About What Happens to ‘Surplus’ Zoo Animals

    To keep elephants docile for the visitors, they “juice” them:
    “Dale Tuttle, executive director of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Zoological Park, is among a number of keepers who said they have heard of incidents during which keepers at zoos soaked recalcitrant elephants with water and then applied 110- or 220-volt electric current to them.”

  5. I am leaving several articles below having to do with the following: 1) It is extremely rare that zoos engage in true conservation, and other problems with zoos. 2) Killing within zoos. 3) Torture within zoos.

    Do zoos actually do anything to help at-risk elephants in the wild? Experts say “no”.

    New Scientific Analysis Debunks Zoos’ Education Claims

    Do Zoos Help Conservation? (Not too often.)

    Problems with Zoos:

    7 Lessons We Really Should Be Learning From Zoos

    Zoo Kills 9 Healthy Lion Cubs Because It Doesn’t Have Space for Them

    The Shocking Truth About What Happens to ‘Surplus’ Zoo Animals

    To keep elephants docile for the visitors, they “juice” them:
    “Dale Tuttle, executive director of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Zoological Park, is among a number of keepers who said they have heard of incidents during which keepers at zoos soaked recalcitrant elephants with water and then applied 110- or 220-volt electric current to them.”

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