By Daniel Martin on DailyMail.co.uk
A Labour minister has called for zoos to be banned, describing them as cruel 'relics of the Victorian era'.
Charities minister Angela Smith said it was wrong to keep animals in captivity and called for a debate on whether the Government should close all Britain's 400 zoos.
But last night colleagues slapped her down, saying her views were personal and not those of the Government.
Ms Smith is patron of the Captive Animals' Protection Society campaign group, and earlier this year she boycotted an event because it was being held at London Zoo.
She said some zoos 'tried very hard' to treat their animals well, it was in general wrong to lock animals up when their natural instinct is to roam free in the wild.
'It's inappropriate to keep wild animals in captivity this way,' she said.
'You can understand the Victorians who were amazed by what they saw when these specimens were brought back, because they couldn't travel - but now they can travel and they can see animals in amazing films and television documentaries.
'You can't shut down every zoo tomorrow, but you've got to set a point in the future where we don't bring in any more animals, then set another point saying this is the last zoo.'
She said she had received letters from children upset at the conditions they have seen animals kept in.
'It's partly emotional for me,' she said. 'In my mind I can still see a polar bear with its head swinging from side to side in a concrete enclosure. It's time we moved on.
'I'd like to get a group of people sitting down and discuss how we can end zoos, but we've got to be practical about it - there are lots of animals in zoos at the moment. No one's saying they should all be destroyed.
'We've made a lot of progress recently. If you think back to some of the tatty pets' corners we used to have and the little zoo we used to have in Basildon, we've moved on. No one nowadays finds those acceptable.'
The Captive Animals' Protection Society believes zoos are part of the entertainment industry and questions the value of the conservation work they claim to do. Zoos very rarely release animals back into the wild, they say, and keep animals - such as giraffes - that are not endangered.
They say it is wrong to teach children it is acceptable to keep animals in captivity.
But zoos hit back at Ms Smith's comments.
David Field, director of London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, said: 'To say stop bringing wild animals into zoos just shows Angela Smith’s incredible naivety about why zoos exist.
'Yes, we have species like giraffes that aren’t necessarily endangered, but when people come to see the giraffe they learn about all the incredibly endangered species in the next enclosure.
'It has to be a balance. We would never be able to get enough people into the zoo to be able to fund all this [conservation and scientific] work if all we were able to show was the less exciting animals.
'A zoo has an incredible power to connect you directly with nature. It’s unpredictable and different. The animals will react differently all the time. It may just be that an animal stands right next to a child – and that’s a life-changing moment.
'If I got the chance to see the FA Cup Final live at Wembley or on TV, I’d watch it live. In the same way I’d prefer to see the animals live at the zoo.'
Ms Smith's comments caused anger in Government, with animal welfare minister Jim Fitzpatrick accusing her of straying beyond her remit. He said: 'Angela doesn’t have responsibility for this area. We’re not going anywhere near zoos.'
Tonight a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
said: 'We have no plans to ban zoos. Animal welfare is of the highest importance
and ministers have recently announced that they are minded to ban animals in