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A Publication of


From The Ark Number 183 Autumn 1999

The 1999 Ark Zoo Project

As part of a new project to learn about and monitor the welfare of animals in zoos, the first official Ark visit was to London Zoo, Regent’s Park in June 1999. CSCAW members throughout the country are arranging their own similar visits to local zoos, and reports will be published from time to time.

Report by Sarah Rejman-Greene

On Tuesday 8 June 1999 The Ark arranged a special meeting for CSCAW members at London Zoo with Clare Robinson, Head of Visitor Education.  As it was a fine day, 30 members had spent the morning at the zoo, making observations about the animals and their facilities.


Zoos in the UK must conform to the Zoo Licensing Act of 1981, which allows them to keep wild animals if certain minimum standards are met.  However, since Inspectors are few and zoos need be inspected only once every six years, this means that, in practice, zoos tend to ‘police’ one another. From the end of 1999 all zoos within the EC will also have to abide by the Act.

Most zoos justify their existence by claiming to fulfil the following purposes :

London Zoo - how does it measure up ?

In 1828 a collection of animals was established as the London Zoo, this continued to grow as animals were sent by collectors world-wide.  Originally, it was intended to be for Members of the Zoological Society only, until a shortage of funds in 1847 meant that the general public were also allowed to pay to enter.  Many of the zoo buildings are important historically but this also means that they were designed at a time when animals’ needs were not understood.  However, new enclosures have continued to be built, funds permitting, based on better knowledge about an animal’s biology and social behaviour.

London Zoo has 680 species and gives as its central aim - animal conservation.   Its stated intention is to provide as stimulating and natural a life as possible for the animals in its care, whilst carrying out a captive breeding programme for about a dozen species.  It also helps conservation work in other countries by providing direct practical assistance, such as veterinary expertise and the training of wildlife personnel.

Education and activity programmes

The Zoo has an impressive education programme - a wide-range of activities linked to the national curriculum.  Recently, it opened a rainforest pavilion, designed to show a whole ecosystem at work, in intricate detail.  While this is an effective way of teaching about animals within a particular environment, the few live exhibits, such as a golden tamarin monkey in a small cage, appeared disorientated and disturbed by the large number of parties touring the pavilion.  Research programmes mostly concentrate on health studies, genetics and reproductive biology with links to scientists in the wild.

The zoo has a variety of activity programmes, from ‘animals in action’ a type of show in which lemurs, parrots, cats, owls and rats take part, to watching sessions at feeding and bathing times, to rides on animals.  Although it is claimed that these animals are not performing tricks but only showing normal behaviour, it is hard to believe that any wild animal would encourage close human contact in these ways.

Clare Robinson’s Presentation

Clare went through the rationale for breeding from a selected group of unrelated animals in order to maintain genetic diversity.  This means that zoos within the Zoo Federation need to co-operate closely, using computer databases to compile studbooks with comprehensive details about each individual animal on a breeding programme.  Animals are bred very selectively, only the most successful being used.  She stressed that London Zoo would only participate in breeding exchanges with zoos which met strict ethical criteria.  There were 146 breeding programmes in progress at the present time, world-wide.

To demonstrate a success story Clare described the re-introduction of the Arabian Oryx to the wild, a process which took 15 years to achieve. Unfortunately, a recent report by WWF has suggested that the hunting which drove them to the brink of extinction in Saudi Arabia is now beginning all over again in Oman.  Clare agreed that one herd of the oryx has been under attack but that with good monitoring and anti-poaching measures she hoped that the remaining herds would be protected and numbers increase.  However, this does highlight the problems involved in returning captive bred animals to the wild - if the environment is not suitable or the animals have lost their survival skills in captivity, it can be a frustrating and expensive undertaking.  Overall, only 16 species have been returned world-wide and their survival is very precarious.

Clare was asked about the standard of enclosures at the zoo.  She said that following a re-appraisal, 300 species were no longer kept by the zoo.  The money saved had allowed them to build new enclosures and improve on others.  She asked if visitors had seen the new Bear house which made use of the lower slopes of the Maplin Terraces where polar bears had previously been housed.  A CSCAW member commented that she had noticed a bear making repetitive movements but Clare said that it had been doing this since before its arrival at London Zoo.  Conditions were as near naturalistic as possible but with constraints - for example the zoo was unable to feed live vertebrates to predators or to provide trees in the cages of large apes as they would get damaged.

One member was concerned about conditions in her local zoo and how to rectify the situation - she was advised to inform the RSPCA.  Zoos also had to abide by the 1911 Cruelty to Animals Act.

The issue of privacy for animals was raised and why domestic animals, like camels, were kept when they were not endangered.  The answer to both questions seemed to lie with the expectations of the general public.  This must be one of the major dilemmas facing zoos.  The more they concentrate on conservation, trying to create more natural conditions for animals, the less there may be to see and do and the less incentive for people to visit.

For Ark members it is a highly contentious matter.  Zoos are expensive and paying visitors may ensure that there is sufficient money to keep animals in adequate conditions.   However, is it ethical for animals to have to endure lack of privacy, invasive breeding methods, boredom and lifelong captivity?  Clare’s answer would be that if this is the only way to save a species from extinction then it is a fair price.

CSCAW members thanked Clare and agreed that the opportunity to visit the zoo and ask questions had been worthwhile.


London Zoo is highly influential world-wide and can be regarded as setting targets for action and standards of care.  Although most animals in the Zoo seemed healthy and well cared for, there can be no doubt that they are not leading natural lives - they have little opportunity to make decisions affecting their behaviour and their breeding chances are strictly controlled.  Nor can they engage in the social rituals many would experience in larger groups in the wild.

It might be argued that money could be better spent in preserving natural habitats and educating local peoples to co-exist with their animals on a sustainable basis.   However, there are two major problems with this: in the developing world activities of the growing human population increasingly encroach, so that soon there will be no space left for many animal species in the wild.  They will become stressed, fragmented, inbred and - ultimately extinct.  Secondly, can people in the UK be persuaded to contribute to save animals in far off lands when there is no payback: no entertainment value to be had?

So is captive breeding the only solution?  The crucial answer, particularly for Christians, must depend on an acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of all created life.   If judged solely by economic criteria then many animals will not be able to pay their way.  If, too, as some theologians have argued, animals have been created solely for human use, then many creatures may seem expendable.  On the other hand, if every being has a God-given purpose in the web of life, then it cannot be just either to deprive them of their share of the earth or to imprison them indefinitely in the hope that one day their descendants will run free.  Studies of domestic animals over several centuries have shown profound changes in physique and brain structure - the same would be true of zoo animals, making them unfit for the life for which they have been created.

So, what is to be done? We can all play a part by visiting our local zoos, noting conditions, speaking up and ensuring that animals have as decent a life as captivity will allow. However, ultimately, the only way forward is to bring about a major world-wide shift in the way that animals are acknowledged and affirmed: as co-inheritors of the earth and an intrinsic part of Christ’s new creation. The Catholic Church has a grave moral responsibility to make this better known and accepted and to curtail human self-interest. Time is pressing for many species - by affirming their right to a free, natural life style and to a future we shall be fulfilling our own vital contribution to the creative Divine Plan.

Return to The Ark No. 183

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